A key element of the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF’s) strategy for implementing the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) has been to identify subpopulations that would benefit from specialized program approaches. This report presents a conceptual framework for programs meant to promote stable and healthy marriages among one important subgroup, stepfamilies. Specifically, our charge from ACF was to focus on low-income married couples where one or both spouses have children by other partners. The conceptual framework is based on a review of the research literature on stepfamilies and on an informal study of marriage education programs currently serving stepfamilies.
Stepfamily couples (i.e., “stepcouples”) have become common as a result of recent rates of divorces, remarriages, and first marriages following out-of-wedlock births. Stepcouples face a variety of unique challenges which put them at higher risk for dissolution than non-stepfamily couples. These challenges arise in part from complex relationships in the family with stepchildren, former partners, and half- and stepsiblings. Problems stemming from these complexities also put children in stepfamilies at greater risk for negative outcomes than children in nuclear families (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2003). Existing marriage education programs do not address these unique stresses for stepfamilies in depth.
While not all stepfamilies have low income, risks for stepcouples are magnified in the context of lower economic resources. Couples experiencing economic strain face additional stresses arising from financial difficulties and other personal and environmental challenges accompanying limited resources (e.g., (Conger & Elder, 1994; Conger, Rueter, & Elder, 1999). Therefore, low-income stepcouples are a high-need target population for HMI programs and services.