What do step families look like?
Source: Melinda Varga (Links to an external site.)
Developing an understanding of what a step family looks like is what we will do in this first week. As such, the textbook begins by describing the demographic data of a typical stepfamily and divorce and remarriage has impacted the trajectory of stepfamilies. While blended or stepfamilies can occur within many cultural backgrounds, because there is little to no research on diverse groups, this text will focus on the Latino, African American, gay and lesbian stepfamilies.
Moving forward in this chapter, this week will process the myths that surround stepfamilies and take time to deconstruct those myths.
Week 1: Lecture
While stepfamily numbers are increasing every day, the actual demographic data is much harder to pin down accurately. For example, there are about 35 million Americans in blended households due to remarriages or other couplings. One third of all marriages in the US can be attributed to the creation of stepfamilies. The numbers alone show the trend has no end in sight. According to the text, the end result is that 33% of all Americans are in stepfamily relationships, including an estimated 10 million stepchildren under the age of 18.
As you read this section of chapter 1, make note of all the the demographic numbers and the implications for those percentages. Pay attention to the remarriage rates, the divorce rates and the likelihood of 2nd marriages. All of these percentages have a direct correlation to the blended family creation and recreation. Moreover, the videos provided offer a glimpse in the blended family dynamics in 1st person narratives.
Step Family Demographic Data
Some demographic statistics are relevant to understanding the stepfamily numbers. Unless otherwise noted, the data are from the U.S. Census Bureau (2007), the most recent data available.
· About 35 million Americans in the U.S. are remarried.
· An additional 36 million Americans are divorced or widowed (possibly finding themselves in a remarriage at some point).
· About 46% of all marriages today are a remarriage for one or both partners, and about 65% of remarriages involve children from the prior marriage, and thus, form stepfamilies.
Narratives: Step Family Members Describe Their Own Lives
As a child, Tami Butcher grew up with what she lovingly refers to as her “bonus mom,” a nurturing, caring woman many in society would refer to as a “stepmother.” Tami’s parents amicably divorced when she was 11, and for the sake of Butcher and her three sisters, decided to keep each other fully involved in their children’s lives despite the divorce. Eventually both her parents remarried, but they continued to share birthdays, holidays, and special times together with their children, as well as with their new spouses. Because of her parents’ efforts, Butcher and her sisters grew up feeling blessed for having two moms and dads instead of “stepparents.”
Issues of Cultural Diversity
As was mentioned in the introduction, this text will discuss four culturally distinct groups in regards to stepfamilies where the research is lacking. As you read through chapter one be sure to note the data with regards to Latinos, African American, gay and lesbian stepfamilies. Each of these groups has been traditionally under-reported and underrepresented due to mainstream research focusing on white non-black, non–brown, and non-homosexual families, when the number bear out a different story. For example, Latinos currently made up 12.5% of the total U.S. population, and these numbers are expected to grow to 24.4% by 2050 (Reck, Bigginbotham, Skogrand, & Davis, 2012). Moreover, it has been reported that 16% of Latino children are members of stepfamilies (Inhinger-Tallman & Cooney, 2005).
If that was not bad enough, the text further shines a light on the fact that few research studies in general focus on racial and ethnic diversity, and that this lack of focus is due to how the family is defined by mainstream researchers. For example, the studies show that many African American families participate as a family through cohabitation and common law arrangements where children often result. However, these types of family constellations are not counted as family units. Hence, the lack of accurate data representation.
Missing data is a missed opportunity to generalize the data to more families. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau figures published reported an underestimated number of stepchildren; only one “householder” is identified for census purposes, and the children could be those of the spouse but are not counted, as those children may not be the biological children of the identified head of household (Gold, 2016).
While the demographics of the families have gone under-reported and unrepresented, these step family challenges will often present in a similar fashion as other groups. However, it is important to note, that there will be major differences, especially when considering the counseling relationship. In order to provide culturally responsive counseling, the alternate realities of diverse step families need to be taken into account. A new normal is created and valued allowing for reasonable expectations to arise. This realization will take the counselor relationship far in terms of honoring the strengths that are unique to these populations.
