AOL News recently teased users with the promise of revealing a "surprising reason" behind the Chris Evert/Greg Norman separation. It linked to an article that asked "Are stepkids responsible for couple's split?" The piece suggested that the uber-sporty duo, married just fifteen months, have called it quits because Norman's adult children from his previous marriage didn't like Evert, or the fact of her (Evert has three boys of her own and has said they "get along great" with Norman).
We can't know what happened in this case, of course. But based on statistics and the picture of stepfamily reality emerging from the most recent longitudinal studies, most researchers who know their stuff will tell you the supposed "surprising reason" behind their breakup is anything but.
The sportif celebs are arguably in far from ideal circumstances to create a happy remarriage with kids, having divorced their spouses of long standing to be together, and then marrying relatively quickly. But the Evert/Norman separation is nevertheless in many ways a good lens through which to view some of the biggest challenges couples in a repartnering with kids face--and to explore misconceptions and uncomfortable truths about stepfamilies in general.
1. The single greatest predictor that a marriage will fail is the presence of children from a previous marriage or relationship. It might surprise us. But the truth is that the divorce rate is 50% higher in remarriages with children than in those without.
2. The kids in a remarriage with children often have tremendous power. Stepfamily researchers Kay Pasley and Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman have noted that, while kids have very little say in a parent's decision to remarry and form a new family, they do have tremendous power to break it up. Longitudinal studies have amply documented what most stepparents have experienced first hand--many kid are hostile and rejecting to their parent's new spouse, often for years, due to feeling loyalty conflicts. And because the kids are the links between two households, they can and often do create friction by making comparisons, passing along unkind messages, and even spying. Indeed, researchers including Dr. Francesca Adler-Bader of the National Stepfamily Resource Center tell us that preadolescent and adolescent children are the main initiators conflict in a stepfamily. While we can't hold young children responsible for this behavior, we must recognize that it can lead the couple--even a committed one--to become tremendously polarized over the parenting of the kids from the previous relationship.
3. It doesn't matter how old the kids are. It turns out that loyalty binds, sadness, and acting out post-divorce aren't just kid stuff. British researcher Sarah Corrie found that adult stepchildren face the very same feeling that younger ones do. These include not liking to see the parent and stepparent be affectionate with one another, feeling in a loyalty bind ("If I like stepmom, I'm betraying mom"), feeling competitive with the stepparent, and feeling pressured to have a relationship with him or her. Adult stepchildren can be very unreconciled to a parent's divorce, hostile to the idea of getting a stepparent--and resentful of the stepparent him or herself. As the kids get older, issues like estate planning and inheritance can come into play, adding an extra layer of anxiety and resentment.
4. It's hardest for stepmothers. The longitudinal studies of stepfamily life by psychologists James Bray and Mavis Hetherington and sociologist Constance Ahrons show that kids of all ages resent getting a stepmother more than getting a stepfather, and that they resent her for longer. In Hetherington's study, less than 20% of adult stepchildren said they felt close to their stepmothers. And while more than half of adult stepkids told Ahrons they were happy about mom remarrying, less than 30% were happy that daddy had (I discuss the stepmother's specific struggles at length in my book, Stepmonster). Finally, the longitudinal studies and interviews I did for my own book suggest that you don't have to be a "homewrecker" to be resented: regardless of how the previous union ended, a stepmother is likely to be the lightning rod for his kids' unhappiness and anger that their parents broke up.
5. A couple that is truly a team can overcome seemingly insuperable difficulties, including kids who are unhappy about the partnership. The Norman/Evert union was likely built on a foundation of romanticized notions, not realistic expectations. Many couples in a remarriage--even those who haven't divorced their previous spouses in order to be together--suffer from the same syndrome: believing that because they're so in love, everyone will "blend" together effortlessly. The reality, stepfamily expert James Bray tells us, is that even those remarriages with children that succeed are usually highly conflictual and difficult in the first two years, as all the parties struggle to adjust to change and find their footing. A father who tells his kids of any age, "I love you. I also love your stepmom and she's here to stay. You don't have to love her or even like her, but you can't treat her like a piece of furniture," and means it, makes all the difference.
We can't know what happened between Evert, Norman, and their kids. But we do know that stepfamily life in general is rarely effortless, and that love and good intentions on a stepparent's part are not enough. Conflict, particularly between his kids and his wife, and between him and his wife regarding his kids, is common. Only a doubles team committed to success and an airtight union will make it to the finals.