The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 4 of 4)


So far, we’ve discussed single parenthood through the lens of divorced/separated relationships. Some single parents and their children completely break free from their non-custodial parent/former significant other with minimal anxiety. However, many researchers, such as Ulrike Zartler of the University of Vienna, suggest that most members of single parent families want some kind of unification, either because they miss features of the nuclear (two-parent) family, or because their friends or larger society overtly/covertly suggest that nuclear families create the most successful, healthy families. Therefore, many single-parent families either imitate nuclear families by creating reunification in public or private settings, or attempt to adapt current roles, take on new roles and/or include new custodial members in an attempt to compensate for the contributions of the non-custodial parent.

But what happens if the separation process between parents left severe scars, emotional or physical? Or worse, how do we speak for young widows and widowers?

Take Chas Tenenbaum. Chas’ wife, Rachael, died in a plane accident, and at the beginning of his story, The Royal Tenenbaums, we see Chas (played brilliantly by Ben Stiller) awakening his children to a midnight fire drill, timing his boys’ (Ari and Uzi) efficiency at leaving the home, practicing for another disaster, lest the remaining family members receive a similar fate as their mother. Chas refuses to let his boys talk about their mother, and meets similar resistance when other family members attempt to address her loss.

Zartler, in her article “How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single Parent Families”, published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, mentions a third resilience skill that single-parent families use. Rather than attempt to imitate or compensate two-parent families, they shut out other two-parent families (including their own family members), if not completely withdrawing from the world. Zartler refers to this process of creating boundaries between custodial parent/child and the rest of the world as delimitation, and describes two ways single-parent families can achieve this.

First, they can strive for complete withdrawal.. These families avoid talking about the absence of the non-custodial parents. Children may bring up memories of their absent parent, only to find their custodial parent withdraw into anger or silence; they learn quickly not to bring up the subject again. The closed-lipped approach of the family transfers into the child’s educational and social experiences, where he/she tries to invisibly blend in and say as little as possible to teachers and peers. Many of these parents find themselves in Chas Tenenbaum’s shoes, overprotecting their children from fantastical disasters, closing them off from the outside world in the name of safety.

Second, these single-parent families openly criticize other two-parent families, namely their own. Royal Tenenbaum, Chas’ father, comments on the closed-off family structure of Chas and the boys and tries to take Ari and Uzi out for a day of excitement:

Chas has no idea, by the way, that Royal has encouraged the boys to ride dangerously on moving vehicles and commit misdemeanors with him; nevertheless, when they return, Chas flips out on his father:

Part of the humor of the movie involves the young adult generation of Tenenbaum’s deal with the neuroses of Royal. Royal encouraged his children to become experts in certain fields (Chas was a young stock broker) rather than creating emotional connections with them, so thirty years later, he brings Chas and his siblings to his home as an attempt to make up for lost time. All of the children catch onto Royal’s plot and resist his efforts in some way, but Chas’ resistance toward Royal is the most significant, particularly when Royal attempts to discuss Rachael.

Delimitation is one of the more powerful resilience strategies a person/family can use. If I don’t talk about the pain of separation, I don’t have to think about it, and I can convince myself it didn’t happen. If I don’t let others in, nobody has to get hurt further. Delimitation creates family secrets, where children learn they must hide information from the outside world in order to protect their parents (or themselves). Holding these secrets establishes a dangerous, stress-filled precedent where children learn to hide other bits of information, stunting their ability to develop healthy relationships. Family therapy can be a useful, safe place for these families to share their experiences.


The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 3 of 4)


I just discovered today that Robin Williams will be starring in Mrs. Doubtfire 2, to be released sometime in 2015.

