Reconstructing the Stepfamily: Old Myths, New Stories

Article excerpt

The privileged status of the biological nuclear family in American society contributes to the stigmatization of all nonnuclear families, but especially that of stepfamilies. On an institutional level, this privileging is evidenced by disparate treatment in the family court system, schools, churches, and the media. On an individual level, it is often more subtle and insidious. In social discourse, the liberal use of euphemisms for stepfamilies, for example, "blended," "reconstituted," as well as the often-used label "stepchild" to convey inferiority (Coleman & Ganong, 1987), reflect a deeply imbedded societal discomfort and depreciation of the step relationship.

In direct practice, the subordinate status of stepfamilies may affect effectiveness through practitioner bias and stereotypical thinking. Myths, or unrealistic beliefs, are problematic in families because they create self-fulfilling prophecies or standards that are difficult or impossible to meet. Practitioners may help to dispel myths but they can also reinforce them if they themselves share these myths or fail to recognize them (Coleman & Ganong, 1985). Problems in practice also may reflect a lack of knowledge about stepfamily structure and dynamics. Experts in the field (Browning, 1994; Visher & Visher, 1996) contended that generic intervention models are ineffective with stepfamilies.

Given the increase in stepfamilies, they are surprisingly underrepresented in the social work literature. Most efforts have addressed family structural differences and prescriptive clinical interventions using a family systems and psycho-educational approach. This article uses narrative theory to explore some of the current and historical contextual factors that continue to restrict stepfamily stories. It examines the influences of these factors on family policy and family practice with stepfamilies and offers recommendations on how social workers can foster more viable alternative stories.

The tendency to privilege the biological nuclear family story is particularly enigmatic, given the social changes in U.S. family life over the past three decades. One such change has been a significant rise in divorce and marital disruption. Estimates are that nearly 55 percent of first marriages are likely to fail (Bramlett & Masher, 2002). The vast majority of divorced people go on to remarry or cohabitate and to do so within several years (Wilson & Clarke, 1992). Divorce, remarriage, and births to single women (those who later marry or cohabitate) result in about one-third of all Americans being part of a stepfamily. Bumpass, Raley, and Sweet (1995) showed that about 23 percent of children lived in a stepfamily in which the parent was legally married. They estimated that if children who lived with a cohabitating parent were included,

this figure would increase to about 30 percent. Despite their commonality, the stepfamily still holds a dubious position within the dominant culture.

There are compelling reasons why stepfamilies merit more attention from both a policy and a practice perspective. First, given their sheer numbers, stepfamilies are encountered in nearly all practice settings. Second, complex and family situations, combined with stigmatization from the larger society, contribute to a high utilization of mental health services by stepfamilies (Zill & Schoenborn, 1991). Third, the divorce rate for couples when at least one partner has been previously married is even higher than for first marriages (Booth & Edwards, 1992).

Enhancing the skills of practitioners working with stepfamilies has the potential for preventing the harmful effects of serial monogamy and divorce, especially on children. Improving the responsiveness of policies affecting stepfamilies may help to better support them during marriage and, in the event of divorce, promote the maintenance of strong stepparent-stepchild attachment bonds. …

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