Myths About Stepfamilies
If the only view of stepfamilies was from the fairy tale Cinderella, you would most certainly have a distorted view of what life is and can be like in blended family homes. Chapter 1 discusses 5 key myths that surround stepfamilies and subsequently hinders the functioning of those families. As you review the myths, consider the implication of those myths from the family’s perspective and yours.
Traditionally, the word myth is defined as a story that helps to explain or unfold historical events to people regarding a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. The myths that surround step families are no different. The five (5) myths noted in the text discuss the most common myths or misconceptions that the family members and their friends may have about how step families develop and grow. These myths speak to a narrative that says transitions should be simple and easy to manage with little no residual issues. Moreover, the myths do not allow for the complexities of the family dynamics to be honored. In addition, while challenges are sure to be there for both the adults and the children, the damage is not permanent. Also, the children are allowed to have bonds with the stepparent and the nonresidential parent. Replacement is not the only option. As you review the myths consider the implication of those myths from the family’s perspective and yours as a counselor-in-training. Also, consider your role in deconstructing the myths through process skills as a counselor in training. What are the implications for use of this new knowledge?
Five Common Myths About Stepfamilies
Five of the most common myths about stepfamilies are described in the section that follows (Jones, 2003):
· Myth #1: Stepfamily blending happens quickly
· Myth #2: A stepfamily is the same as a first marriage family
· Myth #3: Children whose parents divorce and remarry are damaged permanently
· Myth #4: Children need to withdraw from their nonresidential parent to bond with a stepparent
· Myth #5: Remarriages that follow a death go more smoothly than those that occur after a divorce
A Portrait of Stepfamilies
Today, more than four-in-ten American adults have at least one step relative in their family – either a stepparent, a step or half sibling or a stepchild, according to a nationwide Pew Research Center survey. People with step relatives are just as likely as others to say that family is the most important element of their life. However, they typically feel a stronger sense of obligation to their biological family members (be it a parent, a child or a sibling) than to their step relatives, the survey finds.
Several sweeping changes in the demography of American family life in the past half century – including increases in divorce and in the share of babies born out of wedlock – have contributed to the prevalence of step relatives.
Among the 2,691 adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center from October 1-21, 2010, 42% say they have at least one step relative. Three-in-ten have a step or half sibling, 18% have a living stepparent, and 13% have at least one stepchild.1
Having a stepfamily is not something most people anticipate or plan for, and that is reflected in the survey findings. When asked whether their family life has turned out about as they expected or if it is different than they expected, a 54% majority of those who have at least one step relative say things have turned out differently than they expected. This compares with only 41% of those who have no step relatives.
However, different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Seven-in-ten adults who have at least one step relative say they are very satisfied with their family life. Those who don’t have any step relatives register slightly higher levels of family satisfaction (78% very satisfied).
In the Pew Research survey, all married adults were asked to compare the closeness of their own marriage with that of their parents’ marriage when they were growing up. Among married adults with no step relatives, 45% say their marriage is closer than their parents’ marriage was, while 50% say their marriage is about the same as their parents’. By contrast, among married adults who have step siblings or stepparents – many of whom presumably had divorced parents –more than six-in-ten say their marriage is closer than their parents’ marriage was, while roughly 30% say it’s about the same.
Stepfamilies can be found among young and old, black and white, and rich and poor. However, there is a distinct demographic pattern in the incidence of stepfamilies among American adults. Young people, blacks, and those without a college degree are significantly more likely to have step relatives. Among those under age 30, more than half (52%) report that they have at least one step relative. This compares with 40% of those ages 30 and older (including only 34% of those ages 65 and older).
This is not surprising given that young adults are much more likely than their older counterparts to have grown up with parents who were not married. In the Pew Research survey, 36% of those under age 30 said during the time they were growing up their parents were either divorced, separated or were never married. This compares with 21% of those ages 30-49 and only 10% of those ages 50 and older.
