Jon and Kate Gosselin are divorcing and the world debates what will become of their eight children. How will they care for them after the split? Should they continue their television program, Jon and Kate Plus 8, on TLC, or would doing so be “psychologically abusive” to the children?
Most of the discussion seems to be focused on the next few weeks of this family’s existence; I’m thinking a few years down the road. As a therapist, author, and speaker who specializes in stepfamilies, I know how complicated life is about to become for this household.
Assuming that Jon and Kate are like most divorced adults, they will remarry (75 percent do), even though right now they may be saying that’s the last thing on their minds. Marriage is part of the American ideal and we don’t give up on it easily. Statistically speaking, Jon and Kate will both be hitched again within five years.
Let’s say that Jon’s new wife is previously married and has children of her own (let’s assume two), but Kate’s new spouse has not been married before and doesn’t have any children. This means the eight Gosselin children will only have two stepsiblings to get to know, but they will also have to forge relationships with two new stepparents (and their stepmother’s ex-husband), three new sets of stepgrandparents, and countless aunts, uncles, and cousins. Jon and Kate Plus 8 can become Jon and Kate Plus 25 or more very quickly. This expanded stepfamily system will have three households to manage on a daily basis, and six household schedules to navigate when it comes time to visit the grandparents at Christmas. And if that doesn’t seem complicated enough, the number of possible interactions between family members within this now three-household stepfamily will likely be 34,000 times more than before the divorce. I’m not sure Facebook will solve that.
The process of “decoupling”
But there’s even more complexity to manage. Divorce includes what we sometimes call “decoupling”—the emotional process couples must maneuver to stop being lovers and learn only to be co-parents (doesn’t it sound painful?). Ironically, decoupling can pave the way to healthy co-parenting during the stepfamily years. But this process is extremely difficult for most couples and they simply don’t manage it well.
Why? Because in marriage couples become accustomed to having their opinions influence their spouse’s behavior and parenting. It’s only natural that they assume their views will still influence the ex-spouse after the divorce. But, while marriage provides couples a much-needed motivation to cooperate and negotiate with kindness in matters of parenting, divorce does not. The world watched Jon repeatedly bend to Kate’s assertive, opinionated parenting style while they were married; the marriage gave him motivation to accommodate her. If he is like most divorced men who feel “free” of wives they once described as overbearing, he will lose his willingness to “get along and do it her way.” What is the net result? In divorce, Jon and Kate will likely have more conflict, not less.
Put another way, if Kate was frustrated with Jon before the divorce, she is in for a rude awakening. She is going to feel even more frustration and more out of control as she relates to him in the future. During the program announcing their separation Kate explained that she was seeking a divorce in order to bring “peace” to her children. Ironically, peace just became harder to come by.
On occasion divorce offers children improved well-being, but only in high conflict, violent, or abusive households where removal from exposure to the abuse offers psychological protection. In such a case divorce is the lesser of two evils. But “peace” is not facilitated by any divorce or the ensuing single parent home and/or stepfamily. Just consider some of the disruptive emotional losses the Gosselin children will likely experience:
- an intact home and the security that comes from knowing Mom and Dad are together forever
- family income, friendships, community and church connections, and access to extended family
- a sense of control, which brings about frustration and stress
- a continuity to life (life has just become very unpredictable and filled with fear)
- consistent, authoritative parenting when biological parents continue to argue, battle, and fuss with one another
- the grief that accompanies a parent’s remarriage (“now I have to share my dad with my stepmom and her kids”)
- family traditions and holiday rituals that must change in order to accommodate new stepfamily members and households
- a sense of peace when children experience divided loyalties, and many more.
Why paint a challenging picture?
Some readers may be asking: Why is a stepfamily expert suggesting that Jon and Kate work it out and avoid remarriage? Answer: Because an intact home is the best way to create “peace” for children. Stepfamilies can navigate their challenges and in many cases form stable, loving homes. But honestly, it’s a tough row to hoe.
Two-thirds of stepfamily couples divorce, and I estimate that another 10-15 percent of couples are unhappy. And then there are the children. Experiencing multiple marriages and divorces by their parents, they often have lower academic performance, lower emotional and psychological well-being, higher risk of teenage pregnancy, and more behavioral issues. They grow up with less confidence in the institution of marriage, cohabit more than previous generations, and divorce at a higher rate. Stepfamily living doesn’t restore lost family strength or repair the damage done. In fact, it adds complexity to already difficult circumstances and multiples the stressors.
So, is it all bad? No, stepfamilies can overcome many of these complex challenges, especially if they have a map. That’s why I write books, create training materials, conduct media appearances, and manage a free high-content website for stepfamilies. But having articulated that optimism, let’s be very clear: If Jon and Kate want peace for their children they need to seek resolution of their marital conflicts, offer and seek forgiveness to each other, let God chip away at their selfishness, and reconcile this marriage.
Take it from someone who specializes in helping stepfamilies manage their complexities: repairing their marriage will be hard work, but far less work than giving away their family to divorce and remarriage. Divorce may seem a relief now. But Jon and Kate Plus 8 is a lot easier than Jon and Kate Plus 25. Do the math.
© 2009 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.