Stepfamilies have become more common and touch up to half of us (Sayre, McCollum, & Spring, 2010). These families are formed following a loss, meaning that unresolved grief could impact the formation of the stepfamily. They are also at risk for loyalty conflicts where children, partners, and ex-partners can become entwined in negative interactional patterns. Stepparents may have difficulty navigating their role as a parent while children are adapting to new parental figures. The increased stress leaves the couple at risk for divorce and another round of grief and loss (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2006).
- Grieving the loss of the first-family
Each person from a first family will have to mourn the loss of that family whether they wanted the separation or not. That process usually needs time, establishing new boundaries, overcoming adversity, and finding ways to remain connected despite not all living together (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2006).
- Loyalty conflicts
Children can feel pulled between parents and the different homes they live in. Triangulation may occur with felt pressure to be more loyal to one parent or the other. The introduction of a stepparent further complicates these issues, as loyalty to one parent may foster rejection of a stepparent (Pruett & Donsky, 2011). Parents also feel pulled between their children, their ex-spouse, and their new partner. The children may demand attention that competes with the demands from a new spouse or their second (or third) family. Disagreements around parenting may also triangulate parenting partners (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2006).
- Secure attachments
Plenty of research has shown the importance of secure attachments in development and health (Sayre et al., 2010), but maintaining them through the transition to become a stepfamily can be tough. Attachment injuries occur when the safe haven of a relationship becomes damaged and unsafe. These injuries may occur more frequently in stepfamily formation since a re-negotiation of physical and emotional boundaries is part of the end of one family and the beginning of another (Sayre et al., 2010). Loyalty conflicts or lack of proximal contact to a secure caregiver can break down a sense of security for children and adults (Pruett & Donsky, 2011).
What families can do to help the transition
- New roles and boundaries
Browning and Artelt (2012) list the following components as critical for a strong coparenting relationship: 1. Acting as a team towards the children; 2. Sharing or dividing up child care; 3. Discussing how to manage conflict about children together; and 4. Feeling supported in the process of parenting. In order to manage the new coparenting relationship, couples will benefit from having these discussions and following these principles. Effective coparents support each other’s decisions, stick to agreements about raising children, and do not undermine each other (Browning & Artelt, 2012). Outside the coparenting relationship exists the boundaries regarding who is and who is not a member of the family. In order to solidify a sense of belonging and recognition as a family, shared activities and rituals are important. Celebrating birthdays, engaging in traditions, or doing activities together regularly can cement a sense of belonging within a stepfamily (Pruett & Donsky, 2011).
Since coparents no longer live together and hard feelings may remain, communication regarding coparenting can be challenging. Communication needs to flow between parents, either in a communication book or in establishing rules of how, what, and when to communicate. Communication should not flow through children (Pruett & Donsky, 2011). It must be respectful and oriented towards the best interests of the children. This culture of communication should be apparent in all levels of interactions within and between families. Emphasis in communication should be on inclusiveness and cooperation, which are skills that can be taught in workshops (Pruett & Donsky, 2011). They can also help with giving suggestions on maintaining secure attachments despite less access to each other (nightly phone calls for example). Such programs in my local area include:
- Parenting After Separation (online or in-person) – https://www.alberta.ca/pas.aspx
- Focus on Communicating in Separation (in-person) – https://www.alberta.ca/pas.aspx
- Parenting After Separation for Families in High Conflict (in-person) – https://www.alberta.ca/pashc.aspx
- Cross-cultural counselling – Psychologists must be aware of both the issues that relate to the coparenting dynamic and the cultural issues that may influence their parenting milieu (Browning & Artelt, 2012)
- Attachment theory – Originally described by Bowlby (as cited in Sayre et al., 2010), this theory describes attachment related behavior (proximity, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress). Stepfamilies can be viewed through this lens and effectively helped using these theories.
- Genogram – A genogram, or pictorial representation of a family’s history and relationships, can illuminate psychological factors, hereditary traits, and other significant issues or past events that may impact stepfamily formation.
- Bowen’s differentiation and triangulation – Differentiation is the growth of an independent person and one with appropriate interdependence within their family. Triangulation describes an interaction pattern of two individuals (parents, parent and child, stepparent and child, etc.) pursuing something that a third individual (parent, child, stepparent) disagrees with. These concepts can be used to describe patterns seen in stepfamilies and help them shift to healthier, more collaborative patterns (Pruett & Donsky, 2011).
Browning, S., & Artelt, E. (2012). Stepfamily diversity. In Stepfamily therapy: A 10-step clinical approach (pp. 225-259). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Clarke-Stewart, A., & Brentano, C. (2006). Divorce: Causes and consequences. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Pruett, M. K., & Donsky, T. (2011). Coparenting after divorce: Paving pathways for parental cooperation, conflict resolution, and redefined family roles. In J. P. McHale, K. M.
Lindahl, J. P. McHale, K. M. Lindahl (Eds.), Coparenting: A conceptual and clinical examination of family systems (pp. 231-250). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/12328-011
Sayre, J. B., McCollum, E. E., & Spring, E. L. (2010). An outsider in my own home: attachment injury in stepcouple relationships. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 36(4), 403-415.
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