Most people in this day and age understand that the stepfamily is a pretty complex structure. The following explores its complexity:
THE STEPFAMILY IS COMPLEX
The structural characteristics which are unique to stepfamilies are:
There is no blood tie between some family members. This is a fundamental characteristic of all stepfamilies.
The stepfamily is born of loss: individuals have suffered important losses such as relationships, community, unfulfilled hopes for the original marriage and family.
All individuals in the stepfamily come together with previous family histories. Initially there are no shared family experiences or traditions.
The stepfamily is constructed differently. An adult (and possibly children) is added to a previously established parent/child relationship. The parent /child relationship predates the couples relationship.
There is a biological parent elsewhere in actuality or in memory, with power and influence over family members.
Stepfamily boundaries are unclear. Children are members of two households if They have contact with both biological parents. Parental authority, decisions and financial contributions are often shared between two households.
Stepparent/stepchild bonding is not necessarily established. The major stepparent commitment is often to their partner not to his or her children.
Roles which are not ascribed through a blood tie need to be achieved over time.
Membership in a stepfamily can be unclear and is defined by an individual’s perceptions which change over time.
Sexuality can be heightened – appropriately (between the new couple) or inappropriately (between other family members).
The legal situation in stepfamilies is ambiguous: little legal relationship exists between stepparents and stepchildren; inheritance issues can be complicated.
Stepfamilies are often combining several family life cycle stages simultaneously e.g. bringing together teenagers and toddlers.
These differences mean that the stepfamily is structurally very dissimilar to both the nuclear and single parent family, and that it is certainly considerably more complex than either.
Used by permission: Gerrard, I. & Howden, M., (1998) Making Stepfamilies Work , Stepfamily Assoc. Vic., This handout may be copied for not-for-profit use only, provided the original meaning is retained and credit is given to the copyright owners. www.stepfamily.org.au