Factors That Contribute to Satisfaction or Dissatisfaction in Stepfather-Stepchild Relationships
Everett, Lou Whichard, Perspectives in Psychiatric Care
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. For example, it lacks the common household residence of natural parents and children, and often economic subsistence. Parental authority, as well as economic subsistence, may be shared with the former spouse of one, if not both, partners. Loyalties and affection of children in a stepfamily often are divided between two parental households. In addition, the stepfamily lacks much of the shared family experience, the rituals, and the symbols that help establish and maintain the psychic boundaries of the first-marriage family (Pasley & Ihinger-Tallman, 1994; Walker & Messinger).
Problems in Stepfamilies
Researchers Hetherington and Clingempeel (1992) and Walker and Messinger (1979) found uncertainty in stepfamilies over what the child and stepparent should feel toward and expect from each other. Time and tolerance for ambiguity and reactions of members are related to successful adjustments. However, because stepfathers are often hurt and feel rejected or ignored by their overtures early in remarriages, they tend to withdraw, with the stepfather-stepchild relationship becoming less positive and more negative over time (Bray, 1992; Hetherington & Clingempeel).
Duberman (1973) and Rosin (1987) found the husband-wife relationship markedly influenced the stepparent-stepchild relationship. Rosin identified five variables shaping the stepfather's role:
1. The age, number, sex, and attitudes of the stepchildren.
2. The relationship between the stepchildren and their biological father and the amount of time he spends with them.
3. The attitude of the stepfather toward what his role should be and his ability to be flexible and to communicate with the other members of his stepfamily.
4. The attitude of the stepchildren's mother toward what the stepfather's role should be and her ability to communicate.
5. Whether the stepfather has biological children, whether they live with him full-time or part-time, and what all members of the stepfamily feel about forming a combined stepfamily. (p. 71)
Rosin's (1987) study revealed that each of the above variables at any given time might have a greater impact than the others; however, a particular stepfather's role and how he felt about the role was determined by the combination of all the variables. The happiness of the stepfathers depended on their own personal situations and whether their needs and expectations were met, as well as on their relationships to the mothers, biological fathers, and their own biological children. For example, stepfathers whose biological children did not live with them might be hesitant to become close to stepchildren fearing they would be betraying their biological children. Rosin found the stepfather role was individualized; each stepfather defined it based on his own experiences.
Some researchers identify children as the major problem in remarried families; however, children have been identified as the major problem in some first-married couples (Duberman, 1975). Albrecht (1979) found the impact of children was not significant in the marital happiness of remarried couples; however, others found there was some effect on the overall quality of family life (Pasley & Ihinger-Tallman, 1994; Rosin, 1987; White & Booth, 1985). Albrecht found remarried individuals were more likely to rate their present marriage as being "much better" than the former marriage that ended in divorce. Financial difficulties was cited as the major problem among the remarried individuals who identified marital problems (Albrecht). Most studies found couples are happier, however, when the children are on their own (Albrecht; Ambert, 1986; Duberman; White & Booth).
Stepparents who reported having excellent relationships with their spouses reported positive relationships with their stepchildren (Duberman, 1973, 1975; Pasley & Ihinger-Tallman, 1994; Rosin, 1987). Duberman (1975) reported that younger stepmothers were more likely to have excellent relations with their stepchildren than were older stepmothers. Palermo (1980) found remarried couples reported no significant differences in the relationships of stepparents with adolescents and those with younger children.
Few studies have examined the role of the stepfather in the steprelationship. Pasley and Ihinger-Tallman (1994) found stepfathers to be more authorative or permissive than biological fathers and less consistent in maintaining limits with their stepchildren. And Walker and Messinger (1979) found role prescriptions for stepfathers are nonexistent.
To learn how mental health professionals might help stepparents become adept at meeting the needs of their stepfamilies, this qualitative study of stepfathers was based on a conceptual framework that included psychological concepts, structural components, and cultural concepts that might have an impact on the stepfamily. Using a multicase study approach, the purposes of this study were to examine the parenting role of the stepfather through examining subjects' perceptions of their experiences as stepparents, and to examine the factors contributing to stepfather-stepchild relationships. The attempt was to understand the experiences of stepfathers in a remarried family to provide insight into the parenting role of stepfathers, the factors that contribute to the steprelationships of the respondents in the study, and stepfathers' aspirations for change.
