Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Complexity of Roles in Stepfamilies

One topic that is not listed specifically in the table of Stepfamily Characteristics, but is an important issue is that of roles. The concept of role is referring to parts that are played in the family by different members. These can be either assumed characters by each individual, or a part that is being played mainly due to performing some function.

All families and every individual either assume or are designated to carry out a variety of roles in their lives. In most cases, very definite functions and responsibilities are associated with those roles. For example, parents are expected to care for their children, especially mothers. Children are expected to accept rules and discipline from their parents. Societal and cultural rules also impose gender roles on each member. In Western society, it is the woman that is expected to be the family caretaker and is the main hub for relationship maintenance (Ganong and Coleman, 2004). In stepfamilies, as opposed to first marriage families, these roles become more complex due to the increased opportunities for members to occupy a variety of roles. That is to say, there are more roles to be filled, responsibilities to take on, and a great deal more uncertainty about all of these additional roles.

For example, a single mother with one child who marries a man who also has children from a previous relationship is now a mother, a stepmother, and a spouse. These two new roles not only add complexity to the single mother's life, but they can often create a great deal of role conflict and role ambiguity. Many times, a woman in such a situation would be caught between the spouse and the mother role. Both the new partner and the child will vie for attention creating conflict between members of the family. In addition, the stepchildren will also need attention in order to develop the relationship with their stepmother. This competition for time and attention creates role conflict for the individual. How does she choose? Is she a wife first? Is she a mother first? What about stepmother? She already has a relationship with her child and spouse, so perhaps the most energy needs to be applied to the stepchildren. It is easy to understand how this can quickly create chaos for any individual in this situation. However, it is the hardest for the stepmother role because of the added societal expectations of being the family caretaker. Ganong and Coleman( 2004) summarize this concept as "mothers may feel caught between their children and their spouses and overwhelmed by mother/spouse role conflict" (p. 116).

Visher and Visher (1996) suggest that one way to deal with this conflict is to ensure that each individual in the stepfamily receives one-on-one time with each other. This is recommended not only to enhance the couple relationship, but also the parent-child relationship and the stepparent-stepchild relationship. Actual planned time for dyadic interaction can be extremely helpful in developing and maintaining relationships in the stepfamily. In particular, the stepparent-stepchild relationship can also include role ambiguity. It is very unclear in our society how that relationship is to be handled. Even though stepfamilies have existed for most of history, no norms for this relationship exist. The expectation of instant love exits, but role definition is highly variable.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies