Attachment injury is viewed as a betrayal of the couple bond (Johnson, 1996). The sense of betrayal by one’s spouse appeared in several ways in these interviews. Respondents reported coalitions formed with those outside the stepcouple, perceived as necessary to parent effectively; and they described instances of lying and manipulation in the relationship, either by the respondent or her partner, in order to maintain a sense of meeting one’s duties to one’s children.
Research suggests that betrayal of the attachment bond alters the working model of the attachment figure (Johnson and Sims, 2000). In other words, one’s belief about one’s partner can be altered following a perceived assault to the relational bond. There were many instances of altered working models in these couples that were directly attributable to stepcouple status. These were focused on the change in the perception of the partner, related to co-parenting. In most cases, the working model of the spouse changed from someone who could be depended on to forge a united front and actively co- parent, to someone who was undependable, and even perceived as emotionally harmful to one’s children. In other cases, the respondents’ stories implied that they were perceived as harmful to their stepchildren, activating the husband’s protection of his children.
Attachment injury is marked in relationships by a critical negative event (Millikin, 2000). This research finding was the basis for identifying a possible pivotal event in these stepcouples, an occurrence that clearly delineated that some formerly positive aspect of the marital relationship had changed significantly, implying an experience of loss. All but one of the respondents described a pivotal event and L (Respondent #4) identified two. These events were marked by abandonment or detachment, and were directly attributable to stepfamily problems.
Attachment injury has been viewed through therapeutic impasses revealing lack of emotional safety in a relationship (Johnson, Makinen & Millikin, 2001). Although three of this study’s respondents mentioned marital or family therapy, their therapy was not the focus of the interviews. Stepcouple impasses were examined in the data, however, through recurring arguments, problems that seemed multi-layered and descriptors using extreme (i.e., always/never) language. For example, two of the respondents (T and B) noted that they argued about arguing. These respondents also mentioned pervasive, embedded, recurrent problems, about co-parenting and coalition. They diverted to arguing about the arguing, and either were afraid to (in T’s case) or did not know how to (as B described) attempt to resolve the original problem.
In summary, the respondents’ experiences, as described through markers of attachment injury, were consistent with the findings elsewhere in attachment injury literature. Though this inquiry was limited in size, these findings broaden the scope of the context of attachment injury, to the context of stepcouples and their unique problems.
Stepfamilies, from the context of attachment theory, may begin at risk for dissolution. This is supported by the relatively high re-divorce rate. As reflected in the academic and popular literature, most people find stepfamily formation difficult to negotiate and challenging to maintain. Even when they are ultimately successful, stepfamilies would describe their success as the trophy for perseverance.
Attachment theory, with its emphasis on the importance of both attachment and loss, provides the context for explaining the difficulties faced by stepfamilies.