December 15, 2005


Strengthening Your Stepfamily. By Elizabeth Einstein, M.A., MFT, and Linda Albert, Ph.D. Impact Publishers. $17.95.

     It is the height of naïveté to believe that the problems of a first marriage will not find their way into a second one.  Especially if a first marriage ends in divorce, as so many do, people should realize that the factors that brought about the end of one union will carry over to a new one.  But hope springs eternal, nowhere more so than in matters of the heart, so stepfamilies form at a fast pace as the previously married bring themselves, their children and their dreams into new romantic entanglements.  Often, what results is additional heartache for all concerned – and another marital breakup.

     You can lessen the chance of this happening to you, say family therapist Elizabeth Einstein and columnist Linda Albert, by realizing that the usual rules of family life do not apply to stepfamilies, and developing individualized standards for stepfamily success.  These standards must include your own way of coping with the realities of stepfamily life.  You must accept the fact that ex-spouses exist and continue to have a role in your new mate’s life because of his or her children.  You must analyze your own lifestyle patterns in past relationships – values, political views, hobbies and more – and decide which to keep or jettison as you create a new life as a couple.  You must bring fears out in the open and find ways to deal with them, either together or with the help of a third party, such as a counselor.

     Stepfamilies start with baggage.  Basic decisions are required about money management (several accounts or a merged one?), housing (move to one partner’s house or the other’s, or somewhere new?), and discipline of children (who decides which children get disciplined in what way?).  “Few people understand all their own expectations, let alone their mate’s,” write Einstein and Albert.  But the closer a couple gets to such understanding, the better chance a new marriage has.

     The authors recommend supportive comments that spouses can make to each other instead of the unhelpful ones that may come more readily to mind.  They provide a series of worksheets for dealing with stepfamily issues: “What did I learn from my former relationship?  What am I still repeating?”  And they present chapter-closing “points to ponder,” such as, “Remarried non-custodial parents with stepchildren often feel guilty about raising someone else’s children when they cannot be with their own as often.”  The book’s oversized pages are too information-packed for most stepparents to have time to go through them, but Strengthening Your Stepfamily can be useful if taken in small doses, perhaps by focusing on one troubling issue at a time and seeing what the authors have to say about it.  Their advice is good, although harried stepparents’ ability to implement it without third-party help is likely to be minimal.  Reading this book therefore leads to a conclusion both helpful and troubling: all stepfamilies would likely benefit from therapy of some type, both before the remarriage and during its stabilization period – which may last for years.

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