A higher share of blacks than whites or Hispanics have step family members. Among black adults interviewed in the Pew Research survey, 60% have at least one step relative. This compares with 46% of Hispanics and 39% of whites. The biggest gap between blacks and whites is in the proportion of each that has step or half siblings. Some 45% of black adults report having at least one step or half sibling, compared with 26% of whites. Roughly the same proportion of blacks and whites have a living stepparent. And blacks are somewhat more likely than whites to have stepchild.
Among blacks, there is a large gap in the percentage of men and women who report that they have stepchildren. One-in-four black men (24%) say they have a step child, compared with 14% of black women. Black men are also much more likely than white (15%) or Hispanic men (7%) to say they have stepchildren.
In addition to age and race, socioeconomic status is linked to the prevalence of stepfamilies. Only a third of college graduates say they have at least one step relative. By contrast, 46% of those without a college degree have a step relative. Similarly, stepfamilies are less common among those with higher household incomes. While 36% of those with annual incomes of $75,000 or higher say they have at least one step relative, 43% of those making between $30,000-$74,999, and fully half of those with annual incomes of less than $30,000 say they have step family members.
Previous Pew Research Center analysis revealed a steady decline over the past 50 years in the share of American adults who are married.2 According to that analysis, the falloff in marriage rates has been more dramatic among certain demographic groups – and those are the same groups that are more likely to be living in stepfamilies today.
For example, blacks are much less likely to be married today than they were 50 years ago. In 1960, 61% of blacks ages 18 and older were married; by 2008 only 32% were married. Marriage rates have also declined among whites and Hispanics over the same time period though not as sharply. In addition, a large marriage gap has emerged between college graduates and those without a college degree. Today, marriage remains the norm for college graduates, while fewer than half of those who did not graduate from college are currently married.
Step Relatives and Family Obligation
Most adults who have step relatives feel a stronger sense of obligation to their biological family members than they do to their step kin.3 The Pew Research survey asked respondents how obligated they would feel to provide assistance to family members who were dealing with a serious problem and needed either financial help or caregiving. Survey respondents were asked about a list of family members including parents, siblings, children, stepparents, step or half siblings and stepchildren. They were also asked how obligated they would feel to help out their best friend.
Overall, parents rank the highest in the hierarchy of family obligations – 83% of those with a living parent say they would feel very obligated to provide assistance to their parent if he or she was faced with a serious problem. Among adults who have both a living parent and a living stepparent, 85% say they would feel very obligated to help out their parent, while 56% say they would feel a similar sense of obligation toward their stepparent.
Parents feel almost as obligated to their grown children as adult children feel to their aging parents. Overall, 77% of parents with at least one grown child say they would feel very obligated to help that child if need be.
Among adults who have both a grown biological child and a grown stepchild, the biological child exerts a stronger pull. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) of these parents say they would feel very obligated to provide assistance to a grown child. Closer to six-in-ten (62%) say they would feel equally obligated to their grown stepchild.
Similarly, adults are more inclined to come to the aid of their biological siblings than they are to assist their step or half siblings. Among those who have both biological siblings and step or half siblings, 64% say they would feel very obligated to a sibling who was in serious trouble. Only 42% say they would feel very obligated to provide assistance to a step or half sibling.
However, even though step relatives trail biological relatives in each of these measures, they do slightly better overall than “best friend.” No matter what their family constellation, all survey respondents were asked how obligated they would feel to assist their best friend if he or she was faced with a serious problem. Just 39% of adults say they would feel very obligated.
About the Data
Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,691 people ages 18 and older living in the continental United States. A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples was used to represent all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. A total of 1,520 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 1,171 with those contacted on their cellular phone. The data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the continental United States.
· Interviews were conducted Oct 1-21, 2010.
· Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage point for results based on the total sample at the 95% confidence level.
· Survey interviews were conducted in English and Spanish under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International.
