These challenges combine to increase the vulnerability for each individual forming the newly married couple. This vulnerability may resonate throughout the “blending” process for the newly formed family. Furthermore, the adults’ relational bond is sorely tested by the loyalty demands of the pre-existing parental-child ties, with the risk of rendering either or both of the adults the status of “outsider” (Papernow, 1993). This loyalty testing is crucial to the dynamics of stepfamily formation, and particularly to the quality and maintenance of the stepcouple attachment bond. It is the challenge to this vulnerable stepcouple bond, and the exploration of possible attachment injury, that is the subject of inquiry herein.
The literature on therapy with stepfamilies overwhelmingly supports an approach of first working with the couple to bring them closer; only then is it recommended to explore issues related to ex-partners, the actual tasks of (step)parenting, and finally specific issues the children may present (Bray & Harvey, 1995; Ganong & Coleman, 1994; Martin, et al., 1992; Visher & Visher, 1995). The relevant literature suggests that there is much work to be done therapeutically in forging the couple bond – and then having them work together as the new “heads of household” to approach other issues. Threats to the integrity of the stepcouple bond echo loudly throughout the newly formed family; the threat is opposed through forging the closest possible bond between the stepcouple.
It is the premise of this inquiry that stepcouples may experience threats to their attachment bond due to attachment injuries that are directly related to the problems inherent in forming their stepfamily. An attachment injury occurs when one experiences a threat or perceived assault to the couple bond; these assaults challenge the couple’s ability to further bond and may even cause a severing of their attachment bond (Johnson, Makinen & Millikin, 2001). The experience of attachment injury is a severe breach in the couple’s relationship, creating both a sense of loss and vulnerability. This emotional disruption may, at worst, threaten the survival of the relationship, resulting in family dissolution.
The current study views stepcouples through the lens of attachment theory, and threats to dyadic attachment. Nowhere in either the theoretical or clinical intervention literature on attachment or attachment injury is there a focus on stepfamilies. It would seem that stepcouples might indeed experience attachment injuries, based on the challenges the literature suggests stepfamilies face; however, these challenges have not yet been viewed using an attachment framework. This study will explore whether stepcouple problems can be characterized as attachment injuries; and if so, whether or not they are directly attributable to stepfamily formation.
Attachment theory will provide the framework for exploring stepcouples’ relationships. Dyadic relationships are conceptualized as attachment bonds; the need for these bonds is so basic to human existence that it is considered a drive for protection that maintains survival (Bowlby, 1988).
Attachment theory normalizes adult attachment needs (Bowlby, 1988). The