We remember Mrs. Doubtfire–a fun loving, yet fiscally irresponsible dad who turns to geriatric cross-dressing as a way to cope with a pending divorce and the potential inability to not see his three children. Miranda Hillard, played convincingly by Sally Field, struggles to organize her life following separating from her husband, Daniel, and places an advertisement for a babysitter. Daniel, a master of impersonations, creates Mrs. Doubtfire, a Julia Child-esque nanny, who gets the nannying job with her sharp wit, wisdom, and oversized dresses. At first, Mrs. Doubtfire seems content to just connect with the children, taking them for ice cream while encouraging them to get work done around the house. Then, he meets Stu, played by a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan, a gentleman who attempts to wine and dine his ex-wife. The children never connect with Stu, something Mrs. Doubtfire notices, and they attempt to split their mother/ex-wife and her new boyfriend apart, resulting in a catastrophic scene involving cayenne pepper and the Heimlich maneuver.

Mrs. Doubtfire provides a glimpse into the often tortuous process of uncoupling, single parenthood, and recoupling (well, attempted recoupling in this case) and its effects on all members: children, residential parent, and non-residential parent:

We’re thinking this week about the challenges of divorce and single parenting through the research of Ulrike Zartler, an Austrian sociologist, who recently conducted research around the reorganization and resilience strategies of single-parent families. Whereas society seems to stigmatize single-parent families less in the 21st century, Zartler observes that single-parent families attempt to imitate nuclear families by reconstructing a two-parent family structure in public (such as the residential and non-residential parents meeting at a child’s dance recital) and/or private (such as both parents having a joint birthday party or holiday feast). However, not all single-parent families successfully replicate two-parent families due to poor communication or residual anger about the relationship, usually to the dismay of the children.

Zartler writes that almost all single-parent families attempt to compensate for the absence of the non-residential parent.

Sarah had four boys, ranging from ages 6-14. When I started working with them, the father to the youngest two was incarcerated, while the father to the oldest two made occasional cameo appearances, enough to remain on his boys’ radar, but not enough to keep the teenagers from obtaining a consistent irritation with him. (The father to the youngest two would leave prison and re-enter the family about halfway through my work with the family.) Sarah played numerous roles: caretaker of an aging parent, banker, emotional thermostat, chauffeur, human jungle gym (for the younger boys), sparring partner (for the older two). There was one meeting where the older boys attempted to gang up on their mother, resulting in a two-on-one wrestling match involving posturing (from the boys), some impressive escape moves from mom, and lots of laughter. Sarah reminded the boys (and myself) that she plays the role of father and mother, male and female adult to her boys. Many single parents compensate by taking on some of the traditional gender roles and interests of the non-residential parent, especially to match the developmental needs of their opposite-sexed children.

Zartler acknowledges that a single parent’s effort to compensate by attempting to play both gender roles often results in exhaustion and loneliness. Many single parents compensate by bringing in a new partner, with the hope that the new partner can fill the shoes of the non-residential parent in some way. In a worst case scenario, the ineffective pattern of cyclical cohabitation exists,  in which a residential parent invites a merry-go-round of significant others into the home, generally for parental support. I’ve discussed the importance of wariness when involving new romantic interests in single-parent families in other blog posts; Zartler reminds us that when new adults are introduced into the family system appropriately, children perceive them as being helpful in their goals of imitating nuclear families.

Single-parent families also compensate by positively promoting the non-residential parents. This resilience strategy can be useful when the separate parents have negotiated an effective process for co-parenting. However, Zartler noticed that few of the children considered this a resilience strategy, perhaps because of the dissonance between this option and their goals of imitating nuclear families, or perhaps because they remember/have heard about the tension between their parents.

Finally, Zartler identified families that encouraged their children to make relationships with adults in the community. Most of the parents surveyed were single mothers, many of whom elaborated on the positive interactions between their sons and older male role models. Single parents also looked to their own siblings to provide same-gendered relationships for their nieces and nephews; Zartler noticed, however, that a single parent often felt they were burdening a potential aunt of uncle who had their own spouse and/or children. Children also seek out these common-gendered relationships amongst family members and peers, often regardless of the boundaries that single parents try to set around these relationships. Zartler suggests that single parents take the initiative to establish healthy same-gendered relationships with their children.

Whereas imitation is a resilience strategy preferred by children (even though they have limited power over this strategy due to their dependence on the negotiation skills of their parents), compensation strategies are used and preferred primarily by the single parent as he/she adapts and renegotiates his/her own roles within the family while filling in potential gaps for the children.

