Archbishop's web site Denver Catholic Register Parishes Catholic Pastoral Center

October 23, 2002


Communication seen as key for remarried couples solving other difficulties

With right efforts, step and blended families grow into strong family units

By Stephen Steele

(CNS) — Jerry and Denise Stein of La Place, La., were married a year before she built up the courage to discuss an issue that had been eating at her from the day they were married.

It was the second marriage for Denise, who had two children from a previous marriage. It was her husband's first. After one year, the couple still maintained separate bank accounts.

"For me, I felt like he was saying, 'I didn't trust you,'" Denise said.

Jerry said it was something to which he hadn't given much thought.

"As soon as she said something, I was like, "Yea, OK; let's do it," he told Catholic News Service.

He said that having separate accounts "had nothing to do with trust," but rather was the way "I had been doing things all along" before getting married.

"If I knew it was bothering her," he added, "it would have changed a lot sooner."

That situation underscores an essential issue for any new couple, but one that is amplified in second marriages — communication, said the Steins, now married for 12 years and heads of marriage workshops in their parish.

Statistics show that half of the marriages in the United States end in divorce. But for second marriages, the divorce rate is more than 60 percent.

The North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics recommends waiting four years before remarrying, said Charles Balsam, author of "Starting Over in Christ," a remarriage preparation program.

"The reasons are obvious. It's likely that in less than four years you haven't done the emotional and spiritual work of healing, especially if you have kids," he said.

Balsam, who directs an adult and family ministry program at St. Louis Parish in Austin, Texas, pointed out that "the problem with marrying so soon is the problem of not having thoroughly addressed the baggage from the first failed marriage."

"If you haven't taken stock of your own contribution, you may bring the same expectations, patterns and mistakes into the new marriage," he said.

There are actions a stepfamily, in which one spouse has children from a previous marriage, and a blended family, in which both spouses have children, can take in order to increase the chances of successful union, he said.

Balsam said that communication is the underlying issue that leads couples to conflict and misunderstanding.

"Questions of property and financial issues, and children from previous marriages — all potential minefields — can be dealt with if couples talk," he said.

Children present special sets of challenges, Balsam and the Steins agreed.

Balsam recommends that the couple involve children in the marriage preparation and ceremony. "This way, the kids have a sacred moment. There's a participation level that helps act out, through ritual, the commitment and bonding the family should experience."

"It's a way to help the kids feel like they matter, that they're not pets on a leash being led into the relationship," he said.

Balsam suggested that the primary disciplinarian should be the biological parent, that the new spouse should play a supportive role and be eased into the parental role.

"The non-biological parent has to earn the respect of the kids. Just because he's the new adult doesn't mean he automatically has absolute authority and that the kids will obey him. That's one of the tensions with step and blended families," he said.

With the Steins, the potential pitfalls worked in reverse, with Denise, the biological parent, pressuring her children to be perfect during the early stages of her marriage.

"It was harder for me to adjust," she said. "I wanted my children to be perfect little angels, then he told me to relax, let them be kids. That made things a lot easier," she said.

The Steins eventually had a daughter together. Denise's two children, now grown, call their stepfather "papa."

Balsam said stepfamilies and blended families who do the necessary spiritual and emotional work often grow into strong family units.

"Here, you're talking about an unnatural relationship that needs to be learned. In a biological family, nature takes over. But in blended and stepfamilies, it's nurture. When a stepfamily works well, they're a powerful witness to love," he said.

"It's still tough," he added, "but they can do it."


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