1. Government statistics on stepfamilies are limited. For instance, estimates of the number of step families from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey are based upon information about the householder’s co-residing step relatives only. Cases where a household member other than the householder has a step-relative, and cases where step relatives are living in a separate household, are excluded from the count. Estimates based on the Pew Research survey may differ from Census and other data sources, as some respondents may include people they are connected to through a cohabiting partner, while the Census definition is limited to relationships connected through marriage. ↩
1. For further analysis of trends in marriage, see “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families,” November 18, 2010 (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2010/11/18/the-decline-of-marriage-and-rise-of-new-families/). ↩
1. Biological includes relatives related through adoption (who are not considered step relatives). ↩
Recognizing Stepfamily Myths, Realities, and Strengths
A stepfamily is defined as a household in which there are two adults in a committed couple relationship and where at least one of them has a child or children from a previous relationship. There are an estimated 9,100 new American stepfamilies created each week. Fifty percent of all Americans have a step connection. Recent estimates show that the stepfamily will be America’s most common family form in 2010. Thus if you live or have lived in a stepfamily, you have a lot of company! Like all families, stepfamilies have challenges as well as strengths. For stepfamilies to become strong, it’s important that they are aware of some of common challenges they face and ways to effectively deal with them. It’s also important for them to identify and build upon their strengths.
Myth Versus Reality
A basis for building a strong stepfamily is an understanding of its realities as well as a debunking of its myths. First, we’ll review major myths about stepfamilies that, if believed, can discourage stepfamily bonding. Second, we’ll review some realities that provide a realistic contrast between stepfamilies and first-marriage families. Finally, we’ll discuss how the realities of stepfamily living, although challenging, can be seen as strengths. Understanding the myths and realities helps us appreciate what is normal as a stepfamily develops, leading us to hold reasonable expectations for family life.
Common Stepfamily Myths
According to leading experts Emily and John Visher, there are seven common myths stepfamily adults often have about their new family.
Myth # 1: Stepfamily blending happens quickly. Studies show that it usually takes many months for a stepfamily to blend successfully. Most stepfamilies become integrated in about four years but may take longer especially when teenagers are involved. When stepfamily members buy the myth of “instant blending,” they may think that something is wrong with their family when it seems to take so long for things to settle down. They may give up on their new family too soon.
John, a new stepfather without children of his own, wanted more than anything to get close to his new eight-year-old stepson, James. He would invite him to go fishing with him and play basketball with him, two of James’ favorite activities. James would come along but seemed pretty half-hearted about it. John began to wonder if James didn’t really like him and became so frustrated that he wanted to call off any shared activities. What John didn’t realize until later was that it was normal for James to behave that way and that it would take time for James to warm up to him.
Myth #2: A stepfamily is the same as a first-marriage family. Stepfamilies may have a tendency to inappropriately compare their family to ideal first-marriage families they know. It’s important to understand that there are real differences between stepfamilies and first marriage families. Otherwise, we may feel that our stepfamily is inferior to first-marriage families when it doesn’t model itself after them. We’ll say more about these differences later.
Myth #3: Love occurs instantly. Expecting instant love among stepfamily members is bound to result in frustration and discouragement. Love can’t be forced. True caring may take years to develop. In many stepfamilies, mutual respect may be a more realistic goal. Even when stepparents are ready and able to love a stepchild, the child may not be ready for that kind of a relationship with the stepparent.
Lois was hoping that her new husband Larry would be instantly loved by her children once he entered the family. After all, she’d made a great choice of a new companion, and she loved most things about Larry–surely the kids would too. She had to learn to be content with them occasionally doing activities together and respecting one another but not openly showing love or saying, “I love you.” But that was just fine–the kids learned a lot of skills from Larry, and that was his major role in the family.
Myth #4: Stepmothers are wicked. Fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White may be understood by children to imply that all stepmothers are wicked. Stepfathers often are also negatively portrayed. It’s important for children to understand that whether a parent is bad or not does not depend on what kind of family a parent is in.
Myth #5: Children whose parents divorce and remarry are damaged permanently. Studies show that about a third of children of divorce have long-term adjustment difficulties. The other two-thirds adjust in time and are satisfied in their new families. Children who have difficulty adjusting may benefit from professional counseling.
