By Ann M. Ordway
As if high conflict families are not complicated enough, adding a stepfamily dynamic into the mix adds multiple additional layers to sort. Professionals working with court-involved families in a variety of roles often include new partners and the children of those partners in evaluations and therapeutic interventions for good reasons. Understanding the implications associated with blending elements of a new family with the pre-existing dynamics of the old is critical for success. Professionals need to identify and navigate a balance between competing interests in the management and resolution of conflict and difficult tasks become even more challenging.
What is a stepfamily?
Simply, a stepfamily is a family where at least one parent has children that are not related to the other spouse or parent genetically or through adoption. Most stepfamilies seem to form following the separation of unmarried parents or the divorce of married parents, but some stepfamilies form following the death of a parent and the remarriage of the other.
According to national records and reports, more than 50% of all marriages end in divorce and a large percentage of those divorced individuals eventually remarry. It has also been reported that approximately two-thirds of all couples entering relationships with children from prior relationships also divorce or break up. More than 30 million children in the United States live with a biological parent and that parent's new partner or spouse and it is not uncommon for those children to experience the re-coupling of both parents. It stands to reason, therefore, with the rate of separation and divorce amongst re-coupled parents with children, that many children are actually introduced to multiple stepfathers or stepmothers during the course of their lives.
Iconic images of stepfamilies depicted through television and the movies have long perpetuated a variety of myths about how such families function. The most notorious of all stepmothers, Cinderella's father's second wife, represents the epitome of the manipulative and cruel stepmother and her story sets the stage for an oblivious biological father who dies while clueless to the strained relationship between his small daughter and the woman he has married and her own two rather unpleasant daughters. In contrast, the tale of Mike Brady, the single father of three boys meeting and marrying Carol Martin, the single mother of three girls paints a picture of a relatively effortless happily ever after. Of course, there is no explanation of what happened to the original other parents no grief, no parenting time, no extended family. Everyone seems to get along well and through the life of the television show The Brady Bunch, there are only two episodes that even mention the concept of a stepfamily. The media has done little to truly provide a valid idea of what to expect and though books have certainly been written about stepfamily dynamics the suggestions about what works and what does not can vary widely. In fact, each family is different and the proverbial one size does not fit all. To the extent that the stepfamily varies, the way the stepfamily meshes or doesn't, with the family of origin in the aftermath of its demise will also vary widely.
It can be tortuous in the context of a high conflict divorce for two former spouses to try to communicate. A stepmother, or stepfather as the case may be, might exacerbate the problem in some instances - especially where the new spouse is a pot-stirrer or the former spouse engages in sabotage. However, relationships can actually improve where a positive connection can be forged between the former spouse and the new one. It is an unenviable position for any individual to be caught in the midst of the desires of a new spouse and the demands of a former partner. It is no easy task for a professional to mediate those differences to the satisfaction of all.
Sometimes, just because two adults become enamored with one another, to envision having a storybook romance does not mean that their children will get along or even like each other. There are a lot of logistics associated with merging families. Can they reasonably expect his teen daughter to share a room with her 6 years old? Should she move into his house or should he move into hers? Or should they find a new house big enough for everyone? Where one parent is the primary custodial parent of their children, should those children who are full-time residents with the new couple have different privileges and benefits than those children that merely visit a few days a month. When the new couple cannot agree on house rules, whose rules prevail? and how is that reconciled for children from two different families of origin? What happens when the rules in the other house create conflict over the rules in the stepfamily home?
The choppy waters of these dynamics can conjure additional considerations as the new couple contemplates whether or not to have a child together. What impact will it have when the ex-wife learns that the new wife will quit her job to stay home with the new baby Or when the new husband finds himself paying for the needs of her children from a prior marriage because the child support is insufficient. Resentments often build and cause additional polarization, thus leaving professional interventions taxed when the focus is shifted from the needs of the original family to consideration of how the dilemmas of the new family extension impact the children.
Strategies for Balancing Competing Interests
The children, all children, are the most important consideration in any case with a stepfamily dynamic. Sometimes adults, in their enthusiasm about crossing the threshold for a new life, fail to adequately consider the needs of the children or put the needs of some children over the needs of others, thinking it will all work out. Compromise is an art and the professional, whether an evaluator, parenting coordinator, lawyer, mediator, or therapist must look at the big picture and not just a snapshot a corner of the family.
As noted above, each case and each family is different. It is important to review the nuances of this family rather than automatically applying ideas and principles that have been known to work in a more general sense. For any intervention, it is critical to first understand and respect the journey. How the children met the new stepparent and any stepsiblings, the timing of the new relationship and marriage, the circumstances of the original divorce or divorces are factors that will impact how new relationships evolve and how those new relationships affect the pre-existing one. Good advice is rooted in factoring in the needs of all parties concerned and striving for compromise.
Relationships in stepfamilies are what they naturally evolve to be but sometimes there is a lot of effort needed for there to be any integration at all. Professionals cannot ignore the stepfamily component of a case and should not ever assume that it is irrelevant.
Ann Ordway, JD, Ph.D., is a Counselor Educator at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. She is a family court veteran, having been an attorney, parenting coordinator, and child advocate for many years. Ann is the matriarch of her own successful stepfamily, with a combined total of 9 children. This article is based upon a webinar presented by the author for AFCC in August 2017 and an article that appeared in the Ask the Experts column of AFCC e-news.