these newly formed families.
Context of Attachment Theory
The theory of attachment views dyadic relationships as relational bonds (Bowlby, 1988). These dyadic bonds can experience threats or perceived assaults, called “attachment injury,” that challenge the dyad’s ability to further bond, and may cause a severing of the bond (Johnson, Makinen & Millikin, 2001). Stepcouples facing these challenges may experience a severe breach, creating both a sense of loss and of vulnerability. This attachment disruption may, at worst, threaten the survival of their relationship through severing of the relational bond, resulting in family dissolution.
Relational Distress in Stepfamilies
Stepcouples face challenges not encountered by other families. A most crucial factor is that stepfamily formation implies the experience of loss (Martin, et al., 1992). Couples with children often present with problems that are child-focused. This is reflected in the literature on stepfamily intervention (Visher & Visher, 1979). Furthermore, the adults may experience challenges to their bond from loyalty conflicts arising from parenting roles, and pre-established bonds between parents and biological children (Visher & Visher, 1979).
Stepcouples navigating the stressors inherent to remarriage or re-partnering experience the attachment challenges found in other family life cycle transitions. Dankoski (2001) notes that all life cycle transitions involve “renegotiation of attachment bonds among family members” (p. 179). There is a sense of disorientation as the roles shift and the rules change. In traditional life cycle transitions, this implies an accompanying redefinition of meaning and expression of attachment bonds. The stepfamily, on the other hand, has no previous model of familial attachment bonds on which to draw; the bonds must be created, not amended, increasing the challenges and the stress for stepfamilies.
Stepcouples’ unresolved loss and loyalty conflicts may contribute to and be exacerbated by issues that arise for the new couple. There may be unmourned losses or unresolved conflicts from former relationships. The stepcouple bond could be challenged by co-parenting issues that feel as though the biological parent is “taking sides against” the stepparent with the former partner, creating confusion about possible divided loyalty between former partner and current stepparent, challenging the attachment bond between the stepcouple. Specifically it is the salience of losses and loyalty conflicts in stepfamilies that are relevant to this study.
In therapeutic settings, often the stepcouple undergoes interventions initially focused on strengthening their relational bond (Martin, Martin & Jeffers, 1992; Papernow, 1993; Visher & Visher, 1979). Once the adult dyad forges a strong sense of unity, the other areas of contention in the stepfamily are addressed, with the stepcouple at the helm. This is reflective of structural theory (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981) and is supported in the literature on therapeutic work with stepcouples (Papernow, 1993; Visher