Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Stepfamily Life Cycle Stages


Fantasy – Members often have unrealistic expectations of immediate family congruence. One myth involves the notion of instant love. Parents often enter into the marriage with the expectation that the new spouse and children will immediately feel for one another like he/she feels toward both groups.

Immersion – Reality of the stepfamily structure is felt, especially for the stepparent; stepparents at this stage usually occupy an outsider position to the biological parent, child, and perhaps the ex-spouse relationships. It is not uncommon for biological parents to integrate the stepparent into the family through a disciplinary role. This will typically lead to more conflict and dissatisfaction with relationships that may have previously been positive.

Awareness – Fantasies of an instant family are given up, including the expectation of the stepparent to acquire an insider position quickly. It is essential that the family participate in the process of establishing relationships prior to the stepparent occupying parental roles.


Mobilization – Stepparents begin speaking up about needs for inclusion and change. The biological parent oftentimes feels caught in the middle between the new spouse and children with the expectation from both groups to "fix" the problem. The frustration and anxiety felt by the biological parent when caught in the middle may lead that parent to step away from the problem. However, it is a crucial time for the parent to focus on occupying the primary parental role.

Action - Renegotiation occurs and new rules are established. As relationships are established and trust is developed especially with the stepparent and children, new ways of operating can be negotiated. These contribute to the development of a sense of family.


Contact – After the foregoing major structural changes, a clearly defined stepparent role emerges. Stepparents can contribute to parental responsibilities and be accepted by all members of the household. This does not mean that outside sources (former spouse, extended family) will not "interfere" with this. The relationships established will assist the family in managing outside negative influences.

Resolution – Norms have been established and the family has solid and reliable stepfamily relationships. There is a sense of ownership and commitment to the new family by all members. Effort is made to preserve the harmony that has been established.

These stages are helpful is assessing where a stepfamily is in the stepfamily formation process. However, we would suggest that to be the most useful, a combination of both of these models for consideration is needed. In other words, where a family is, based on the age of the children and the parents as a family unit, will have an impact and influence how a family progresses through or even utilizes the stages of the stepfamily cycle as described by Papernow. Consideration should be given to the life cycle of the children in how the family negotiates the development of the stepfamily system.

Carter and McGoldrick (1999) stated: "As the first marriage signifies the joining of two families, so a second marriage involves the interweaving of three, four, or more families whose previous life cycle courses have been disrupted by death or divorce. So complex is the process of forming a remarried family that we have come to think of this process as adding another whole phase to the family life cycle." (p. 417)

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies