Whether it be a first or second marriage, divorce rates across the Western world are declining and have been for a while. The reasons behind the falling statistics are complex. But it’s suffice to say that divorce trends have been heavily influence by changing social norms about being a “divorcee”, living together prior to marriage, remaining in unhappy marriages, de facto relationships and associated legislative reforms in various countries. It’s probably also worth noting that now days, re-partnering does not always mean remarrying – and being married is a kind a prerequisite to divorcing. Otherwise it is just called breaking up or separating. No less painful but not necessarily included in the statistics.
Now without getting caught up in all the numbers, the majority (but not all) of studies seem to show that second marriages tend to fare far less well than first marriages. Additionally, a lot of research suggests that having children in a household from a previous relationship/marriage can be a risk factor with regard to divorce or separation. Despite this, there are lots of people trying very hard and with great success to make their second marriages work and who are also happy – just as happy, if not happier, than couples in a first time marriage.
So, what tips and tricks can we learn from the stepcouples who have gone before us and made it work? What do they do they that makes them successful?
1. It’s not arguments that matter, but how you make up
There’s no two ways about it. Just like any other couple, stepcouples are going to argue and there is likely to be conflict – maybe about how to manage issues with the former spouse, maybe over whose turn it is to empty the dishwater. Successful stepcouples accept and deal with the stress and pressure associated with step-family living as opposed to shying away from it. They understand that the level of conflict in a relationship is not a stepping stone to breaking up. They get that what matters most for maintaining their relationship is how they resolve and deal with any conflict and disagreements. Put simply, they put time into making up.
Indeed, arguing and conflict with your spouse/partner can actually be quite normal and healthy, depending on how you do it and how much effort you out into the “repair” i.e. getting things back on track after the fight. According to renowned relationship expert Dr John Gottman, “Fighting, when it airs grievances and complaints, can be one of the healthiest things a couple can do for their relationship”. He goes on to say in Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, “Your future together can be bright even if your disagreements tend to be very negative. The secret is learning the right kind of damage control”.
2. 5 to 1 is a magic ratio
That’s five positive interactions between you and your partner for every negative one, even during periods of conflict. Dr Gottman’s work has found that what really separates happy couples from those in deep marital misery is keeping a healthy balance in their Emotional Bank Account (EBA). To put simply, imagine that a negative interaction is equal to withdrawing a 50 cents, but a positive interaction (a deposit) is only 10 cents. This means that in order to keep your EBA in the black, you have to put a lot more in to balance out the negative withdrawals. If you aim to build up savings in your EBA, like money in the bank, you will have a comfy buffer when times get tough.
Watch this short video of Dr. John Gottman explaining the Emotional Bank Account.
3. T is for team
Many stepcouples come together with “an audience of interested and powerful third parties some of whom (such as former spouses and, in some instances, children) may have an investment in the relationship not succeeding” (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). Successful stepcouples know this and they have one another’s backs. They present a united front and are in general agreement about how they approach running their household, dealing with negative nellies and balancing multiple relationships. They use teamwork to face challenges in a positive way – including managing kids and stepkids who may be unhappy about the relationship. A father who tells his kids (and means it), “I love you. I also love your stepmum. She’s in our lives to stay. I get you didn’t choose this. And you don’t have to love her or even like her. But you do need to be polite and civil”, can make all the difference to a stepcouple relationship. The reality is that couples who focus their energy on building something together tend to last the longest.
4. Say “we” more than “me’
Having a sense of “we-ness” and feeling that you and your partner are “in this together” can do wonders for encouraging relationship permanence. Often the language we use when talking about life, love and relationship, reflects our beliefs, values, and goals. Those making their stepcouple relationship work, take care with the language they use. They tend to make sure that their language reflects that they are committed to their relationship and are in it together which is a small thing, but very powerful. They say “we” more than they say “me”. They regularly ask themselves and one another, “What do we need?”, “What do we want?” or “What do we like?” which helps ensure that they are united (even when they have different points of views) and are creating shared meaning in terms of their relationship and family goals.
5. Meet in the moment, not in the middle
Successful stepcouples understand that in real compromise, both of them are bound to be at least a little disappointed. They also work hard at not letting that disappointment get in the way of their relationship. When faced with a request or situation that makes their blood boil or causes them frustration, before responding with a flat out “NO”, they tend to pause and ask themselves, “what part of my partner’s request can I agree to?”, “What does my partner need from me right now?” and “am I able to give them that?”. In doing so they increase their chances of staying connected whilst they manage their differences.
6. Reality is for embracing
Building a partnership on a foundation of romanticized notions (i.e. we will all ‘blend’ together and be one big happy Brady Bunch family) rather than realistic expectations (there will be stress and conflict and lots of things that undermine our efforts to build the stepfamily and care for the children) is asking for nothing but trouble.
Falling in love for the second (…or third, or fourth) time allows you and your partner to reframe what true love means to each of you. Rather than expecting to find the perfect soul mate who has the perfect children who accept you unconditionally, successful ‘second-time-around-ers’ understand that finding the love of your life who has kids is crazy complicated – richer and busier – but definitely more complicated.
7. Money matters
According to another stepfamily guru, Dr. Larry Ganong, money will always be a major issue for remarried couples with kids, not least because they tend to be financially obligated to more than one household. They may have child support coming in and child support going out and find that the two just don’t add up, leaving many stepcouples dealing with financial pressures that complicate an already complicated situation. Successful stepcouples take the time to talk about, and work out, how they’ll manage their finances. They have typically also engaged in some sort of estate planning, which is particularly where adult children are involved.
8.Don’t use the ‘D-word’
Re-partnered people understand from experience that breaking-up is a real possibility when it comes to their relationship. It can be something that many worry about and feel scared of. And many believe that once divorced, it is easier togo down that path again. After all for divorcees, divorce/separation is no longer uncharted territory and those that have been there know they can survive it. Those in successful stepcouple relationships don’t use divorce or separation as a threat when tough times are happening or throw it up in the midst of an argument when emotions are running high. In fact, they generally don’t use the ‘D-word’ at all when it comes to their relationship. They tend to be more solution focussed. They also work hard at being a team (see tip #1.)
9. Sheets are for ruffling
Those that have successfully re-partnered understand that maintaining a healthy level of intimacy, is important for any relationship. Sexually satisfied stepcouples tend to be emotionally attuned to each other inside and outside of the bedroom. The key to longer-term happiness, sexually and otherwise, is for both partners to support and value their friendship. The fact is couples who are friends and like each other tend to fall into bed together, more often.
10. H is for Humor – don’t lose it
When faced with what can feel like endless stressful situations and family conflict and drama, successful stepcouples do not lose their sense of humor. After all, humor, (when used correctly), can invite forgiveness and repair without necessarily making people have an deep and meaningful conversation. It can also lower the tension level of an argument, destroy the division between partners and remind everyone that we’re human.
11. Make it a twosome (not a threesome)
In order to protect their relationship, successful stepcouples set clear boundaries about how they will deal with their ex’s and the role the ex (or ex’s) will play in their lives. They do their best to cut the emotional, mental and physical ties that used to bind them to their ex as a husband or a wife. They treat their ex with respect and as their co-parent and that’s it. They also accept that establishing clear boundaries doesn’t mean that their ex will automatically respect or accommodate them. But that implementing them and upholding them (from their end at least) ensures that ghosts of relationships past are not allowed to invade their relationship.
12. Small things often
Grand gestures such as romantic weekends away, exotic holidays, expensive gifts are all great. But with busy lives and even busy schedules successful stepcouples tend to do small things often to help create happiness and satisfaction in their relationship. Regularly doing small things – a kiss, an unexpected compliment, making the bed every now and again without being asked, making your partner a coffee or sending a text message to say “Hi, how’s your day going?” – add up and create a surplus of goodwill and affection that makes it easier to get through the many mundane trials and tribulations that stepcouples face every day.