Stepfamilies are common throughout the industrialized world. In the US nearly everyone marries, and about half of the marriages include at least one previously married partner (US Census Bureau 2000). Most divorced people in other western countries also either remarry or cohabit, but at lower rates than in the US. About half of the remarriages involve adults who have children.
Because not all remarriages involve parents, remarriages and stepfamily formation are not the same. A stepfamily is a cohabiting or legal union of two adults, at least one of whom has a child or children from previous relationships. According to Fields (2001), about 17 percent of all children in the US live in a stepfamily household, usually with a stepfather and mother. An estimated 30 percent of children in the US will live in a stepfamily household before they become adults. A large number of children who live primarily with a single mother also visit a remarried or cohabiting father.
Although stepfamilies have been common throughout history, they have not been studied until relatively recently. Until past the midpoint of the twentieth century, remarriage was considered the solution to a social problem. When divorce rather than bereavement became the most common precursor to remarriage and step family formation (around 1974), stepfamily formation became viewed as a social problem. This view appeared to stimulate both research and clinical work (Ganong & Coleman 2004). Most stepfamily research has been done since 1990 (Coleman et al. 2000). These studies offered marked improvement over previous work: samples were more representative, large scale longitudinal studies were launched that allowed us to examine family process, more observational research was conducted, measurement was greatly improved, and there was increased use of theory. However, little attention has yet been paid to racial, ethnic, or SES diversity.
The most frequently studied phenomena have been the effects on children of living in stepfamilies. These studies generally have reported that stepchildren, on average, are slightly more at risk for externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, do less well in school, and are less likely to form stable couple relationships as adults than are children who grow up living with both parents. However, the differences between stepchildren and children in first marriage families tend to be small, and most stepchildren (about 80 percent) function normally on psychological, cognitive, and inter personal outcomes. The research emphasis primarily has been on documenting problems in stepfamilies – sometimes called a deficit comparison approach. In recent years, more researchers have begun to explore how and why some stepfamilies function well and others do not, using what has been called a normative adaptive approach.
Numerous reasons for problems in stepfamilies have been offered, but one of the more widely known is Cherlin’s (1978) seminal work that described families formed after remarriage as incomplete institutions. Cherlin argued that stepfamilies lack institutionalized guidelines and support in solving family problems, and as a result they have more problems than do first marriage families. Research in general has lent some support for this hypothesis. A contributing factor to the incomplete institutionalization of stepfamilies is nuclear family ideology. This means that there are strong cultural biases that families should live in nuclear families, and those who do not conform to this model are deficient and/or deviant. The nuclear family ideology creates social stigma that appears to result in many stepfamilies attempting to hide their status and to act as if they were a nuclear family (e.g., stepchildren using their stepfather’s surname even though it is not their legal sur name), which may only further contribute to their feelings of isolation or being different. Negative media images and language negatively stereotyping stepfamilies and stepfamily members (e.g., ‘‘the parks system is the stepchild of city government’’) continue to be a problem as well. Stepparents are motivated to adopt step children, in part, to convert a step relationship legally into a parent–child relationship, thereby avoiding stigma and acquiring norms for guiding their relationship.
People who remarry differ from those in first marriage families in several ways. For example, individuals who remarry are older, engage in shorter courtships, and are more likely to have children from previous relationships. They also are more likely than couples in first marriages to marry someone who is different from themselves in various ways (age, race, religion, SES). In the US, whites are more likely to remarry than other racial groups, divorced adults tend to remarry other people who have been divorced, and men remarry more quickly and at a higher rate than women. On average, people in the US remarry within 4 years of divorce. Additionally, individuals cohabit or remarry quickly, often within months of beginning a relationship. Approximately 75 percent of remarried couples cohabit before legally remarrying; increasingly, couples in all western cultures are cohabiting in lieu of legal remarriage. We know little about how decisions to remarry or cohabit are made.
Until the late 1970s, clinicians basically treated stepfamilies as though they were the same as first marriage families, which, perhaps not surprisingly, resulted in stepfamily members reporting that therapy was not helpful. Early work by clinicians such as Goldner, Sager, and John and Emily Visher identified a number of ways in which stepfamilies are different from first marriage families. For example, stepfamilies are more complex than nuclear families and this complexity either can be exciting and challenging or it can be overwhelming to family members. Contributing to this complexity is the fact that children often belong to two households. They typically have their primary residence with their mother and stepfather, but increasingly also are likely to spend significant amounts of time with their father and step mother. Because of this often legally mandated sharing of children between the two households, if stepfamilies are to function well, they need to have permeable boundaries that allow children to move in and out of the household comfortably.
Stepfamilies’ histories differ from those of nuclear families. In nuclear families the parents have been together from the beginning and over time they have developed roles, rituals, family rules, and other patterns of behavior to which children are socialized. Stepfamilies, however, can form any time in a child’s lifetime, from infancy to adulthood. Adults in stepfamilies do not have the luxury of gradually developing family routines and rituals together before they socialize children. Instead, adults and children in stepfamilies find they must negotiate their new household rules and routines while they are learning how to live together. Without clear and frequent communication, the opportunities for hurt feelings and oppositional behavior are great. Children seldom appreciate new rules, especially if they come from the stepparent. They also may miss the rituals from their previous family household and be unenthusiastic about developing new ones, especially when the stepfamily household is first formed.
