Adjustment period can take time in step-families

This is the final article in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.

Q: What are additional areas to assess in post-divorce and in remarriage?

A: The information in this article is a continuation of the article titled "Remarriage: A Family Developmental Process," written by Mary F. Whiteside and published in the April 1982 Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.

When divorced parents become involved in new adult intimate relationships, they decrease their needs and their dependency on older children. These children then are directed back into age-appropriate activities. Divorced parents and stepparents expect the move to be appreciated and welcomed, but older children often feel displaced and rejected. Their roles might be delegated to stepparents, and this dynamic can set up resentment and competition between stepchildren and stepparents. Older children who experience this change often run away or run away to nonresidential parents.

Experts in transitions to step-families recommend gradual transitions in role changes as more adaptive. Parents and stepparents also need to acknowledge the contributions older children made for assuming responsibilities and providing support to their single parents. Furthermore, the adults need to define tasks well and differentiate transitional from ongoing roles. Another recommendation is for parents to maintain the responsible children's input into decisions.

The most important aspect to recognize and understand is older children have little control over the development of post-divorce adult romances. Divorced parents who were so motivated to maintain close ties to older children now might appear oblivious to the needs of the children as they become caught up in new love relationships. Children can feel devalued and lonely.

Another common conflict for divorced parents is the enjoyment and pride in their independence versus their excitement and fulfillment with new intimate partners. Single stepparents with no children might have difficulty understanding why older children do not welcome their help with parenting and other responsibilities.

Another stumbling block to successful transitions from single-parent families to step-families often is the natural parents, who do not want to give up the close relationships with their children. They have a great deal of investment in their successful parenting as single parents and might have problems relinquishing or sharing parenting with new spouses who become stepparents.

Another essential area of assessment is the dynamic of new intimate relationships that influences the development of self-worth and self-confidence. When divorced adults move toward commitments to remarriage, new times of disruption and restructured family relationships begin. The preparation time for remarriages in determining whether the remarriages will be cooperative or conflictual is critical. Unfortunately, there are few models for the formation of effective step-families. Common sense and reason hopefully prevail.

Transitioning into remarriages involves residual conflicts from first marriages and one-parent family stages. Family members are expected to live intimately with each other in relationships that are ill-defined, ambiguous and contradictory. Prior experiences in first marriages and single families do not work out well in step-families. One of the biggest obstacles is the expectation step-family relationships will develop fairly quickly. Researchers have found adjustment takes approximately three years in successful step-families for family members to feel satisfied and secure.

Early remarriage tasks include establishing strong marital bonds and developing step-parenting relationships which take into account strengthening the roles of the stepparents. Equally important is maintaining strong bonds with biological parents outside the home. Another significant aspect for step-families is developing positive alliances among half-siblings and step-siblings, keeping in mind none of these children chose divorce and remarriage and now essentially are forced to live with step-family members.

One of the goals for integration of step-families is to maintain strong, ongoing ties with extended family members living outside the households while, at the same time, supporting new ties with step-family relationships. Boundaries around step-families range from unclear to complex. Role structures between step-families and extended families often are strained. Added to these problems are the inevitable patterns carried from first marriages and post-divorce stages that precede remarriages.

Even if step-families reach stability by the end of three years, they face continuing stages of development that call for flexibility and change. Teenagers might decide to live with absent parents because they feel the need to establish closer relationships with nonresidential parents. Thus, the adolescents change the step-family dynamics and join step-families that already might operate on overload the majority of the time. The only way to deal well with changes in the constellation and structure of step-families is to facilitate open communication. Strong relationships between natural parents and stepparents is the key to survival.

A helpful technique for integrating stepfamilies is the family meeting. Natural children and stepchildren need input into step-family decision-making. Their lives have been turned upside down, and they need some control over their own lives.

Children in step-families have two households and somewhere between two and four parent figures. Children seek out ways to cope based on their personalities, temperaments and backgrounds. Some play off one household against another. Some negotiate, based on awareness of each parent's limitations. Some use access to two homes in order to avoid dealing with problems in either family. Some threaten to live with the other biological parent as a way to manipulate the residential parent.

Successful adjustment in step-families offers adults and children alike opportunities for learning new coping skills.

Step-families must deal with the continual evaluation of step-family structures and roles. Step-families are dynamic and grow and change through the years. In this respect, they resemble other types of family systems.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.