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