Still another way that stepfamilies differ from first marriage families is that the parent– child bonds are older than the spousal bonds. This means that at least during the early formation of the stepfamily, the parent–child bond is likely to be the closest one. As a result, it is often difficult for the stepparent to feel a part of the family early in the stepfamily’s life. Fortunately, over time, most stepparents develop step relationships and find functions that they can fulfill in the household. For example, a stepparent may become the math homework expert or the tennis teaching expert in the family. Stepparents who try to fill more traditional parental roles such as disciplinarian are more likely to find their efforts meet with resistance. Clinicians suggest that the genetic parent should be the main disciplinarian for quite some time and that the stepparent should enforce household rules, such as bedtime, in much the same way that a babysitter might enforce them. If the stepparent takes on the role of disciplinarian too soon, without a relationship being formed with stepchildren, coalitions are likely to form between the children or between the parent and the children. Such coalitions weaken the couple bond and seriously hamper stepfamily functioning and stability.
Finally, legal relationships between stepparents and stepchildren either do not exist or are ambiguous. This means that a stepparent does not have the legal authority to check a child into the emergency room if there is an accident. It also means that if the parent and stepparent divorce, the stepparent no longer has any rights regarding the stepchild. If the parent does not want the child to see or keep in touch with the stepparent, the stepparent must abide by the parent’s wishes. The effect that the lack of a legal relationship has on the stepparent– stepchild bond has not been fully explored, but some scholars have speculated that it might hinder efforts by stepparents to develop close relationships with stepchildren.
Evolutionary scholars posit that it is not the lack of a legal relationship that contributes to stepparents investing less emotionally in their stepchildren, it is the lack of a genetic tie that results in low investment. Their view is that men who treat their stepchildren well do so only to impress the children’s mother rather than out of an interest in the children’s well-being. Evolutionary scholars propose that individuals want to protect and invest in their own offspring, so stepchildren are at much greater risk of child abuse and neglect than children living with both parents. There is evidence that children who live in a household that includes an adult who is not their genetic parent are at greater risk of abuse than those who live with their genetic parents only, but stepparents (usually stepfathers) are categorized with mothers’ boyfriends, uncles, grandfathers, and a host of other adults who share the mother’s home. There also is speculation that there are fewer barriers to reporting a stepfather or other household member for child abuse than for reporting a parent. Regardless, some stepchildren are abused by stepparents, and this has caused a few social scientists to accuse parents who remarry of engaging in child abuse by placing their children at risk! This argument is an extreme overreaction that perpetuates harmful stereotypes that may negatively contribute to stepfamily process. Other, perhaps more plausible reasons for stepchildren faring slightly less well than children in first marriage families have to do with stress (the cumulative effect of multiple family changes and transitions), poor quality parenting by parents who are too stressed to competently monitor their children, and conflicts (between divorced parents and within stepfamily households).
In addition to differences between nuclear families and stepfamilies, there are numerous differences among stepfamilies. Stepfamily con figurations are diverse. For example, stepfather families are different from stepmother families, and they both differ from complex households in which both adults are stepparents to each other’s children. Additionally, it makes a difference if a stepfamily is formed following the death of a parent, following parental divorce, or if the parent had never been married. The sibling configuration within stepfamilies makes a difference as well. Some stepfamily households contain only full siblings, often the children of the mother. Blended stepfamily households contain children from previous relationships of both adults. These children are stepsiblings that share a residence but have no genetic ties. Many step family households have at least one half sibling. These children are a product of the remarried couple, and they share one genetic parent in common with the other children in the house hold. To add further complexity, some stepfamilies may have children living with them as well as with the other parent. If a stepfamily adult has shared physical custody of children from prior relationships, children move in and out of the stepfamily household. Stepfamily variations seem almost endless and this complexity has created tremendous research challenges.
In spite of the challenges, there has been an increase in studies in the past decade. However, more longitudinal studies are needed to explore how stepfamily processes change over time. We also need more within group studies to replace the deficit comparison approach so that we gain a better understanding of how strong stepfamilies function. Additionally, we need qualitative studies that provide in depth understanding of stepfamily members’ experiences. We lack information about family processes in cohabiting stepfamilies. Although there has been a large number of studies on residential step father/stepchild relationships, stepmothers and nonresidential stepparents have received little attention from researchers. Stepsibling relationships, relationships between stepchildren and stepgrandparents, and mother–child relationships in stepfamilies have been overlooked as well. Finally, researchers need to continue to develop more innovative designs that capture the complexity of remarriage and stepfamilies.
- Cherlin, A. J. (1978) Remarriage as an Incomplete Institution. American Journal of Sociology 84: 634-50.
- Coleman, M., Ganong, L., & Fine, M. (2000) Reinvestigating Remarriage: Another Decade of Progress. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1288-307.
- Fields, P. (2001) Living Arrangements of Children 1996. Current Population Reports, pp. 70 4. US Census Bureau, Washington, DC.
- Ganong, L. & Coleman, M. (2004) Stepfamily Relationships. Kluwer/Plenum, New York.
- Papernow, P. (1993) Becoming a Stepfamily. Jossey- Bass, San Francisco.
- Visher, E. B. & Visher, J. S. (1996) Therapy with Stepfamilies. Brunner/Mazel, New York.