A convenience sample was obtained of six stepfathers who lived with their wives and at least one child in North Carolina. When contacted by telephone, each was asked if he would participate in the study and if he would be willing to be interviewed in his natural setting at home. Each was encouraged to invite the family to join him and the researcher. (See Table 1 for a description of the subjects' families).
Table 1. Stepfathers' Family Composition Assigned Name(*) Age Wife's Age Time Married Julian 37 41 14 mo Jeff 51 43 8 yr Charles 39 34 2 yr Fred 39 41 8 yr Dick 40 38 9 mo Sam 50 48 19 yr Assigned Name(*) Stepchildren Natural Children n Ages n Ages Julian 2 10,16 2 8,12 Jeff 2 17,21 2 25,27 Charles 2 7,12 2 12,21 Fred 1 15 1 18 Dick 2 8,11 1 8 Sam 1 30 3 25,27,28
(*) Names were changed to assure confidentiality
The participants cited the following as factors leading to their divorces: "immaturity," "she had emotional problems," "my wife just left," "unreconcilable differences," and "we grew apart." Two cited "infidelity" of the spouse. The men's perceptions of their wives' previous marriages were that they had failed because of alcoholism of her spouse, a search for herself, suicide of the spouse, infidelity, a gay spouse, and incompatibility.
All subjects held leadership positions in their professions. Educationally, the participants and their wives ranged from high school graduates to one having completed a law degree. Only one stepfather had not experienced formal education beyond high school. All identified some religious affiliation. One husband listed no religious affiliation for his wife.
Of the six couples, only two had lived together prior to their current marriages. One wife had moved in with the subject 6 months prior to their marriage, while the other couple had moved to a different, larger apartment 1 1/2 years before they were married.
In the initial interview, each subject was assured of confidentiality, and the procedure for participating in the study was explained. To assure anonymity, all the participants and their families' were given code names for reporting. Each was asked to sign a consent form giving permission to audiotape the interviews. Demographic data sheets on each of the participants were collected. Information gathered by following the semistructured Interview Guide (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982), was audiotaped. The open-ended questions were flexible enough to collect and note data on unexpected dimensions of the topic. The Interview Guide consisted of three basic questions:
1. How have you experienced the parenting role in the step family?
2. Tell me a story about a typical day for you as a stepfather.
3. If you could change anything about your stepparenting role, what might it be?
For the six participants, the initial interviews lasted from 1 to 2 hours. Personal follow-up interviews were made with three of the interviewees; six telephone followup interviews took place with three of the participants. Data collected were as follows: field notes that consisted of transcriptions of audiotaped interviews, verbatim transcripts of telephone follow-up interviews, observers' comments, end notes, and a letter received from the wife of a participant. Each subject was interviewed at least twice. After completing 15 interviews, data saturation had occurred. All the interviews were transcribed by the researcher, except one transcribed by a typist.
Inductive analysis of the data was conducted to identify clues, categories, and themes as a way to explore the emerging parenting role of stepfathers, the factors that seemed to effect the stepfather's role, the problems identified by stepfathers, and what they would like to change about their stepparenting.
An experienced qualitative researcher was consulted and asked to examine three of the six initial interviews. She concurred with the researcher's identification of categories and themes. The validity of the study was confirmed by each of the participants who reviewed the preliminary data analysis. They were asked to provide any further clarification if they found any inconsistencies. The stepfathers found the findings consistent with their own experiences.
Experience of Being a Stepfather
When asked how they experienced the stepparenting role, only one participant did not cite negative experiences including turmoil, frustration, problems, or feelings of disappointment and being superfluous in their present parenting roles. Stepfathers with stepchildren between 7 and 12 expressed a number of negative experiences with their roles, as did the stepfather of the 30-year-old stepson. Stepfathers with young stepchildren often felt like outsiders with no authority.
Well, my experiences are not really as a parent.
You're just there. Sometimes, it's not even wise to
express your feelings .... You feel kind of left out, I
reckon. It's jusssst... you don't have any authority!
If you say anything, you feel like you may be overstepping.
You might put your two cents' worth
where it's not welcome... I don't say anything
unless I'm asked directly, 'cause you don't want to
be siding with their mama against them; then, you
don't want their mama to think you're siding with
the children. It's not like they were my own children
... I don't feel like a relative or any other kin. I'm just
the guy that's there, that's married to their mama.
