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by Maggie Scarf

When individuals who are parents remarry, each of the mates comes to the relationship with not one, but two family backgrounds--the background of the original home and the background of the home that individual shared with the former spouse. Each member of the couple is thus bringing to the new domestic scene two sets of emotional baggage: One set has to do with whatever unresolved issues linger from that person's life in his or her original family; and the other set of baggage, of more recent vintage, has to do with to what happened in the prior marriage and the way in which that marriage ended.

At present, 90% of all remarriages involve a formerly divorced spouse; thus, the highest likelihood is that the ending of the previous marriage was due to divorce. Less often the prior marriage has ended with the death of a mate, but whatever trauma has broken apart the previously intact nuclear family has surely visited some degree of pain and grief upon everyone involved. It is upon this landscape of earlier losses that the remarried family's new civilization must be established. It is a landscape often haunted not only by ghosts from both mates' earliest lives in their families of origin, but by the attitudes, negotiations, compromises, habits—that entire sense of how daily life should proceed that was worked out in his or her prior family household.

For however the marriage may have ended, it must be emphasized, that previous household was a home; and in that home a set of implicit and explicit rules and regulations for family living had surely been established. Families, like other social systems, operate according to a set of regulations and by-laws--group-wide norms that all the members of the family know they are expected to abide by.

In one family subculture, for example, everyone knows the children are not permitted to watch TV while they are doing their homework; it doesn't have to be repeated on a daily basis. But in another family subculture the TV set may be left on nonstop. What will happen if a woman who has been rearing her children in the first kind of family links up with a man whose children have been raised in the second kind of family? Whose family rule will prevail?

Stepfamilies are, as has been widely noted, a curious example of an organizational merger; they bring together under one roof two differing family civilizations. And not surprisingly the children of each of these former subcultures, familiar with their own family's rhythms of being, are frequently shaken up by and resistant to the other family's values, rules and habitual ways of doing things. If, to take another elementary example, the new husband's prior family has operated according to the clean-plate-club principle, while in the wife's former household no emphasis was put upon what anyone had eaten, sitting down at the new family table together may generate a sense of dis-equilibrium and dismay in some or all members of the group. For suddenly, the accustomed ways of doing things that were always taken for granted have become matters that are open to question.

Now, a very tricky aspect of this merging of divergent family subcultures is the fact that many of the little behaviors of our everyday lives are laden with emotional significance. We tend to have feelings about certain matters that a stranger to our family's value-system might find odd or unimportant--such as whether or not the dishes were rinsed before being stacked in the dishwasher or how carefully the kitchen floor was swept. In one family environment, the kitchen floor might be well-swept after every single meal--and the failure to sweep it clean might be read as a message of disrespect and rebellion--while in another family that would be perfectly fine and no dire meanings would be read into the fact that there were a few breadcrumbs on the floor after the nightly cleanup.

In remarried families even small procedural differences such as these can arouse astonishing emotional responses. On the subject of daily chores, for instance, the members of the new couple may both take the position that the children are expected to help out and do their own share of the household upkeep. But one partner may feel that the youngsters should merely be required to take care of their own rooms, and to pitch in when necessary (help set the table, run to the store), while the other partner takes it as a moral absolute that each child should have his or her own specific tasks and be held responsible for doing them. Clearly, both spouses are in agreement about the basic principle—the children should help out with chores--but they have different ideas about how that helping out should be accomplished, and will often put vastly differing interpretations upon what actually does happen.

This may lead to a situation in which, for example, one parent is perfectly comfortable with how much the children are helping, while the other is indignantly asserting that the children aren't learning any respect, that there is no give and take in the family, and that the adults are being walked all over and disregarded. In brief, moral interpretations can be assigned to small behaviors, and people can become agitated and even enraged about such trivial matters as whether or not Billy has remembered to empty the litter box.

Maggie Scarf is the author of several books on family life. Her latest book is Intimate Worlds: How Families Thrive & Why They Fail. She is currently writing a book on stepfamilies.