Factors That Contribute to Satisfaction or Dissatisfaction in Stepfather-Stepchild Relationships

Article excerpt

TOPIC. Factors contributing to satisfaction and dissatisfaction in stepfather-stepchild relationships.

METHOD. A qualitative multicase study of six stepfathers,

FINDINGS. Four themes emerged: previous experiences as parents, other relationships within the family, issues that required negotiating, discipline of the children.

CONCLUSIONS. Previous experience as parents, good relationships with other family members, similarity in values between parents, and inclusion in the disciplinary process increased stepfathers' satisfaction.

Key words: Divorce, individual psychotherapy, marital therapy, qualitative research, stepchildren, stepfathers, stepmothers

More than half of Americans today have been, are now, or will conceivably be in one or more stepfamilies during their lives (Larson, 1992). Therefore, one might anticipate the stepfamily will become the most common family unit by the end of this decade. Approximately one half of the children born during the 1970s will have parents who will become divorced. As many as 35% of the children in the United States will become part of a stepfamily before they become 18 years old. Stepfather households greatly outnumber other types of stepfamily households, with 82% of all stepfamilies having a stepfather present (Glick, 1989). Most stepparents learn about the role of being a stepparent through experience. Sometimes because of short courtships, and often because couples planning to remarry are focused primarily on their relationship with each other, little thought may be given to preventing stepparenting problems.

Successful stepfamilies are those who have faced the challenges and dealt with them effectively so that the majority of household members are somewhat satisfied with their new family constellation. Such challenges include having members mourn previous losses; building a strong couple relationship; and establishing realistic expectations, cooperation between the separate households, family rituals, and satisfactory step-relationships (Visher & Visher, 1990).

Until the last decade, most research on stepmothers and stepfathers avoided the negative cultural stereotypes given to stepmothers (Ganong & Coleman, 1994). Although 133 empirically based publications have been written on remarriage and stepfamily living since 1987, only 5% of them focused on the stepparenting behaviors or the stepparent role (Pasley & Ihinger-Tallman, 1994). Because of the multiple variables and the use of quantitative research approaches, which lend themselves to "counting data," it has been difficult to study in depth the emotional conflicts defining stepfamily relationships.

Nurses and other health professionals interact with stepfamilies when these family members encounter medical problems, stress, or other adjustment problems. Yet, there are major gaps in nursing literature about how to address problems unique to stepfamilies. Even psychiatric nursing textbooks have minimal information about stepfamilies. By acknowledging that the stepfamily may have unique problems, psychiatric nurses and others can help parents create a supportive and loving environment for themselves and their children (Everett, 1995, 1998).

The Formation of Stepparent-Stepchild Relationships

While psychological and cultural factors would seem to play a part in the formation of stepfamilies, the major variable seems to be structural, that is, components related to the "arrangement" of the family in some pattern of organization. Structural concepts include boundaries and roles of the stepparent, husband-wife relationships, and stepparent-stepchild relationships.

Basing their findings on discussions with 22 remarried couples, Walker and Messinger (1979) learned the remarriage-family unit differs markedly in psychological and physical boundaries from the nuclear family. The typical stepfamily lacks many of the boundary-maintenance conditions found in the first-marriage family. …