Stepfathers who expressed the least frustration and disappointment were the two stepfathers who each had only one stepdaughter living at home. Sam recalled some very negative experiences with his 30-year-old stepson, who had returned home after declaring bankruptcy and charges of driving under the influence, and had gotten into "crack with some girl .... Many things were taken from our home--$1,000 worth of gold jewelry .... We've had phone calls telling us to make sure he doesn't come back ...."
The stepfathers were able to enjoy their stepchildren when they felt they were being recognized or appreciated by them, for example, when they were able to teach their stepchildren about something they both valued. Dick, with pride in his voice, described looking for a missing cat with his 11-year-old stepdaughter.
We were whistling for the cat... and we ran into a
dead snake in the road. Her first reaction was,
"Ahhhhh!" Scare, scare, then we went over to look
at it .... It got dark, and a couple of bats flew
around, and I showed her that, and you could tell
she was enjoying the walk. She really was! And
Roselyn, what I've seen of her this summer, she's
much nicer.., she's more interested, and I think
you can relate to her--can teach her .... She's
responded to that, and that's a positive thing!
Although recollections of negative experiences far exceeded positive ones for four of the six stepfathers, each was able to cite some positive encounters with his stepchild.
Four themes were elicited from the data as contributing to the stepfather-stepchild relationship: previous experiences as parents, other relationships within the family, issues requiring negotiation, and discipline of the children.
Previous experiences as parents. Those stepfathers who participated actively in the child rearing of their natural children expressed more satisfactory stepfather-stepchild relationships than those who did not. Whether stepfathers were called "Daddy" or by their first name did not seem to have any bearing on the steprelationships. Charles, who was 39 and the stepfather of a 7-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, was called by his first name, but went on to say:
Now I wanted and am still willing to assume the
classic father responsibility for the children. I know
that I can't be... feel as their natural father, and I
don't expect that bond to be there. I do expect--I
hope that I have demonstrated enough maturity to
be considered someone that could set an example. I
would like to be considered, and I do consider
myself a good father figure.
Two of the stepfathers experienced the stepparenting role as very much like being a biological father. Stepfathers compared their stepchildren to their natural children and expressed more satisfactory steprelationships when their stepchildren participated in some of the activities they enjoyed with their natural children. In addition, stepfathers who were able to maintain close relationships with their natural children seemed to have more satisfactory stepparent-stepchild relationships.
When Jeff was asked how he and his wife went about establishing guidelines for his four stepchildren, he responded: "I think they saw in my kids; they knew that my kids respected me. They knew what I expected of them."
Other relationships in the family. Although husband-wife relationships were depicted as positive, with the exception of Dick and his wife, data analysis revealed that their relationships were complex, typified by caring but also by struggle. With two stepdaughters under 12 years of age, Dick found himself not seeing Margaret very much before 10 o'clock.
If you're engrossed in a particular magazine article,
and she comes down, you only have one hour
before it's time to get ready to go to bed, it doesn't
leave much time, 'cause you can be tuned out ....
You don't need to tune her out, and if you have
bad luck, and you do that a couple of nights in a
row, you've got some real problems .... So, by the
end of the week, you're tired, because you're in
sleep deficit, because you tried to make a little time
for yourself .... I guess the way I grew up, not
hearing "I love you," not having the touchy-feely
relationships all the time, I am secure enough in
our relationship that I could be a traveling salesman,
and be happy that way. She needs a lot more,
closer touch, and that makes me feel too tied down.
... Clinging--Margaret gets clingy at times ....
Stepfathers believed stepchildren who were permitted and encouraged to spend time with their natural fathers without interference from the mother and stepfather often responded more positively toward the stepfathers. The most positive relationship between a stepfather and his stepchildren was that of Jeff, who had legally adopted the stepchildren after their natural father died. Stepfathers experienced the most positive stepparenting relationships when the natural fathers were no longer living or lived out of state, although most stepfathers said they welcomed the involvement of the stepchildren's natural fathers and often made positive comments about them. Their wives, on the other hand, were willing to discuss concerns about the children with their former spouses only when it became imperative and then, often with anger and bitterness. One of the stepfathers shared his feelings about his wife's former spouse:
According to her, he's just an --. He left for
the other woman, that sort of stuff... We've made
a point, he and I, to be civil.., even though she
can't talk to him without getting angry, and he gets
defensive talking to her.
