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The Remarriage Blueprint

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A common way of picturing remarriage is as a freshly cleaned slate, a hope-filled new chance at happiness in a completely different relationship. The remarrying pair typically set out with a sense of optimism, a belief that this marriage will improve the quality not only of their own lives, but the lives of the children involved.

Still, despite the fact that the new mates are embarking with the delicious feelings of increased energy and self-worth that being in a loving, intimate relationship can bring, they will rarely progress very far before finding themselves faced with dilemmas that are dissimilar from anything that either faced the first time around. They are discovering that the replacement of a missing parent (due to divorce, desertion or death) does not restore the family to its first-marriage status.

On the contrary, it presents the new couple with a handful of unanticipated and powerful challenges. This is due to the simple truth that first-marriage families and remarried families can be likened to two discrete buildings whose basic blueprints differ significantly.

Everyone is of course familiar with the structure of the first-marriage family. Metaphorically speaking, it corresponds to the family most of us grew up in; it is the family that exists in our heads. But the design of the remarried family is relatively unknown, and few people even understand that it is constructed according to a fundamentally different design plan. The elemental difference between the two "buildings" is created by the crucial fact biological parents have long-standing, deep connections to their blood-and-heart related children and newcomer/stepparents do not.

This situation presents the family with a number of complex design issues which require them to discard what architects refer to as "the vernacular" or "conventional planning." The remarried couple and their children must leave behind many of their taken-for-granted assumptions about how a family structure is supposed to look. They must get to work on self-consciously creating a diagram and then planning, designing and building an entirely new kind of edifice - one that will realistically meet their unique and particular needs.

Obviously, the new family is coming together when the adult partners are older and one or both are bringing the children of former relationships into the mix. The family structure they build together will necessarily differ significantly from the more traditional first-marriage family design and their assumptions about family organization must of necessity undergo the process of being dismantled, reanalyzed and reconfigured in ways that will work well for their newly amalgamating group. This is where the notion of "architectural expertise" comes in.

In my book, I describe the Architectural Model created by remarriage expert Patricia Papernow. A basic tenet of the model is that there are five major structural challenges faced by remarrying partners, and the couple will typically encounter several or all of them. Some of these challenges will be readily recognizable by the reader, but many remarried couples have never even heard of them - although they may be living them out on a daily basis.

The first and very rarely anticipated of the challenges is the powerful impact of Insider/Outsider forces. These forces are a basic, inbuilt feature of remarriage. They tend to shift the members of the couple into opposite positions because their early experiences of the marriage are so different. One partner (the outsider) often feels left out and rejected when the mate's children are on the scene. The other partner (the insider) feels wrenched between his or her lifelong commitment to his or her offspring and the person he or she has fallen in love with and married.

In brief, the insider parent is trying hard to mediate between the way the family used to operate (its habits, rules, routines) and the different ways the outsider partner feels it should operate in the future. To be noted is the fact that in families where both mates bring children to the marriage, these insider/outsider roles can switch around depending on whose youngsters are on the scene.