Stepfamilies are usually formed in a context of loss (Martin, Martin & Jeffers, 1992). This milieu of loss potentially increases the stepcouple’s vulnerability to the damaging effects of challenged attachment bonds. This affects the stepcouple in two ways: their interactions as a couple about one another, and their interactions as co-parents, related to the losses sustained by their own children (Lawton & Sanders, 1994; Martin, et al., 1992; Visher & Visher, 1979).
Parental protection against further loss for their children was a salient theme in these interviews. The respondents in this study all reported coalitions that protected their children, or coalitions of their partner that protected their stepchildren. These coalitions marked attempts to protect biological children against further loss. There was a sense of the biological parent being the only one in the stepfamily who cared enough to protect the feelings of her/his own children. This contributed to a partner’s sense that s/he could not depend on the partner as a co-parent.
Conflicting loyalty is a salient challenge for stepcouples as they seek to form a new sense of family. These conflicts exist for stepcouples in their roles as co-parents, or due to the influence of an ex-spouse (Huntley, 1995; Papernow, 1993; Visher & Visher, 1979). In this study, coalitions involving ex-spouses occurred in the context of attempting to co-parent with both the ex-spouse and current spouse. This often caused strife in the marital relationship due to the perceived negativity of the ex-spouse, coupled with the power she wielded from outside the stepcouple. All but one of this study’s respondents reported actively negative interference from ex-spouses, usually the husband’s ex-spouse. L (Respondent #4) was an exception: she enlisted the help and acknowledged the support of her husband’s ex-wife in coping with her rejecting stepchildren’s behaviors. This ex-wife was herself remarried, and her new spouse was experiencing similar difficulties as the stepparent in their home.
These respondents’ stories supported the prevailing stepfamily research that advises working first with the stepcouple, then the ex-partners, and finally with the children (Bray & Harvey, 1995; Ganong & Coleman, 1994; Martin, Martin & Jeffers, 1992; Papernow, 1993; Visher & Visher, 1995). The families in this study were struggling to forge a co-parenting coalition, against the forceful pull of coalitions outside of their stepcouple bond. They were vulnerable to this outside force for a variety of reasons, usually due to coalitions that involved those outside the stepcouple, and who had a different agenda. It seemed that, where ex-spouse and in-law difficulties existed for the respondent, there was not yet a point in their marriage where the couple had re-defined themselves as the center of the new family coalition. They had not yet overcome, and continued succumbing to, the pull from outside forces that increased the havoc in their lives and that of their children.
T and her husband illustrated a couple who had realized the need for a re-defined stepcouple coalition. In this way, they seemed farther along in the process of forging their bond, though not without tremendous emotional difficulties, including a marital separation. They were increasingly able, though, to see themselves as the primary coalition and at the head of their household.
In summary, the stepfamily literature relevant to this inquiry pertains to loss and loyalty issues that affect stepcouples in creating their stepfamily. These issues are