When natural fathers lived nearby, stepfathers often did not feel like parents in the stepfamily. Julian found that his 10-year-old stepdaughter, Cloe, could spend a night with her natural father, and "twenty-four hours later, she's like a different child... because there aren't any rules over there."
Matters that required negotiation. Matters requiring negotiation were: matters of privacy, space, bedtime; food and meals; and clothes, toys, and chores. Stepfathers found conflicts occurring when their own previous traditions and values were different from those of the stepfamilies.
Matters centered on privacy, space, and bedtime were a major problem for Dick, who expressed a great deal of frustration about trying to find space for himself. He had been a bachelor until age 30, finding it difficult even in this second marriage to adjust to a household with "three females." Dick talked a lot about the house he was building at the beach, which he called his "solitude" when he wanted to get away from the city. Referring to the two residences the couple owned, he said:
We should have found some common place in the
middle rather than end up with two .... Now what
is going to happen in the Fall is not clear, because I
ended up with three cats, due to my inability to say
no .... I have an obligation to spend some time
down there so they won't run away .... Plus, I
think it probably would be good for me to get a little
It was obvious Dick had negotiated a way to resolve his need for quiet time for himself by agreeing to keep the cats. That seemed more acceptable to him than telling Margaret he needed the quiet time. While his wife put the children to bed, he admitted he often had thoughts such as these:
I value quiet time, and probably need it, because
I'm used to it. Margaret's had this three-ring circus
... apparently does not need it .... I will spend a
fair amount of time just lying on the couch, the
television on... mainly it's there for background
noise, and... I just want time to read through the
three or four magazines I subscribe to. She won't
come down, I'd love it, if she'd get on the couch,
face the other way if she wanted to, and just sit
there and intertwine feet--just kind of there. It's
kind of--almost like a pet. A dog will roll up in the
corner, and he'll sleep soundly in the same room; a
cat will do the same thing.
The three stepfathers who had young stepchildren expressed some negative feelings about food and meals. Only one of the six stepfathers chose to routinely eat breakfast with his stepchild. Two stepfathers chose to take showers while their stepchildren were eating. Dick cited waste of food as a major problem for him:
The kids leave a lot of waste, and I found that
when I commented on it, their mother would act
like her feelings were hurt, and say, "Can't you
ever say anything nice about them?" and I'd go
through, "Well, I won't say anything!"... Just
basically ignore the situation, but it bums holes ....
It's just difference... just difference.
Three of the six subjects expressed frustration about clothes, toys, and chores. Two of them who complained about these had young stepchildren, while one had a teenage stepdaughter. Especially problematic for the stepfathers was the lack of routine responsibility their stepchildren assumed in doing chores. Clutter was bothersome and Dick suggested removing furniture from a child's bedroom if it was not neatly arranged.
Do you remove the furniture from the room? You
don't make your bed, you don't need that! You
won't put your clothes in your dresser, you won't
have one. I wish I were allowed to do something
like that, to see that stuff was kept better. In that
way, you're away from bedtime, the child learns
to pick up, instead of having to say, "It's bed-time.
God! This room is a mess! Clean the room up right
now!... You can hear them up there, clanging
away at toys, and you're thinking, well, here I'd
like to see my wife, and she's up there, telling
some 8-year-old or 11-year-old to clean up their
room, which they both should be able to understand
and do on their own... I can't help but
think back to before I was subjected to all of this.
Discipline of the children. Discipline emerged as a contributing factor in the stepfather-stepchild relationship. It provided a major focus for negotiation within the stepfamilies but has been separated from the other issues because of its perceived importance. Stepfathers whose stepchildren were preteenagers voiced concern about hurting their wives' feelings. Four of the six stepfathers said their wives handled the primary discipline of their natural children, although all the stepfathers expressed a desire to be more actively involved in the discipline of their stepchildren. Even if they were invited to help their wives with discipline, they felt reprimanded later for having done so. Stepfathers found it more important to avoid conflict with their wives than to become engaged in the active disciplining of their stepchildren.
Jeff and his wife, Betsy, were the only couple who shared in the discipline of the children. Whenever possible, they confronted the child who required action together; although Jeff admitted, "I did most of the talking .... "His eyes became moist as he shared his experiences:
I have never had to spank one of them... I found
it more effective to let them know that I would... I
don't know if it was my military background...