The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 2 of 4)


My wife and I love Mexican food. We cook it together at least once a week. Whenever we come back to Texas, as I’m located for the weekend, we consume copious amounts of Mexican food within the first 24 hours. (By the way, Dallas readers, may I suggest Amigos in Richardson. Make sure you order the flan and anything involving their avocado sauce.)

When we transplanted to New England, we asked numerous people where to find good Mexican food. We tried one Mexican place in our town, only to find a “salsa bowl” consisting of tomato sauce mixed with pico de gallo. Another place had a similar salsa and unseasoned chicken in their enchiladas. Not impressed, New England.

So when my coworker, Laura, told me about a yummy Mexican food place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (a beautiful town about an hour away from us), I immediately brushed her off. My wife and I drove up to Portsmouth on Memorial Day; Laura continued to lobby for this Mexican place, reminding us that she shares the Southwestern culinary roots that we do. We decided to give it a shot, a last ditched effort for New England’s experimentation with tortillas and salsas to redeem itself.

Needless to say, Vida Cantina, though it’s in a different state than we reside, shot up the list of our favorite restaurants. Mango habanero salsa. Delicious fish tacos. Smooth guacamole. In fact, last month, we went to Canada for a week, and on our way back, we stopped into Vida Cantina again to experience the deliciousness.

And who should we run into but my co-worker Laura. It was a hilarious occurrence. Three Boston residents unencumbered by the potential mess of I-95, seeking out our favorite kinds of food an hour away from home at the same time.

Laura’s mother joined her that evening–her parents recently moved to Portsmouth. In fact, Laura explained that her parents divorced when she was in elementary school. Laura spent most of the time with her mother, and described herself as a holy terror during her adolescence, longing for her parents to connect, disrupting the attempts of her mother to introduce other men into the family, a la Parent Trap.

Eventually, Laura’s parents did reconnect; they got remarried, in fact. Laura explained, “I had the dream that every child of divorce has come true. My parents got back together.”


Ulrike Zartler, a sociologist in Austria, recently visited with numerous single mothers, fathers, and children to evaluate the ways that single-parent families attempt to restructure themselves. Zartler discovered that single-parent families often view themselves in relationship to nuclear families, and develop resilience strategies to attempt to mimic that model.

Single-parent families emerge in a diversity of ways. As stated in a previous blog post, an increasing number of children are born into single parent families, as the relationship between parents never evolves. Some children have the misfortune of having widowed parents. Other children witness the dissolution of the marriage of their parents, in a worst case scenario, allying with one parent against another. Even in these cases, as Dr. Edward Kruk, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, reminds us, “Alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate; despite strongly held positions of alignment, alienated children want nothing more than to be given the permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents.”

Zartler learned that many single-parent families attempt to minimize the reality of having one less person in their home, imitating nuclear families in public and private situations. For instance, a child’s dance recital gets attended by both parents, giving the community the impression that they have a cordial, friendly relationship, even if the parents have to fake it for two hours. Parents seemed more interested in maintaining its image as a nuclear family in public situations, whereas children seemed more indiscriminate about the setting, wanting the family to reconvene its idealized structure behind closed doors. When residential and non-residential families connected behind closed doors, it generally centered around a child’s need: the celebration of a birthday or  holiday (generally Christmas).

The imitation process proves difficult for some families. For instance, if a child wants the non-residential parent to come over for dinner, the residential parent has to agree. Some parents in the study promoted the presentation of a nuclear family in public, but resisted reunifying in private circumstances. Children become dependent on the residential parent to coordinate the event, and experience high internal/external conflict when the parent refuses. Imitating nuclear families works when parents are able to communicate healthily post-separation. When parents are unable to do this, families must rely on other resilience strategies.

The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 1 of 4)


Tomorrow, I’m heading to Texas for a weekend vacation with my family to celebrate my niece’s second birthday. I consider myself fortunate that my parents not only are still married, but seem to have grown closer together the last ten years. They’ve begun to go away on weekend vacations, and it seems that every time I talk with them, they’re telling me about a movie they saw together. Their marriage has its ups and downs, like most marriages, but I knew that when I had an important event, such as a choir concert, I could count on my parents (and my sister) coming together as a family unit.

