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Understanding Family Structures and Dynamics


©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A remarried family is a more open system than a nuclear family.

While we still tend to think of families as consisting of a mother, a father, and their children, the reality is that with all the divorces and remarriages that occur in our society, a large number of families are actually stepfamilies, or blended families. Unfortunately, in our society, the word "step" has gained a lot of negative connotations.

When parents remarry, they have hopes for the success of their new family. But if they hope their new family will be like their old one, they will likely be disappointed. That's not to say it can't be a happy family, but it's important to understand some of the wrinkles you must deal with.

In a remarried family, parenting is no longer solely the domain of the married couple; there will be at least one biological parent and possibly other stepparents in different households, not to mention both grandparents and stepgrandparents. In this way, the remarried family is a more open system than a nuclear family. Typically, children are moving in and out of the household for visitation, so the question of who's actually in the family is not always crystal clear.

Not all the members of a remarried family have always been together, so it's likely they have different ways of doing just about everything. In a nuclear family, kids don't question that their parents are indeed the parents. In a remarried family, the parents may not have been together long enough to reach a consensus about parenting issues; the kids may not accept parenting from the stepparents. This can be hard on adults as well as children.

In a nuclear family, relatives and friends usually recognize all family members as a family. When you remarry, they may see you and your children as family, but not fully accept your new spouse and your spouse's children. It's also important to know that the law doesn't recognize stepparent relationships. You can grow close to a stepchild over a number of years, but if you divorce the stepchild's biological parent, the law gives you no rights to visitation.

Strong themes of loss recur in remarried families. Both parents and children come from other families that are no longer intact. If family members have not worked through these losses, continued fears of loss and abandonment and emotional scars may exist. If the parents are still at odds with their ex-spouses, the children suffer from conflicting loyalties, and the new marriage can suffer as well. What often happens is the children end up in the middle, used as spies between one household and the other. It's extremely important for all adults involved -- the married couple and their ex-spouses -- to cooperate with each other in a fair and frank manner with regard to the children.

When children enter a remarried family with other children, their rank in the family often changes. For instance, the oldest child may become the second child. Suddenly, the role of each child is unclear. It's also important to note that because stepsiblings are not blood relatives, the incest taboo is not as clear.

These are just a few of the dynamics that can make a remarried family very different from a nuclear family. We aren't trying to scare you away from entering into a remarried family, but we are trying to help you see that some of the intense feelings and complications that will come up are entirely normal. You can take steps to minimize the difficulties.

Before entering into a remarried family, it's important that all members have recovered from past losses. Your children may need to talk about your ex-spouse, and you may need to let them, regardless of how you feel about him or her.

Before you all move in together, take steps to ease the transition:

  • All individuals who make up the new family need to be open about their fears. You all need to listen to each other. Know that it will take time for all of you to adjust to new roles and a different household.

  • Maintain coparenting relationships in a cooperative way with ex-spouses. This is important to prevent loyalty conflicts. Kids need to hear that even though Mommy and Daddy don't want to be together anymore, they both love and care about their children.

  • Plan space for children in all households where they will stay; it's very disconcerting for them not to have a space of their own.

  • Make sure all sides of the family (your family, your ex-spouse's family, and your new spouse's family) understand your new situation.

  • Make emotional room for all the new relationships and roles.

To complete a healthy transition once you have all moved in together, you need to accept that this is a different sort of family, one where roles will shift as different family members (for example, ex-spouses, and children who may not live with you all the time) come in and out of your life. Allow and encourage your new family to share memories and histories together. This helps all of you to integrate and become a family. It's important for children to know that the past has not been forgotten or negated by this new family. Don't overreact and become defensive if your stepchild compares you with his biological parent. Take time to establish a friendly relationship with stepchildren; don't jump into a disciplinary role too quickly, especially with older children. It's also important that you and your spouse support each other in parenting roles; if you don't, the children sense it and play each of you against the other.

The Development of Love

It's not uncommon to enter into remarriage with the expectation that if you love your spouse, you will, of course, love his or her children. But, for many reasons, instant love between parent and stepchild doesn't necessarily happen.

Very often, instant love is an unrealistic expectation that causes us to try to be Superparents. It's not uncommon to feel guilty about loving your own children more than your stepchildren. If you find yourself in this situation, consider talking to a counselor or other supportive professional who can help you clarify the discrepancies that may exist between your beliefs and expectations and what is realistic. It may also help for your spouse to consider whether his or her expectations may inhibit you from establishing a genuine relationship with your spouse's children. A stepparent is not a parent, but ultimately you and your stepchildren will build bonds that reflect the unique relationship you have with them.

Yours, Mine, Ours, and Theirs

The decision of a remarried couple to have children of their own often helps harmonize relationships between stepsiblings, probably because the blood relationship all the siblings now have in common with the new child strengthens bonds. However, sometimes the stepsiblings feel unimportant or left out. Complicating the situation further, about the same time you and your new spouse are having children, your ex- spouses may have remarried and may also be having children. So your biological child now has a half-sibling by your remarriage, a half-sibling by your ex-spouse's remarriage, and stepsiblings by your spouse's ex-spouse's remarriage. If this is confusing for you, imagine what it's like for the children, especially if they're young! It may be helpful to sit down and map out a family tree. This helps the children better understand who's who and also helps clear up some of your own confusion.

Remarried families are very complex. Each additional member of the family system allows for another relationship or another role with every other member in the system. There can be biological parents and grandparents, stepparents and stepgrandparents, siblings, half-siblings, and stepsiblings. With so many different kinds of relationships between so many people, the potential for stress is enormous. But there's also an increased potential for a large support network if everyone communicates and cooperates. The rewards can be tremendous.

Another family structure that can be complex but potentially rewarding is adoption. Learn about this tricky process in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.