Myth #6: It helps children to withdraw from their nonresidential parent. When children aren’t allowed contact with the nonresidential parent, they tend to have idealized fantasies about them. Left without occasional “reality checks,” children may develop expectations to which a stepparent can never fully measure up. Normally, the best situation for a child’s growth and development is continued contact with both biological parents after divorce.
Myth #7: Remarriages following a death go more smoothly than those occurring after a divorce. While it may be more peaceful at home following a divorce, children may view remarriage as a betrayal of the former marriage partner. A parent who has died may acquire a halo that makes it very difficult for a stepparent to enter and integrate with the new family.
My father died when I was three, and I idealized his memory. My stepfather, Pete, entered the family when I was fourteen. I was strongly resistant to his presence and influence. Even though Mom loved him, I didn’t think he was good enough for her, certainly not as good as my real dad. It took quite a while for me to accept and appreciate Pete’s place in the family.
Stepfamilies are different than first marriage families. Not better, not worse, just different. Stepfamilies are more complex than first marriage families. There are more people involved in a stepfamily interactions and decision making. It’s often a real challenge to keep everyone straight. There are fewer norms for stepfamilies. Norms are guidelines that tell us how to act in certain roles. Especially during the early stages of stepfamily development, it is somewhat difficult to decide how to act and to determine one’s place in the family.
Stepfamilies are different in structure from first-marriage families. According to the Vishers, there are at least seven stepfamily characteristics that distinguish them from first-marriage families.
Reality #1: A stepfamily begins after many losses and changes. In divorce, a relationship has ended. People often find new places to live, new jobs, new schools, and new friends. A first-marriage family begins under far different circumstances.
Reality #2: Individuals are at different places in their family. One of the adults in the remarriage may have been a parent for several years while the other parent has never had children. There may be children who occupied the “oldest child” place in a former family but now become the “middle child” in a new family. There may be teens that have been fantasizing finally being on their own who are now being drawn in to integrate with the new family.
Reality #3: Children and adults all come with expectations from previous families. It’s natural that persons with different family experiences may have different ideas about how a family ought to be run.
Reality #4: Parent-child relationships predate the new couple relationship. In first-marriage relationships this is the opposite, except in cases of unmarried parenthood. Emotional connections such as love between the biological parent and child preceded the remarriage. Stepfamily members may feel threatened by the entry of a new member.
Reality #5: There is a biological parent elsewhere in actuality or in memory. This person, present or not, living or not, continues to have an influence on interactions in the stepfamily.
Reality #6: Children are often members of two households. Transitions are difficult for both children and adults. Moving from house to house can be an unsettling experience for all involved. As the stepfamily becomes more integrated, they can adjust to this temporary unsettling.
Reality #7: There is little or no legal relationship between stepparent and stepchildren. Stepparents aren’t able legally to give ordinary permission to participate in activities, such as field trips or medical procedures, the way the biological parents can.
Seeing the Realities in a Positive Light
The realities of stepfamily living present many challenges. While it is important not to ignore the challenges, it’s also important not to be overcome by them. For instance, as stepfamilies adjust to a new way of being “family,” they may be tempted to focus only on the difficult and challenging aspects of their new arrangement, throw up their hands, and walk away. They often give up too soon–one reason why the divorce rate among remarried couples is higher than first married couples.
However, it’s counterproductive to focus only on the challenges and ignore the many strengths and opportunities made available in stepfamily life. For example, the increased complexity inherent in stepfamily life, with all the new people and new experiences, can seem overwhelming at times. However, having new people and new experiences can be a strength. There are more adults to meet children’s needs, model parental behavior, and provide support. It is helpful when stepfamily members have a positive attitude toward developing new relationships with the widened, extended kin network made possible by the remarriage. Having more adults to care about them can be positive for children. As one youngster put it, “You get to love more people, you know!” The opportunities to share experiences, hobbies, and interests with all of these people can be positive for family well-being.