07divorceI know that many people of my generation have different experiences with their families. The millennial generation is by no means the first to experience higher rates of divorce; this statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that there was one divorce for every two marriages (the 50% statistic) in the late 70s. However, divorce transitioned from a trend to somewhat of a norm during our generation. (Trends are phenomena that happen to a specific generation, such as unbuttoned button-down dress shirts with t-shirts underneath them in the mid-90s. Norms happen when trends become multi-generational.) Nicholas Wolfner reminds us in his 2005 book Understanding the Divorce Cycle that having parents who remarried following a divorce almost doubles ones risk of divorcing themselves. Most sociologists agree, as this statistic suggests, that divorces peaked in the early 90s, when our generation was between the ages of infancy and late elementary school.

Many in our generation experienced single parent families at one point during our childhood, even if their divorced parents ended up remarrying. Recent studies suggest that single parent families are transitioning from trend to norm as well. presents a list of statistics from recent U.S. Census Bureau surveys, including:

  • There are a reported 12 million single parent families in the United States, a number that is probably higher due to under-reporting. 80% of these families are headed by single mothers.
  • 41% of single mothers live in poverty. 9% of married couples live in poverty.
  • Around 50% of single parents have multiple children.
  • A new trend, as discussed in a previous blog post, shows that many single mothers (45% in this study) have never been married.

One of my goals on The Commitment Project is to use research to help reenvision the experiences of the millennial generation. Ulrike Zartler, sociology professor at the University of Vienna, evaluated the relationship between single-parent families and nuclear families (families with both parents present). He observed in the Austrian media (and American media, for that matter) few narratives that triumph single-parent families. Most research, he noticed, talks about the negative impact of divorce rather than positive implications, such as resilience in children and families. For that matter, many movies and television shows paint divorce and single-parenthood as its conflict and identify recoupling as its resolution.

Zartler interviewed 70 Austrian families–some with two-parent structures (either biological or stepparents) and others with single parents. In “How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single Parent Families), published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, Zartler compares and contrasts the processes by which these families construct and adapt their roles and relationships. Research participants described family activities, relationships between all family members, how the family organizes itself, and how the family adapts both throughout the life course and when key members enter and exit.

Zartler learns that single parent families develop three significant coping skills that provide meaning to the structure of their home. Single-parent families imitate nuclear families, compensate for the loss/absence of a missing party, and limit accessibility to the outside world. Over the next three blog posts, I want to flesh out some of these experiences on a narrative level (what these look like) and a practical level (the implications of each of these strategies).

Babies, Shotguns, and a College Degree


My relationship narrative with my wife follows this trajectory: We dated. (For five years.) We were engaged (for a year of those five years). We got married at 24. We moved in together. At some point (maybe), we’ll have children.

When I discuss relationships with 20/30-something New Englanders, both clients and friends, I realize that our relationship path is becoming the minority of coupling experiences. My main research interest concerns the sociology behind increased cohabitation, with my main hypothesis centering around the link between the delay of marriage and our previous generation’s failures with marriage–the “50%” divorce statistic. This interest doesn’t seek moral judgment towards those whose stories fit outside of my narrative, but hopes to inquire further about 21st-century relationship trends.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in 2008, 27% of American infants were born to single mothers not married to nor living with their partner. USA Today reports that around 20% of births during the 2000s involved cohabiting couples.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the kids “song” involving you and so-and-so sitting in a tree. (I heard it ringing any time I overtly flirted with a girl in public when I was between the ages of 7 and 10.) First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes (insert couple’s name here) and a baby carriage.

Dr. Christina Gibson-Davis of Duke collaborated with LSU’s Dr. Heather Rackin to explore the rates by which 21st century couples are changing the order by which they couple, cohabit/marry, and get pregnant. In “Marriage or Carriage? Trends in Union Context and Birth Type by Education”, published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, the sociology professors distinguish between couples that cohabit pre-conception and post-conception, and evaluate the impact of education levels on these processes.

