An Evaluation of the Remarriage and Stepfamily Self-Help Literature

By Coleman, Marilyn; Nickleberry, Lynette | Family Relations, December 2009 | Go to article overview

An Evaluation of the Remarriage and Stepfamily Self-Help Literature


Coleman, Marilyn, Nickleberry, Lynette, Family Relations


The purpose of this study was to critique inprint, post-1990 copyrighted stepfamily self-help books in order to provide guidance to helping professionals who work with these complex families. Of the 63 books reviewed, trained coders were able to strongly recommend 13 books for being well organized, for relying on clinical or empirical sources of information, and for offering practical and concrete advice specific enough for stepfamity members to implement.

Key Words: remarriage, self-help, stepfamilies.

Self-help books have been described as "a firm part of the fabric of American culture, too pervasive and influential to be ignored or lightly dismissed, and certainly worthy of investigation" (Starker, 1989, p. 2).

Recent estimates show that about half of all marriages continue to involve at least one previously married partner (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004), and a significant number of these previously married partners have children. Unfortunately, the divorce rate for remarried couples continues to be higher than that for first married couples. The probability of redivorce within 5 years for remarried couples is 23% and within 10 years is 39% (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002), compared to first-marriage dissolution found to be 20% at 5 years and 33% at 10 years. The likelihood of dissolution increases when children are present, and in 2004, 1 7% of all children under age 18 (12.2 million) lived with a stepparent, half-sibling, or stepsibling (Bramlett & Mosher). Forty-six percent of the children in stepfamilies (5.5 million) lived with at least one stepparent (Kreider, 2007), a total of 6% of all children in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).

Given the high level of complexity within stepfamilies and stepfamily relationships (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000; Ermisch & Francesconi, 2000), individual stepfamily members may seek the assistance of helping professionals in numbers considerably higher than individuals from other family backgrounds. Indeed, many stepfamilies need up-to-date educational information rather than therapy, and high-quality self-help books have the potential to either supplement or supplant therapy (Visher & Visher, 1996). In 1989, Coleman and Ganong conducted one of the first systematic evaluations of the stepfamily self-help literature. Our goal here was to update and extend our previous work in order to provide guidance regarding the content and quality of self-help books. The purpose of our study was to critique stepfamily self-help books published since 1990 and make recommendations that would assist helping professionals match the needs of clients to available books.

Emergence of the Self-help Book Phenomenon

Books have been used for centuries to help people solve their personal and interpersonal problems (Pardeck, 1996; Santrock, Minnett, & Campbell, 1994). Early American literature such as McGuffy Readers, The New England Primer (Pardeck), and The Poor Richard's Almanac (Santrock et al.) commonly included advice for self-improvement. Today, nearly every bookstore and library has a section devoted specifically to self-help literature, and it has been estimated that the self-improvement industry annually generates $2.48 billion in revenue (Rosen, 2004). There are more than 28,000 available self-help books, and the last 20 years have demonstrated a marked increase in their use among clinicians (Lehane, 2005).

Use of self-help materials for therapeutic purposes. Psychoeducational approaches (Authier, 1977) are often designed to increase the availability to the general public of self-care tools such as self-help books that enhance resilience to stress, coping skills, and a sense of mastery over life changes (Landsverk & Kane, 1998). Ellis (1993), noted founder of rational-emotive therapy, has suggested several advantages of self-help books, especially for selected audiences. For example, Ellis believed that some people who are literature oriented, but do not like dealing with a therapist or with counseling groups, might be quite comfortable reading self-help books. …

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