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The Step Family: Challenges and Opportunities

The Step Family: Challenges and Opportunities

By J. Bailey Molineux, Ph.D.

All families have problems, but the step family, by its very composition, has more problems than intact, nuclear families. And because of a history of marital changes, step family members may feel more pressure to succeed in their family relationships.

The step family faces the usual problems of any intact family - the hurts, jealousies, conflicts, alliances and splits - but these are usually more intense in the step family. Because it represents the blending of two families or an individual also with a fragmented family, the step family faces problems which are unique to it.

Compared to intact families, the composition of the step-family is incredibly complex. Depending upon who marries whom, there can be four parents, eight grand­parents and a number of children all related to each other directly or indirectly.

The creation of a step-family is similar to the merger to two companies, a merger that is not accomplished easily. Each could have a different set of goals, rules, expectations and histories, making the merger much more difficult.

Since the step-family is also a relatively new phenomenon, there are few rulesor norms to guide the behavior of its members or the behavior of society towards it. What should stepchildren call their stepparents? Should all four parents - step and natural – be invited to school conferences? What sort of legal rights or responsibilities should stepparents have with regard to their stepchildren? These are just a few of the questions about step-families that have yet to be fully answered.

Except in the case of the death of a spouse, the step-family involves a biological parent outside the step family structure, and his or her presence can cause children in a step-family are - or at least should feel they are - members of two households. The more children of divorce are loved and accepted in two families, the better off they'll be. The divorce and remarriage of their parents, no matter how painful an initial adjustment, can be a growth experience for them.

Stress in the step family unit. But membership in two families can cause problems. If there is conflict or continued hostility between the natural parents, children may feel a severe conflict of loyalties. Not wanting to, they may feel they have to take sides in their parent's battles. But to be loyal to Mom is to be disloyal to Dad, and vice versa, a terrible, no-win situation for any child to be in They would rather love and be loved by both their parents.

In addition, the presence of a biological parent outside the step family, whether remarried or not, can cause jealousy in the stepparent. If the emotional relationship between the natural parents, which includes feelings of hurt and anger, is not ended, that jealousy can be realistic. Ex-spouses who are bitter or fighting long after their divorce are still emotionally tied to each other. Often their anger is a cover-up for underlying, unacceptable positive feelings. Just as children have to separate from their parents before they can successfully marry, so divorced people have to separate emotionally from each other before they can successfully remarry.

Unlike the intact family, the step family has a history of hurt, loss and trauma which may put a heavy burden on the step family to succeed because members may feel they have failed before. This may or may not work to their advantage.

The step family also entails forced relationships between people. The two adults in the step family have decided to join together voluntarily but this is not true of the children. Stepparents, stepchildren and step siblings may live together because they have to, not because they choose to, and their joining can create tremendous jealousies, conflicts and resentments. The happy wedding of parent and stepparent may not be seen a happy event by the children. Good relationships can grow out of these forced relationships, but not without time, patience, understanding, communica­tion, commitment and hard work.


About the Author: J. Bailey Molineux, a psychologist with Adult and Child Counseling, has incorporated many of his articles in a book, Loving Isn't Easy, Isbn 1587410419, sold through bookstores everywhere or available directly from Selfhelpbooks.com. Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux and Selfhelpbooks.com, all rights reserved. This article may be reprinted but must include authors copyright and website hyperlinks.

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