Children often witness parental battles prior to divorce and may feel some relief from them when divorce occurs. A new relationship where a child is able to observe a positive model of adult intimacy again may serve as a reminder that love is possible in marriage. Because remarried couples are often more mature, experienced, and motivated to be successful, they may be more likely to strive to be good communicators. The residential parent will likely be happier as a result of this new relationship.
In stepfamilies formed with children from previous marriages, many things, from how to rear the children, how to handle finances, and who gets which bedroom, are subject to negotiation. For instance, during one Thanksgiving in a new stepfamily, two formerly unrelated teenagers were arguing over whether orange Jell-O salad or green Jell-O salad should be served with the meal. One of the teens blurted, “We always have the orange Jell-O!” The other retorted, “That’s stupid. My family always has the green Jell-O for Thanksgiving!” While dealing with disagreements can be difficult, stepfamily life provides perhaps even a greater opportunity than first marriage families to learn cooperation, flexibility, and negotiation skills. Family members may discover hidden benefits in combining and integrating traditions and rituals from diverse families. Stepchildren may become more adaptable as adults as a result.
While a change in birth order can be stressful, it may also benefit a child. Perhaps a child who was the oldest in the former family would feel glad to relinquish the pressure that may have been placed upon them as a first born.
While little or no legal relationship exists between a stepparent and a stepchild, unless created by formal adoption, the stepparent is in a unique position to be supportive to the child. Because of their sometimes “outside the family” stance, they may be able to view family problems more objectively and provide more objective solutions. Wise stepparents can be a support to a child without intruding or creating divided loyalty feelings.
Characteristics of Successful Stepfamilies
The Vishers define a successful stepfamily as one who is successfully meeting the challenges so that the majority is generally satisfied with their new family arrangement. They have also identified characteristics of successful stepfamilies. Think about how your family is doing in response to the following characteristics:
Losses have been mourned. Stepfamilies often are formed out of loss. Adults and children in successful stepfamilies acknowledge these losses but are ready tomove on to new way of family life. They are looking to the future. Often visiting with others who have dealt with or who are dealing with similar situations can be helpful in this transition.
Expectations are realistic. One who holds realistic expectations about stepfamily life will understand and accept its realities while resisting a belief in itscommon myths noted earlier. Knowing what to expect will help you be patient with stepfamily integration, which can take from one and a half to five or six years, depending in part on the ages of the children.
There is a strong, unified couple. Even though it may seem like trying to “have a honeymoon in the midst of a crowd,” the successfully remarried couple plans enough time alone together to nourish their relationship.
Constructive rituals and traditions are established. Traditions related to holidays and special events are important ways for families to be together. Successful stepfamilies continue the traditions established in earlier families or combine them to form new traditions.
Satisfactory step-relationships have formed. Step-relationships take time to grow and develop. Successful stepfamilies have an awareness of this and work formutual satisfaction.
The separate households cooperate. Resident and nonresident parents have developed a parenting coalition. Instead of competing with one another, cooperative parents focus on the best interests of the child in ways that promote positive child development and continued beneficial contact with both biological parents.
It’s good to be aware of myths about stepfamily living and confront these with the realities. The realities can be seen as problems or challenges, depending on your point of view. Viewing the challenges in a positive light helps us to be alert to how they can help us be a successful stepfamily.
For Further Reading:
Becoming a Stepfamily by Patricia L. Papernow
Stepping Together: Creating Strong Stepfamilies by John and Emily Visher
The National Stepfamily Resource Center (www.stepfamilies.info)
Readings and Media
Please read the following for this week as well as All Week 1 Online Course Materials:
· Gold, J. M. (2015). Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm. Wiley.
· Preface pp. v-xii
· Chapter 1
· Anonymous. (2011). A portrait of stepfamilies. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/01/13/a-portrait-of-stepfamilies/ (Links to an external site.)
· Recognizing stepfamily myths, realities, and strengths. Real Families Real Answers. Retrieved from: https://realfamiliesrealanswers.org/?page_id=64 (Links to an external site.)
· The Big Blend Theory Video pt1
· Making Divorce Work: A Clinical Approach to the Binuclear Family