If you’ve been through a divorce and are now part of a new stepfamily that includes children, you know that this transition can often be a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. One day it may seem like this new family arrangement is working out great. But on the next, things may feel like they’re fraying at the seams. At times, you may feel like you aren’t sure how to handle all these new roles while also managing the “old” relationships that still are part of your life.
The Three Types
If you’re struggling to understand your stepfamily, it may help to learn more about three common “types” of stepfamily-- Neotraditional, Matriarchal, and Romantic. One of these types may be similar to what you see in your own family. The three types were described by James Bray after a well-known long-term study of stepfamilies published in 1999. According to Bray’s findings, two of the types have a fairly high success rate, while one is more at risk of falling apart.
“Neotraditional” stepfamilies, the most common type, fairly closely resemble a traditional nuclear family. In these families, stepparents eventually come to share parenting tasks. However, they also openly acknowledge that this is a subsequent marriage, with additional challenges.
Neotraditional stepfamilies know and understand that it will take time for stepfamilies to “gel,” and include biological parents in parenting and decision-making. These families are able to discuss the real-life limitations and strengths of the stepfamily model.
In “matriarchal” stepfamilies, a strong female figure leads the family. Although the children often have a positive relationship with their stepfather, he may function more as a mentor or friend, and does not participate much in daily parenting. In these families, the stepfather is seen more as the wife’s companion than as the “dad.”
This model also often works well. However, it may prove challenging if the stepfather decides to take on more parenting roles, or if the wife wants him to. The birth of a child into the second marriage may also change the roles and cause disruption.
Finally, in “romantic” stepfamilies, men and women expect an “instant bliss” “Brady Bunch” experience, where two families meld into one right away. The stepfamily may also be expected to “make up for” the problems of the first marriage…which some family members may want to forget ever happened.
In “romantic” stepfamilies, stepparents may be pressured to take over parenting roles too quickly and without much discussion. An idealization of the new relationship often prevents the couple and children from talking honestly about problems or figuring out new guidelines. These stepfamilies are at the highest risk of falling apart.
Of course, not every stepfamily will fit neatly into one of these types. Still, it may be helpful to read more about them and think about your own family type. It might also be useful to think about the four basic tasks Bray believes each stepfamily needs to complete. They are:
- Integrate the new stepparent
- Create a positive new marriage, different from the old one;
- Learn how to cope with change as a family; and
- Develop your own rules and expectations.
The formation of a new family can be hard work, or at least a tricky balancing act. If another divorce occurs, it is likely to be during the first two or three years of the new marriage. However, once members have worked out their roles and expectations, things typically improve. (Remember, though--adolescence is hard on all kinds of families.) With time, love, effort, and strong communication, stepfamilies can thrive.
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
Bray, J. H., & Kelly, J. (1998). Stepfamilies: Love, marriage and parenting in the first decade. New York: Broadway Books.
Comeau, D. Stepfamilies: Making the most of a second chance. Retrieved from http://www.drcomeau.com/DrComeau.com/Your_Mind_Matters/Entries/2002/11/6_Stepfamilies,_Making_the_Most_of_a_Second_Chance.html
DeAngelis, T. (2005). Stepfamily success depends on ingredients. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec05/stepfamily.aspx .
Niolon, R. (2010). Stepfamilies: When families mend. Retrieved from http://www.psychpage.com/family/stepfamilies.html