Maybe, a dominating voice... but they knew
pretty well what I wanted. Like I said though, I
never spanked one of 'em, but I had some goo-oo-d
conversations! I found it did more, because they'd
leave teary-eyed and I would, too. And... we'd
hug next, and it was all over.
The stepfathers believed they might be more objective about their stepchildren than their wives were, but believed that stepchildren were much more sensitive to discipline by a stepparent than a natural parent. Julian mentioned: "I think stepchildren think you're picking on them." Charles usually "let" Carol assume the role of the disciplinarian. Before Carol, he was in a relationship with a woman who had three teenage children between 12 and 16. He described this experience as having led him to assume his present stepparenting role.
There were always confrontations, unruliness,
things like this .... I kind of stand back now, even
if I have to bite my tongue .... It's a much safer
position, but not one necessarily that is going to
evolve us to the point that we really want to be...
but, our house is not in turmoil .... It's not like an
accident waiting to happen. I'm not sure if I should
let my previous experience guide me in this situation,
but as human beings, we sometimes do that...
If an action causes a poor reaction, we shy away
from that .... Sometimes, because I am reserved,
there have been two instances, where it builds up
to a point where I feel something has to be done,
then I overreact .... But in two years, maybe...
we're not talking about anything severe .... I think
we focus sometimes too much on the problems
that are right at hand, than we do on the overall
objective of rearing mentally balanced children that
can evolve and keep life perpetuated ....
His face became more and more serious, and an occasional twitch appeared in his left eye, as he discussed discipline of his stepchildren:
I realize that I should show my discipline, and I
think it would be welcomed by my mate.
However, it does appear that whenever I do, there
is a conflict, and so once again to avoid conflict, I
go back--revert back to that position--just letting
things go unattended.
Both Julian and Charles believed the natural parents should discipline their children. Dick and Jeff were the only stepfathers who discussed the discipline of children before or at the time they were married. Unlike Jeff, Dick and Margaret did not follow through with their plans.
We talked about it. And when we were talking
about getting married, we talked about the necessity
of rules, even handed down rules. Even went
to the point, on the honeymoon, of saying, let's sit
down, write some up, bring 'em back, and don't
let's just present 'em to the girls, but let's have a
family discussion, and lead them to adopting those
rules, and then we would type them up, print
them, and everybody could refer to 'em. Good
intentions never got done! We never talked on
about that, and I guess, once you got in it ....
There's not a lot of time that you have to work that
out, both people working, with children who don't
go to bed at 7 o'clock at night.
Though four stepfathers avoided disciplining the children to decrease conflict with their wives, these stepfathers were quick to admit this approach was not necessarily the one they believed was best for their stepchildren or their relationships with their wives. Their feelings of anger, disappointment, and frustration were suppressed, leading to other problems.
Things Stepfathers Would Change
Attending support groups. At the time of the initial interviews, none of the stepfathers was aware of national support groups or any local group specifically designed to provide support and help to stepfamilies. They recommended the establishment of such groups, where stepparents could get together and discuss common problems. All were interested in improving communication in their steprelationships by having a qualified leader to facilitate the group process, so that it would be a problem-solving experience and "not just a place to ventilate negative feelings."
Being more involved. Three of the six men desired changes in their roles. Four of the stepfathers wanted more opportunities for recreational time with their stepchildren, more authority by having their wives share the discipline of the children with them, and more time with their wives. All expressed frustration with trying to communicate their feelings effectively to their wives and their stepchildren. They often had assumed passive parenting roles or had allowed their wives to assign such roles, even though they were sacrificing what they thought was best for their stepchildren.
At the close of the study, only four of the six stepfathers were living with their wives, as one wife had died and one couple had separated. However, in follow-up studies years later, only one couple (Charles and his wife) out of the six remained physically intact as a family unit 7 days per week. Fred and his wife have a commuting marriage. This outcome is consistent with recent literature showing the presence of stepchildren within remarried homes is a major reason for the increased divorce rate among couples with stepchildren (Booth & Edwards, 1992; Glick, 1989) because of the destabilizing effect stepchildren have on these households.
This study confirmed previous findings that wide variation occurs in how stepfathers view their roles. However, this study contributes a beginning typology of stepparenting roles, different approaches or patterns, which take into account structural components of the stepfamily, probably influenced by psychological and cultural perspectives.
