Divorce, remarriage common in many relationships today

This is the first in a series of articles about step-families.

Q: What are the definition and demographics about step-families?

A: The Step-family Association of America (SAA) defines step-family households as those in which parents marry persons who are not the biological parents of their children. One or both parents have been married before. Spouses have been lost through death or divorce.

In the United States today, one out of two marriages ends in divorce. But in second marriages, 60 percent fail, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the SAA, 66 percent of remarriages and cohabitations break up when children are involved. Since 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau reports more Americans have been residing in step-families than nuclear families. However, the number actually is an underestimation because in 2004, only the primary residence of stepchildren was counted in the census.

Step-family researchers and the SAA consider "blended family" an inaccurate definition and description of step-family. This misnomer sets up unrealistic expectations about step-families blending into new family units. A National Institute of Health study reports step-families have unique natural life cycles, which take several years. Step-families are at their greatest risk of failure in the first two years. The Census Bureau states first marriages last an average of seven years.

Figures from the 2004 U.S. Census present a profile of stepparents and stepchildren.

* 5.5 million children live with at least one stepparent.

* 1.2 million children live with at least one stepsibling.

* 12.1 million children live in families that include either stepsiblings, half-siblings or stepparents.

* 3.3 million men live with at least one stepchild.

* 1.1 million women live with at least one stepchild.

* 40 million households include children younger than 18 years old.

* 3.6 million households with children contained at least one child and stepparent.

* 4.7 million households with children are stepfamilies. They either include stepchildren and parents, or half or stepsiblings and parents.

Authors G. Olsen and M.L. Friller ("Home-School Relations," third edition, 2007) compiled a list of facts about step-families with which most researchers agree.

* Younger children tend to make better adjustments to step-families.

* Adolescents, particularly those who are the same sex as the stepparents, tend to feel resentful of these stepparents.

* After divorce, the attitudes of the adults involved contribute significantly to children's adjustments to stepfamilies.

* Most blended families that survive divorce report being happy.

Stepparents have no legal rights to minor children. Biological parents and adoptive parents have legal rights. Stepparents who legally adopted stepchildren have legal rights. Biological parents who want stepparents to have the authority to pick up kids from school, take children to health practitioners or perform other legal parental functions must give written permission authorizing these parental responsibilities.

Having examined the basic demographics about step-families, there is a need to acknowledge one of the most significant negative effects on step-families -- the influence of common step-family myths.

Emily and John Visher, family experts, document seven myths that lead to faulty expectations about step-families. These myths influence how step-families view their second families.

Stepfamily members expect bonding to occur quickly. It does not, especially when there are teenagers involved. Bonding takes years. Therefore, step-families give up too soon or think there is something wrong.

A second destructive myth is the belief step-families function the same as first-marriage families. Comparisons between first families and step-families can be misleading and can lead to faulty conclusions about step-family adjustments.

Another harmful myth is the expectation love will happen quickly among step-family members. When adults remarry, children and stepchildren do not love one another. They might not feel love toward stepparents either. Respect is a more realistic goal than love.

The negative portrayal of stepmothers in fiction might affect stepchildren's expectations. There are some, but not as many, negative portrayals of stepfathers in fiction.

Many people believe all children whose parents divorce and remarry are damaged permanently. About two-thirds adjust in time and achieve happiness. One-third do not and would do better if they had professional counseling.

A misconception is severing or minimizing contact with non-residential parents helps stepchildren adjust better.

Children need contact with both biological parents after divorce or remarriage.

* Next week's article will discuss the differences between biological nuclear families and step-families.

Judy Caprez is an 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.