Research Informed Practice with Re-coupled Partners

By Ryan Hill

Human’s most intimate social environment is the family unit. There were 46,604 nationally registered divorces in Australia in 2016 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). Martin-Uzzi and Duval-Tsioles (2013) point out 75% of individual’s who divorce will remarry. In 2016 in Australia, 30% of marriages recorded consisted of one or both partners in the couple marrying for a subsequent time (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). Remarried couples have unique needs which differ to a couple relationship where both parties are marrying for the first time. Research by Zeleznikow and Zeleznikow (2015) show 60% of second marriages in Australia end in divorce. These statistics are indicative of the difficulties faced by re-coupled partners and represent an alarming number of people effected by relationship breakdown. Thus, a framework adopted by social work practitioners which offers support to ensure positive outcomes for re-partnered couples is vital.

Identification of the key words and themes (Appendix 1) offer explanations to relationship problems remarried couples experience. A review of theoretical approaches and current explanations highlighted individual vulnerabilities, contextual factors, sexual functioning, interpersonal dynamics, personality factors, developmental perspectives, and biological factors explain martial dysfunction (Rieger, 2014). This means there are multi-layered contributing factors to the dysfunction re-coupled partners experience.

Significantly, the absence of maladaptive family functioning or familial problems does not reflect positive family functioning or a strong family (Dunst, Trivette, & Thompson, 1991). DeFrain and Asay (2007) reviewed characteristics of strong families across twenty two countries and found all strong functioning families regardless of culture or country of origin hold similar characteristics. Strong families are seen to demonstrate affection and appreciation towards family members; be committed to one-another; display positive inter-personal communication; spend quality, enjoyable time together; have a sense of spiritual cohesiveness; and, are willing to adapt and change to effectively manage crisis (DeFrain & Asay, 2007). Importantly, social work practitioners who understand the characteristics of strong families can identify and encourage these traits in blended families. Practitioners adopting a strength-based framework as social work conduct requires (Australian Association of Social Workers, 2010), reinforce re-partnered couples strengths or link them to resources to enhance their strengths, (Early & GlenMaye, 2000).

Rather than considering social workers to be experts in identifying the problems and solutions in blended families, a strengths perspective considers blended families to be the experts of their situation. Early and GlenMaye (2000) insist families, like individuals, “have the capacity to grow, change, and adapt”. Karney, Bradbury, and Steinberg’s (1995) longitudinal research on marital quality and stability supports Early and GlenMaye (2000) findings, revealing positive inter-personal couple behaviour, healthy adult attachment, mutually beneficial rewarding exchanges between the couple, and the couple’s ability to adapt to crisis constitutes marital quality and stability. Thus, a re-partnered couples strength lies within their relationship and individual resourcefulness; it is therefore the social workers role to draw these strengths out and assist the re-partnered couple to capitalise on them.

Pinsof and Wynne (1995) insist only a systemic approach to understanding blended families circumstances can provide an accurate depiction of the couple’s strengths and explain the issues they face. Pinsof and Wynne (1995) and Wood (2015) show micro- to macro -level influences impact re-partnered couple’s relationship longevity. At the micro-level, negative behaviours, unhappy childhood and poor adult attachment issues, and maladaptive thinking contribute to blended couples dysfunction (Martin-Uzzi & Duval-Tsioles, 2013; Ballantine & Roberts, 2014). At the meso-level, the lack of social support, family support, and positive role models causes support network detachment and isolation (Jory-Hile, Heid, & Krafcik, 2014). Then, at the macro-level, dominant societal discourse around biological-linked families being optimal, preferred, and more functional results in non-biological parents experiencing feelings of inadequacy and isolation (Karney, Bradbury, & Steinberg, 1995; Ballantine & Roberts, 2014). To address issues holistically requires an eclectic ecological approach, drawing theory, policy and intervention techniques together to work with couples in blended families. Hence, a systemic approach to working with couples in blended families is preferable due to the multiple-tiered influences effecting the couple’s wellbeing.

Promotion models such as narrative therapy and solutions-focused therapy “assume all people have strengths or the capacity to become competent” when their ability to adapt or overcome obstacles is highlighted to them (Dunst, Trivette, & Thompson, 1991). A strength-based approach to intervention is promotional. Strengthbased approaches promote the ability and existing opportunities within re partnered couples to overcome adversary rather than focusing on their problems and weaknesses (DeFrain & Asay, 2007). Social workers must to adopt a strength-based approach to family intervention as social work values and codes of practice align with this framework (Australian Association of Social Workers, 2010). Dunst, Trivette, and Thompson (1991) point out when people build on their strengths “they become more adaptive in not only dealing with difficult life events but in setting growth-oriented goals for achieving personal aspirations”. Social workers must often balance a bifurcation of philosophical ideology regarding intervention with re-partnered couples; approaches within a diagnostic system which focus on prevention and treatment, and approaches with a functional subjectivist orientation which consider the strengths and capabilities within each person (Dunst, Trivette, & Thompson, 1991; Early & GlenMaye, 2000). Hence, utilising intervention techniques such as CBT, IPT, DBT, Narrative therapy and/or Solutions-focused therapy, the social worker with a strengthsbased perspective will conceptually and procedurally approach therapy with blended couples living with a dichotomy of epistemology which satisfies social work codes of practice and meets the couple’s needs.

Systems theory furthers the idea of building upon re-partnered couple’s strengths and looks at the idea of developing social capital or social networks which benefit the re-partnered couple (Ballantine & Roberts, 2014). Contributing to the common good of the family, the blended family can developing a sense of altruism which helps family members to feel good about their involvement in the family system (Wood, 2015; Jory-Hile, Heid, & Krafcik, 2014; Elliot, 2000). No one technique encompasses a fix-all scenario (Elliot, 2000). As a result, interventions ought to consider that optimal functioning for re-partnered couples appears to require an eclectic, systematic approach to therapeutic intervention.

Far too often theories, policies, interventions and therapists approach working with re-partnered couples of blended families from a perspective that views them as dysfunctional, damaged or maladaptive in their relationship, but a different approach is necessary if we are facilitate best practice. Taking a strength-based systematic perspective of couples in blended families, the re-couples resilience, resourcefulness, capacity and potential can be realised and promoted.

Ryan Hill
Breathe Counselling