Some stepfathers assumed the role of "father," which included sharing in the responsibility of the discipline of the children and striving to perceive them as "our" children rather than "yours" or "mine." Although some writers have suggested it might be better to allow the roles of the new spouse to emerge gradually (Einstein & Albert, 1983; Walker & Messinger, 1979), stepfathers in this study who acted as they had in their previous marriages felt more satisfaction as stepparents.
Others who felt unable to communicate with their wives effectively chose the role of being a "friend" to their stepchildren by assuming a standoff position, sometimes relinquishing all disciplinary matters. The friend role was ultimately unsatisfying.
The findings were supportive of Palermo's (1980) and Rosin's (1987) studies that suggested steprelationships may be influenced by factors other than the child's age. The discipline of the children as a contributing factor to steprelationships in this study differs somewhat from the findings of Albrecht (1979), who found the impact of children on the present remarriage was not significant. Psychological or developmental changes occurred for these stepfathers as a result of both internal and external aspects. Developmental perspectives were especially noted in one situation where the stepfather (Dick) married for the first time at age 30, and had trouble adjusting to living with others, resulting in a divorce for the couple.
Two primary factors that contributed to a positive stepfather-stepchild relationship were: (1) a loving relationship between the stepfather and the biological mother of the stepchild, and (2) active involvement in the stepfather teaching the stepchild something mutually valued.
In support of Pasley and Ihinger-Tallman's (1994) work, the boundaries of the stepfamily were found to be permeable, and there was no degree of clarity or defined role prescriptions relating to the rights and obligations of the stepfathers. The stepfathers evolved a kind of roleplaying strategy to find the most comfortable fit for their parenting role (Walker & Messenger, 1979).
Also consistent with the literature, the stepfathers who communicated about their roles as stepparents with their spouses prior to their remarriages were able to meet the challenges of child rearing in a constructive manner (Duberman, 1973; Rosin, 1987).
The findings in the present study, however, contrasted with Rosin's finding that stepfathers who had the most difficulty finding enough private time with their wives were those whose stepchildren's natural fathers were deceased or lived out of state. The stepfathers in this study who expressed the most frustration about the lack of space or private time were those whose stepchildren's natural fathers maintained active parenting roles.
Limitations of the Study
One limitation of the study was that all six subjects were white, middle-class professionals. Being a female researcher interviewing male stepparents proved to be a limitation occasionally. In a few instances, the respondent would refer to his wife as "you" instead of "she," as though transferring some emotions to me that he felt toward his wife. At other times, it seemed that being a female researcher finally gave the male stepparent an opportunity to express his feelings to a female who would not be hurt or judgmental. However, as a marriage and family therapist, I found it frustrating that I could not intervene with the participants when they expressed a need. Respondents may have unconsciously perceived this and responded accordingly.
Implications for Nurse Psychotherapists
This study demonstrates the need for primary prevention through education for those who plan to remarry as well as those who already have remarried, A focus would be effective communication among all members of the stepfamily. This might be accomplished in premarital counseling, stepparent effectiveness training, or stepparent support groups.
This study of six stepfathers found that dissatisfaction occurred when they were unable to parent their stepchildren similarly to the way they had been accustomed to parenting their biological children in the previous marriage. Stepfathers found conflicts occurring when their own previous values and traditions about matters that required negotiation were different from those of the stepfamilies. Factors leading to satisfaction in stepparenting were positive relationships between stepfathers and their wives. An opportunity for stepfathers to teach their stepchildren something that was mutually valued also brought satisfaction to their roles as stepparents. With positive marital relationships, stepfathers were more likely to work consistently at effective stepparenting. This often included stepfathers spending time with their stepchildren in mutually valued activities.
Acknowledgments. The author would like to acknowledge the NC National League for Nursing, which in part supported this study.
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Lou Whichard Everett, EdD, RN, LMFT, is Professor, Department of Community Mental Health Nursing and Nursing Services Administration, School of Nursing, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC; a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice; and a consultant, Pitt County Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Center, Greenville, NC.…
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Publication information: Article title: Factors That Contribute to Satisfaction or Dissatisfaction in Stepfather-Stepchild Relationships. Contributors: Everett, Lou Whichard - Author. Journal title: Perspectives in Psychiatric Care. Volume: 34. Issue: 2 Publication date: April-June 1998. Page number: 25+. © Nursecom, Inc. Jan 2009. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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