Stepchildren who view former step-parents as ‘family’ maintain relationships following divorce
Remarriage often combines two families into one stepfamily unit. Little is known, however, about the relationships between former stepparents and stepchildren when that unit dissolves after a divorce.
Now, researchers from the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri (MU) have found that stepchildren’s views of former stepparents depend on emotional reactions to the divorce, patterns of support or resource exchanges and parental encouragement or discouragement to continue with the relationship. Whether stepchildren maintained relationships with their former stepparents largely depended on whether
the children viewed their former stepparents as family.
“For a substantial portion of these children’s lives, they’ve been living with a stepparent, who, in many cases, became a parent to them,” says Marilyn Coleman, a curators’ professor emerita in MU’s Department of Human Development and Family Science. “Then, the couple breaks up, the family breaks up and what happens to these kids? Stepparents may have invested a lot of time, a lot of emotion in raising a child and then end the relationship completely. Sometimes, there’s an assumption that when the relationship ends, there’s no need to continue ties. But for children who have grown up viewing someone as a parent, it may not be so easy for them to lose that relationship.”
The researchers interviewed 41 young adults who had experienced stepfamily dissolutions. Half of the participants had considered or “claimed” their stepparents as family at one time or another. Of those, half of the participants still maintained relationships with their former stepparents, while the rest had since ended contact.
The notion of kinship
“In post-divorce families—stepfamilies and former stepfamilies in particular—kinship is an important notion,” says Larry Ganong, a professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and co-chair in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. “People make judgments about whether or not people are ‘family,’ and, if you are, then there’s some sort of expectation about interactions, feelings, expectations. If you aren’t ‘family’ then there’s ambiguity. It’s stressful, and people are less sure about how to act and feel.”
Ambiguity exists about what step-relationships mean even when couples are together; these ties become even more ambiguous when the adults divorce, says Ganong.
“Stepparent–stepchild relationships in particular have neither legal nor genetic ties, which are the two markers that legally and culturally we use to decide who is obligated to whom,” says Ganong. “When there’s a second divorce, there are neither blood nor legal ties binding stepparents and stepchildren, so that creates an added level of complexity about who is in families and why.”
Think it over
Divorcing couples should consider how their breakup will affect both their biological children and stepchildren. Although a 10-year relationship might reflect only a small fraction of parents’ lives, it can be a much larger proportion for children, says Coleman.
“Don’t put your kids in the middle,” says Coleman. “When stepfamilies dissolve, the biological parent can completely cut ties with the stepparent, never seeing him or her again. Until children are old enough to drive, they have no way to maintain contact with former stepparents unless the parents facilitate visits.”
The researchers said they noticed diversity among the relationships between stepparents and stepchildren. “These family dynamics continue to evolve over time”, says Coleman.
“We have a study of a point in time with these young adult children. Some are talking retrospectively. We don’t really know how all of these relationships are going to play out, and there’s so much diversity—some families break ties completely, others keep living together, give financial support or spend holidays together. Some re-establish contact with former stepparents years after the stepfamilies dissolve.”
“Stepchildren’s views about former step-relationships following stepfamily dissolution,” was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. MU co-authors include graduate students Luke Russell and Nick Frye-Cox.