Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Differing Family Histories

Stepfamily members have different family histories. Ahrons & Perlmutter (1982) discussed the struggles of stepfamilies as they are trying to determine new patterns of interaction. During this time the stepfamily is struggling to develop a common sense of family and identity as a unit. It often feels artificial for stepfamilies because they do not have a shared culture or shared rules for interacting. The stepparent is a key figure in the family yet does not share in the memories or history of the other members. This can be one way to exclude this new person from the family. Children often wish for their parents to reunite and the "remember when" stories are a way to stay connected to the original family.

People generally feel more attached to those they are more familiar. Many stepfamilies come together with members being strangers to one another. They often do not allow enough time to become familiar with one another. The bonds shared with those one knows are stronger than those they have not lived with previously. When stepfamilies face conflict or crisis events they will often divide along biological lines. Allowing time for the stepfamily to develop individual and family relationships is an important process when helping the new family remain a family unit when faced with challenges. This allows the opportunity to create positive new experiences which can become a shared history.

Formation Through Loss

Stepfamilies are formed due to previous losses experienced by both the adults and children. The adults have lost a previous romantic partner through death or divorce and children may have lost contact with one parent through death or divorce. They may also be separated from siblings, peers, and extended family. The families have a sense of lost opportunities, dreams, relationships, family identity and role expectations. There may also be a change in financial stability resulting in difficult decisions to overcome this. It is important for the clinician to assess the family's progress through mourning/resolving these losses before moving on to help the members create a sense of family connectedness.

New Spousal Bond and Incongruent Life Cycles

Parent-child bonds are older than adult partner (spousal) bonds. The couple relationship often feels more fragile than the parent- child relationship. In general, marriages are stronger when the couple devotes time to nurturing their relationship. When marriage occurs before children this is more likely to occur. However with stepfamilies the children's relationship with the parent is already established. Typically in families adults devote much time to meeting the needs of the children and neglect their own relationship. This occurs in stepfamilies with greater consequences to the spousal bond. When stepfamily couples fail to take time to nurture their separate relationship, this bond becomes more tenuous. When conflict occurs, it becomes more likely that divisions along biological lines will occur. Visher & Visher (1996) discuss how the powerful emotion of guilt felt by couples who remarry often contributes to inadequate bonding. They go on to state that "remarried parents frequently have feelings that developing a primary relationship with their new partner is a betrayal of the relationship they have had with their children ever since their births." Successful stepfamilies are created when there is a devotion to securing the couple bond. In addition this nurturing of the relationship is a positive model for children. When they are able to experience this from their parents, their sense of family security is enhanced.

When considering life cycle development, one must take into account the interaction of individual, family and marital life cycles. By virtue of their formation, stepfamilies are often incongruent. For biological families there is a natural progression from marriage, nurturance of the couple relationship, to birth and development of children, career development and advancement, transition of children out of the home, and dealing with natural aging process of nuclear and extended family members. For stepfamilies, the couple may be at different individual stages. The marital stage involves children and the children may be more interested in independence than family connectedness. In addition, family losses are present in varying degrees. Stepfamilies are typically facing more transitions creating stress on the individual, marital and family development. It is important for the clinician to attend to the many paths members are negotiating.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies