CASE STUDIES; the Remarriage Box Ritual: Helping Stepfamilies Differentiate between Fear and Reality

Article excerpt

At the beginning of the 21st century, remarriage is nearly as common as first marriages, yet more than 60 percent of remarriages end in divorce. Studies show that second marriages in which there are children in the family are twice as likely to end in divorce as remarriages in which there are no children. Every step toward acceptance and consolidation of the new family unit evokes loyalty binds, as children worry that they are deserting one or the other parent, or other family members. Family members' habitual roles may be called into question, and life-cycle needs often conflict. Many remarried couples conclude within the first months or years that their living experiment is failing, when, in fact, studies have shown that the estimated time it takes to adapt to being a stepfamily ranges from two to seven years.

Pre-remarital stepfamily counseling is extremely helpful in preparing families for the rocky road of remarriage, but families need even more: they need an experience that binds them together, even if only loosely and for a short moment, as a new, family unit. The Remarriage Box Ritual is a way for family members to express their ambivalence about the remarriage and find ways to symbolize both the gains and the losses they perceive. I developed the ritual while working with Cindy, her two children--16-year-old Anna and 11-year-old Tony and her fiance´, Ken. Cindy and Anna had come to see me a few years earlier to deal with chronic fighting--this was before Ken was in the picture. When they ended therapy, Cindy understood how to create appropriate boundaries for a teenager, and Anna was happier and less oppositional with her mother. Now, three years later, they were back in my office because they were fighting again, this time about Cindy and Ken's upcoming wedding.

"I can't believe you could be so hateful toward me," Cindy complained bitterly to her daughter, who slouched in her chair, arms tightly crossed, lips pouting, foot wagging furiously. "You're being uncooperative and mean spirited about my wedding plans!" Anna rolled her eyes: "You're not letting me invite all my friends, and I won't feel comfortable. I may not even come!" Tony nodded in support of his sister, although he avoided his mother's gaze. Ken looked perplexed--he had said he was happy about the impending marriage, but couldn't quite muster Cindy's full-blown enthusiasm for the wedding plans. Wanting to support Cindy, he told Tony and Anna, "You kids should be more enthusiastic about your mom's wedding."

This was Cindy's first solid relationship in many years, and she felt hurt, discouraged and confused by Anna's belligerence and acting out, and Tony's support of his sister. Both children claimed to like Ken, but the more Cindy insisted on happy esprit, the more upset the children became. The children were already part of one remarried family--they disliked their father's "bossy" new wife.

I interrupted Cindy and Anna's battle over whether Anna would help address the wedding invitations. "Do you think that if the children don't love the idea of your wedding, they don't love you?" I asked Cindy. She was surprised by the question and became thoughtful. Maybe, she said, she had been equating the two, but now that it was said aloud, she realized how absurd that was.

Next, I invited the children to say more specifically what they didn't like about the fact that their mother was going to marry Ken. They both said they liked Ken, but they resented not having a choice--he was moving in, whether they liked him or not. I validated their feelings and explained that they needed to learn how to talk about and negotiate how they would all live together in harmony. Anna was intrigued when I said that bringing up negative feelings didn't mean they couldn't have any positive ones, too. I explained that remarriage is born of loss of a previous relationship or family structure, and that everyone experienced this loss in a very personal, and often different way, even in the same family. …