Blended families are the result of two adults establishing a union, with at least one having had a child or children previously. Because the concept of family itself is evolving to include gay partnerships, “commuter” relationships with separate households, and cohabiting couples, the definition of the blended family is also fluid. Blended families reflect all the nuances of the modern nuclear family, while bearing the additional impact of members’ prior family relationships.
Sociologists characterize family by long-term commitment, strong group identity, and an economic structure that provides for any children within the union. Kinship, common ancestry, or marriage are traditionally, though not always, present. The exceptions to these guideposts are apparent in the blended family. In most, a previous commitment has already ended; identifying with the new family unit is a lengthy process and not guaranteed; possibly, there is economic involvement, with all its implications, from outside the new family, in terms of child support. The strength of blood and legal bonds is especially ambiguous in the blended family.
Considering the overall 50 percent divorce rate in the United States and the fact that 50 percent of marriages are remarriages, blended family dynamics are an influential social phenomenon. One in three Americans is now part of a stepfamily, and demographers predict that the aging baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will have to rely more on stepchildren than biological children for elder care. Thus, resolving complicated blended family relationships is culturally significant.
Three types of blended families and several variations thereof exist and are reflected in popular culture: (1) the biological mother-stepfather arrangement (most common, as divorced mothers usually gain custody of their children); (2) the biological father-stepmother; and (3) the couple who each brings biological children to the new union, as in the popular TV series from the 1960s and 1970s, The Brady Bunch. In the book-based movie Yours, Mine and Ours, a widowed couple also each had their own children and went on to have mutual biological children. A recent remake of that film depicted the wife’s adopted children of various races and ethnicities, calling to mind the real-life celebrity union of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whose biological child followed and preceded single and joint multiracial adoptions, respectively. An even more intricate—and controversial—family configuration was the nonmarital, noncohabiting relationship of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and her multiple adopted children, some of whom were also his legally adopted children, and the ensuing marriage of Mr. Allen and one of his own children’s adopted siblings, the legal daughter of his former romantic partner. Social reaction, both positive and negative, to such multilayered connections is indicative of the blended family experience.
Without diminishing their delicate, interpersonal dynamics, the notoriety of the blended families described in the previous paragraph helped dispel step-family myths. Historically wrought with negative connotations underscored by fairy tales like Cinderella, the archetype of the stepmother, in particular, has given way to more benevolent images. However, the possible pitfalls of step-parenting are an aspect of the blended family that cannot be overlooked. Preexisting parent-child allegiances and the influence of family members outside the home or held in memory weaken loyalties to, and the authority of, step-parents. Moving to a different community may be part of the new arrangement, and transitional strains may result. Indeed, the term blended family itself may be a misnomer, as families do not so much blend as they expand, potentially encompassing residential and nonresidential stepsiblings and half siblings, additional sets of grandparents, and other extended stepfamily members, and, in the case of “serial” couplings and breakups, ex-stepfamily members. Binuclear family is another term used to describe two families joining to form a new one.
New family members are often of unfamiliar backgrounds, and the lack of homogeny in second and third marriages increases their rate of failure to 60 percent, while shortening the expected duration from 8 years for a first union, to 7. A couple’s compatibility strongly depends on familiarity with one another’s culture, but because people are older at the time of successive marriages or cohabitation (mid- to late 30s vs. early to mid-20s for first unions), the pool of available partners has diminished, and they may marry outside their generation, social class, ethnicity, or religion. Adding children to the mix, especially adolescents, without sufficient time for couple adjustment, increases stress.
Ironically, most blended families involve cohabitation, rather than marriage, yet the remarriage model, and related research, is the only reference available to institutions like school and church. One case study illustrates confusion over family ties: A single mother’s live-in boyfriend coached her daughter’s sports team. The community questioned his relationship with the child, as the parents were not legally married, and ruled that he could not coach because he was not part of any team member’s family. Yet, this man had served as stepfather to the child all her life.
Theorists acknowledge that lack of biology between some blended family members can be problematic. The family—that basic unit of civilization—is an intimate, stressful, and potentially dangerous experience. Some social scientists who subscribe to the biosocial perspective, which posits that genetics and evolution govern roles and relationships, assert that society should not encourage the formation of stepfamilies, as danger increases when no biological ties rule behavior. Indeed, 30 percent of adult-child sexual assault cases involve a stepfather, and higher incidence of child abuse statistically links to a mother’s cohabiting boyfriend. The issue of incest becomes a concern also, especially whenever revelations of sexual activity, even marriage, between stepsiblings becomes known.
Nonetheless, blended families help those divorced or widowed reorganize their lives and maintain familial structure. Women living in poverty may raise their socioeconomic status through subsequent family formation. People are more mature when they remarry, and such relationships are more egalitarian. Children benefit from the commitment, communication, cohesion, and effort required of successful blended families.
- Booth, Alan and John N. Edwards. 1992. “Starting Over: Why Remarriages Are More Unstable.” Journal of Family Issues 13(2):179-94.
- Ganong, Lawrence H. and Marilyn Coleman. 2004. Stepfamily Relationships: Developments, Dynamics and Interventions. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Giles-Sims, Jean. 1997. “Current Knowledge about Child Abuse in Stepfamilies.” Pp. 215-30 in Stepfamilies: History, Research, and Policy, edited by I. Levin and M. B. Sussman. New York: Haworth.
- Herbert, W. 1999. “When Strangers Become Family.” U.S. News and World Report, November 29, pp. 58-67.
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Cartwright (2010) found that couples who re-marry after divorce can often be led to that decision by the need for an intimate relationship and the benefits they receive from that relationship. The need for financial means also brought some to the decision that they would cohabitate before re-marrying. Cartwright also came to the conclusion that while a lot of the participants in the study were aware of the possible difficulties of becoming a blended family, most of them did not talk to one another about certain parenting issues such as discipline and rules. Most of the participants also did not discuss how they would handle this change for the children involved in the two families that were blending. Cartwright says that these findings supported earlier research that suggested that couples who are blending their families often avoid talking about difficult issues so as to avoid conflict. What Percentage of Households Have Blended Families?
Studies have shown that about 9% of married couple households and 11.5% of households where the parents are living together but not married, have stepchildren who live in the home. (Teachman & Teadrow, 2008) A survey done, called the HILDA survey, showed that 13% of households in the third wave of the survey, have stepchildren that either live in the home or do not and on some occasions both. A longitudinal study was done and indicated that out of the 1265 people involved in taking the study, 18.6% of them had lived in a stepfamily between the ages of 6 and 16 years old. This study included participants where the household was either remarried or cohabitating. (Nicholson, Fergusson, & Horwood, 1999). Many stepfamilies find challenges that make it very difficult to have normal functional interactions amongst its’ members. What Areas of Concern Are There for Children in Blended Families?
Through research studies on blended families there seems to be a much greater risk of negative outcomes for children that are part of a blended family, as opposed to other children around them who are from a first time marriage. (Amato, 2000; Bray, 1999: Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). When researchers have done studies on stepfamilies post-remarriage, they have found out very little about how the couple prepares themselves and their families before they re-marry or move in together to live as a whole family unit. There are a couple exceptions. A study done in 1989 in the US was conducted specifically to find out what couples do to prepare themselves and their families for a re-marriage. (Ganong & Coleman, 1989).
More recently than that a study was done in Britain that questioned both the mothers and the stepfathers to find out what it was they did, if anything, to prepare prior to the re-marriage. (Smith & Robertson, 2008) The findings were that many re-married quickly and did not discuss what each other’s role would be when it came to parenting. (Ganong & Coleman, 1989; Robertson, 2008; Smith, 2008). Evidence appeared that showed there was very little, if any, help given to the children to help them with the transition into this new family life. (Robertson, 2008). How Common is Re-Marriage?
Research shows that almost 20% of Americans are divorced and remarried. It has become increasingly common over time. Stepfamilies are becoming the fastest growing family unit. (Berger, 1995; Walsh, 2003b). Studies estimate that one in every two couples in the United States will divorce (Derma, 1999). What Are the Legal Ramifications of a Blended Family?
Legal battles can become very expensive and are very complicated. Centuries ago, it was said that the children “belonged” to the father and so when a marriage ended, the children would stay with the father (Knibiehler, 1995). This was due large in part to the father having to financially support, educate and protect his children much like the father figure of Christian Mythology (Friedman, 1995). Around the time of the Industrial Revolution came domesticity. With that came the idea and emphasis that a child’s need to be emotionally nurtured was more important. That did not change the father’s legal obligations to financially support, educate and protect his children. With that, the father’s role became one more of support while the mother’s role took the lead as the one who provided the children with emotional nurturance (Jacob, 1988).