Although the media has accentuated the attempts of Scarlett Johansson, name-your-Kardashian, and others to marry to their baby’s daddy, research suggests that shotgun weddings, marrying post-conception, are declining in rapid numbers. Eight percent of expecting, unmarried couples have gotten married by the time of the child’s birth, while 25% marry within three years. In the 1970s, 29% of unmarried couples had shotgun weddings before the child was born, with 51% marrying within three years. Likewise, as Gibson-Davis and Rackin discover, 45% of first-time mothers were married at the time of their child’s birth in 2008, with 30.5% of first-time mothers cohabiting.

Even though American shotgun weddings are declining, Gibson-Davis and Rackin argue that shotgun weddings (and cohabitations) are becoming a social class issue. They revealed that mothers with high college education (in this study, women at least a Bachelors degree) were far more likely to be married before conceiving than mothers without/with limited college education. Their results echoed previous research stating that cohabiting prior to conception is on the rise in all education classes, but learned that shotgun cohabiting exists primarily for women with limited college education. In fact, these women are three times as likely to cohabit/marry after they are pregnant than before they are pregnant.

There are two implications of this study that I’d like to think about, both here and in future posts.

1) Shotgun weddings/cohabitations are responses of limited volition. Okay, these couples had the choice to have sex, perhaps not use appropriate protection methods, etc. However, the rhetoric behind cohabiting/marrying post-conception is “it’s the right thing to do”, not necessarily for the couple, but for the baby, under the assumption that having two parents present for the child is better than having one. How many of these couples commit to each other out of moral responsibility rather than independent choice, and how successful are these relationships, especially given what we know about the importance of the coupling process?

2) Education increases the volition of women. There are numerous studies that support this notion. For instance, 70% of women with associates degrees participate in the workforce, as opposed to only 30% of women who did not complete high school and 50% who only have a high school certification. I use the word “volition” because relationships tend to fail when partners report “feeling stuck” in certain roles in their relationship. Their volition has been compromised, if not eliminated. Women with higher levels of education seem to begin their relationships with greater volition–in this study, the capacity to plan the order of milestones in their relationships, including the ability to plan for a child.

The Dutch, Repartnering, and Sex Education (part 2 of 2)


My parents have stated that my experiences have shaped and opened up their own paradigms. For instance, prior to becoming a therapist, I worked at a church for five years, a church that had quite different social and theological perspectives than the church I grew up at. Each time that they visited my church, they acknowledged new things that they hadn’t thought about before, opening them to explore the impact of, for example, feminism and the church.

The reality is I didn’t teach my parents anything; we experienced life and grew together based on these circumstances. Glen Elder, professor of sociology at UNC, describes this phenomenon, where the parental and sibling generations of a family experience similar things at the same time, as “linked lives“.

As family therapists, we generally witness the unproductive ways generations link their lives. The anxious child who struggles to set boundaries with her peers often have anxious parents who struggle to set boundaries with their peers. Siblings who fight incessantly often have parents who have high conflict. “Linked lives” speaks to the parallel processes by which parental and sibling generations respond to significant events and stressors.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Katya Ivanova of the University of Amsterdam chaired a study of restructured families (families where partners have separated or divorced, for instance) to determine the impact the process of restructuring has on adolescents and their sexual development. Her research team learned that teenagers are more likely to have earlier and higher quantities of sexual experiences as their mothers initiated romantic relationships. The interviewed adolescents reported less physical supervision and opportunities for emotional connection when their mothers pursued romantic relationships, so they sought emotional support from their peers, often by creating their own sexual experiences. A repartnering custodial parent’s life becomes linked through his/her child’s as they both sought out emotional and sexual confirmation.

This research isn’t intended to prevent custodial parents from dating again; rather, it seeks to accentuate the presence of this parallel process so that parents and teenagers can have more healthy conversations about sexuality. Here are five tips that can improve communication and adolescent sexual development for restructured families:

1) The needs of your children come first. If you decide to pursue a dating relationship, let them know about your decision. Rather than giving reasons that support your decision, ask about their feelings concerning you dating. Conversations about relationships and sexuality need to be initiated by the custodial parent.

