The Processes Distinguishing Stable from Unstable Stepfamily Couples: A Qualitative Analysis

By Saint-Jacques, Marie-Christine; Robitaille, Caroline et al. | Family Relations, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Processes Distinguishing Stable from Unstable Stepfamily Couples: A Qualitative Analysis


Saint-Jacques, Marie-Christine, Robitaille, Caroline, Godbout, Élisabeth, Parent, Claudine, Drapeau, Sylvie, Gagne, Marie-Helene, Family Relations


Second marriages are known to be more fragile than first marriages. To better understand the factors that contribute to this fragility, this qualitative study compared stepfamilies that stayed together with those that separated by collecting interview data from one adult in each of the former (n = 31) and latter (n = 26) stepfamilies. Data were analyzed using a general inductive approach. The analysis allowed us to identify key processes that contributed to stepfamilies staying intact or breaking up. We found that the way in which families approached problems and the strategies they employed had more influence on stepfamily survival than the nature, number, or intensity of these problems. We also outlined the role of certain elements related to family context, such as the custody of children from former unions, intrafamily communication, and each person's particular characteristics. With regard to practitioner intervention, the results highlight the importance of examining the way in which couples deal with their problems, the strategies they employ, and the effectiveness of the strategies.

Key Words: couple breakup, couple relationships, family studies, qualitative studies in the area of families, remarriages, stepfamilies.

In the United States, it is estimated that more than two thirds of women and three quarters of men remarry after divorce (Schoen & Standish, 2001). These second marriages often involve children: It is estimated that 7.2% of American children under age 18 live with a biological parent and stepparent (Kreider, 2008). These data underestimate the number of children who live with a stepparent because they do not take into account cohabiting stepfamilies or situations where children are living part-time with a stepparent (Saint- Jacques & Drapeau, 2008; Stewart, 2001). Furthermore, second marriages are known to be more fragile than first marriages: In the United States, 40% of remarriages occurring between 1985 and 1994 ended in permanent separation or divorce within 10 years, as compared with 32% of first marriages (Bumpass & Raley, 2007). In Canada, nationally representative surveys show that the probability that the parents of children born into stepfamilies would separate before the children were 10 years old is three times higher than for children born into intact two-parent families (Juby, Le Bourdais, & Marcil-Gratton, 2001). When a family's path comprises several consecutive transitions and if the associated stress factors reoccur, the capacity of the adults and children to adjust is often negatively affected (Brody & Neubaum, 1996; Davies & Cummings, 1994; Saint- Jacques, Cloutier, Pauzé, Simard, & Poulin, 2006). For example, repeated family transitions affect children's emotional stability, daily functioning, and adaptation as well as the adults' parenting abilities (Hao & Xie, 2002; Hetherington, 1991). Despite the fact that there is a greater risk that stepfamilies will separate - with the negative consequences that entails - little research has been conducted on this topic (Desrosiers, Le Bourdais, & Laplante, 2000; Teachman, 2008).

To better understand the factors that contribute to this fragility, we conducted a qualitative study comparing the experiences of parents and stepparents living in stepfamilies to those of adults who were part of a stepfamily that separated. We had two objectives: (a) to explore the similarities and differences in the stepfamily experience of these two groups and (b) to understand the processes associated with stepfamilies that contributed to intact or terminated relationships. Our study was particularly innovative in that it focused on processes, adopted a comparative intrastepfamily perspective, and attempted to better understand stepfamilies through the eyes of those directly involved. Studies such as ours are rare in stepfamily research, even though numerous experts have stressed that they are essential if we are to arrive at a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying these families' development (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000). …

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