The one exception to the rule that the mother should have custody of the children, was that she be proven to be the cause for the end of the marriage. If that could be proven, she risked losing her property and her children. Around 1975, the idea of “no-fault” divorces was starting to have an impact on legislation (Fogarty, 2001). While the arguments for this type of divorce were mostly moral ones, the leaders of politics and religion were arguing that we had lost what once held our society together. Another big part of “no fault” divorce proceedings that nobody gave much attention to for a long period of time, was how violence or abuse within the marriage and family should affect the outcome. Very slowly did family courts begin to take in to consideration the unacceptable behaviors towards spouses and children. Then they began to make decisions based more on those findings. What Things Help a Blended Family to Be Successful?
According to Visher, Visher & Pasley, 2003, becoming a blended family is a very complicated process that involves transitioning from one’s previous life and household to a whole new life and possibly household where things may be very different than before. There are many things to be thought about when choosing to blend a family. Several things must be examined since they may influence how the new family blends together. It is important to know the experiences of the previous marriage, for both parties. It is also important to know how the continued contact with the previous spouse is handled.
Also important is how each spouse differs when it comes to personal maturity, the experiences each has had throughout their lives and what social status they hold. Finally, knowing what each partner considers the norm and what each ones expectations are (Swenson, 1997). Understanding how to help families of remarriage to blend successfully is an important outline for research, intervention and prevention efforts within blended families (Von Eye & Schuster, 2000). Using this approach helps to guide families when they face challenges or difficult times within their blended family (Hawley, 2000;Walsh, 1998b;, 2003a).
When talking about resilience in a blended family, a lot of things are brought into the mix. Risk factors such as stressful events or bad conditions are weighed against protective factors such a family and community support to help blended families and their children to be successful in working through the hard times (Norman, 2000). According to McCubbin and McCubbin, (1988), there are certain dimensions, characteristics and features that must be looked at in order to help a blended family be more resilient to the hard times. They look at resistance to disruption in the event of a change and how well a person adapts in a critical situation.
Walsh (1996) came up with the idea of relational resilience. Models have been created to test these factors. The first model, the pre-crisis ABCX model looks at the A (stressor), B (resource), and C (definition of the stressor) which help families protect themselves and get through crisis. Second are the models that focus on before and after crisis factors and the FAAR Model that was developed by McCubbin and Patterson (McCubbin et al., 1996). Last is the Typology Model of Family Adjustment and Adaptation, developed by McCubbin and McCubbin (McCubbin et al., 1996). This model focuses on what patterns are used in the way the family functions and what each persons role is in adjusting and adapting during adversity or crisis.
According to Walsh (1998b), making a blended family successful and helping them to stay together can be accomplished by encouraging the family’s belief system, a supportive community, communication with one another and support within the family structure, acknowledging that some adversity it very normal and standing together as a family and believeing that you can achieve what you set out to accomplish. How is Attachment in Stepfamilies Affected?
Bowlby (1973) has found that while there is an endless amount of research done on attachment, very little of that has been done on stepfamilies. He found that the disruption of bonds that a child has may make it very hard to form secure attachments otherwise in life, therefore, leading to possible psychological disorders. Separation from a parent and conflict with a new stepparent may cause problems with attachment and adjusting in the future (Henry & Holmes 1998). These types of situations often involve some form of threat (whether it be real or not) making one of the parents more unavailable (Kobak 1999).
There was some speculation that a child being raised in a stepfamily would for sure have less secure attachments than those raised by their biological parents still together. They did state that insecurities may be part of the stress of divorce and remarriage (Love and Murdock 2004).
As stated by Robert S. Feldman (2011), more than 5 million couples who are each others second marriages have at least one child that is a stepchild. He states that often times, a child’s role is unclear and they are not sure of what is expected of them. Children may not be sure what their responsibilities are as a part of the new family or how they should treat their new “parent” or “siblings”. Feldman also states that blending into a new family seems to be easier for children that are school age as opposed to teenagers. He states that it is due to several different things. The family’s financial situation usually improves with a remarriage and the addition of a second income. There are also more people in the family to share chores and responsibilities with as well as more people to have a social relationship with (Greene, Anderson, & Hetherington, 2003; Hetherington & Elmore, 2003).
Though there is not much research on blended families and every aspect of the changes, challenges and success’s, it is clear that raising a blended family involves a lot of planning, preparing and nurturing on the part of the children to make it successful for everyone involved.