2) Prioritize dates with your teenagers before you prioritize dates with your significant other. Take your teenager out for a meal or movie, or have a game night, and make sure that the first dates you put in your calendar are important events to your teenager (i.e. sporting events, concerts). Teenagers view “time with” as a far more valuable commodity than “money spent on”.

3) Focus on the functionality of sex, not the morality. For example, If you intend to have sex with your dates, but promote abstinence toward your teenager, you’ve placed them in a double bind. Your teenager will figure this out and either call you on it and/or increase the likelihood of accessing their own sexual experiences. Discuss with your teenager what anatomical parts are and how to put on a condom.

4) Involve the non-custodial parent. Involving both parents and genders increases the likelihood that teenagers will have a higher competency around sexuality and remind teenagers that both parents are emotionally supportive.

5) Set appropriate boundaries around your own relational/sexual experience. On the one hand, your teenager doesn’t need to know that your new partner kissed you (or, for that matter, had sex with you). Your own home doesn’t need to be the place of sexual encounters as long as the teenager is home. On the other hand, your teenager needs to if you’ll be out for the evening.


The Dutch, Repartnering, and Sex Education (part 1 of 2)


I had an unexpected break in the middle of my afternoon yesterday, so I spent several hours watching the Argentina-Netherlands game. I’m rooting for all the North/South American teams, so I was hoping that Lionel Messi and company would catch fire. I was also terrified of the following, especially after this man owned the Netherlands-Costa Rica game.

Fortunately, Argentina’s midfield and fullbacks contained Arjen Robben until the end of regular time, where the Argentine keeper made a brilliant save. The Dutch, once again, failed to win the World Cup.


Today, I want to reflect on an area where the Dutch consistently excel: sex education.

Three years ago, Amy Schalet, a sociology professor at UMass, published a study comparing American and Dutch sex education. In her book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, Schalet explains that Dutch families will set up co-ed sleepovers between their teenagers and the teenager’s significant other, with the expectation that they will have sex. The parents of both teenagers meet to negotiate the setting for the sexual experience and give a blessing to their teenagers to enjoy their bodies.

Schalet writes in a NYT post, “The Dutch experience suggests that it is possible for families to stay connected when teenagers start having sex, and that if they do, the transition into adulthood need not be so painful for parents or children.” Research seems to support this sentiment: for instance, in 2008, 27% of American infants were born to single mothers not married to or living with their partner, compared to a mere 8% of Dutch infants.

Regardless of your position and coinciding anxieties about the sleepover option, it makes a fascinating arena for research about teenage sexuality, family structure, and sexual development.

For example, Katya Ivanova of the University of Amsterdam co-published a study correlating teenagers’ initial sexually intimate experiences with varying kinds of family structure. In “Parental Residential and Partnering Transitions and the Initiation of Adolescent Romantic Relationships”, which was published in June’s Journal of Marriage and the Family, Ivanova explores the relationship between the number of family structure changes (such as separation, divorce, repartnering) and the likelihood of a teenager having more sexual experiences. (Note: The statistic about 8% of Dutch infants comes from this article.)

Ivanova and her colleagues interviewed around 1500 teenagers, asking them questions about their family communication patterns, the presence of parental transitions, exits, and entrances, and initial sexual experiences. They confirmed previous research which states that teenagers are more likely to encounter more sexual experiences when there are higher amounts of family structural changes, suggesting that teenagers look to other sources for emotional security during times of family restructuring.

Sexual initiation by teenagers is most likely to happen when their mothers initiate their own romantic relationships. (Interestingly, not their fathers, although the researchers acknowledge the fact that fathers are often non-custodial in restructured families may play into their findings.) The interviewed teenagers acknowledge that their mothers (or custodial parents) spend less time with them as they pursue their own romantic interests, leaving the teenagers with more unsupervised time, less emotional connection to their parents, and more reason to emotionally/sexually connect with others.

In part 2, we’ll think about practical ways to improve communication and adolescent sexual development for families that have restructured. Between now and then, what are some of your thoughts on how to do this?