Challenges in Studying Close Relationships in Stepfamilies

Close relationships in stepfamilies are among the most fascinating and frustrating phenomena to study. The complexity of stepfamily relationships presents challenges to researchers, scholars, and students. One problem that has plagued the study of remarriage and step-relationships has been confusion over what and who are being studied. Being clear about who is included in a study of stepfamilies is more difficult than one might think and certainly is more complicated than identifying and defining samples of first-marriage nuclear families.

Unlike first-marriage, nuclear families, stepfamily members often do not reside full-time in one household. In fact, with the increase in courts’ preferences for joint legal and physical custody of children postdivorce, children’s membership in two households is increasingly common. Thus, a step-household may be linked to another step-household or to a single-parent household by children (Jacobson, 1987) and these linked or binuclear households may contain several combinations of full- and part-time step-relationships (Ahrons & Perlmutter, 1982). The important point is that in stepfamilies, households and families are not necessarily equivalent groups, as they are in most first-marriage, nuclear families. That households and families are not the same groups, however, is only part of the complexity of defining stepfamilies. Roles and relationships within and across these families and households are incredibly complex as well.

Bohannan (1984) identified eight roles and eight possible dyadic relationships in the nuclear family known by kinship terms recognized in English-husband- wife, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter, brother-brother, sister-sister, and brother-sister. Death, divorce, or separation changes the family and household structure, resulting in vacant roles and absent dyadic relationships. For instance, a woman who divorces is no longer a wife, and the family no longer has a husband-wife (marital) relationship. If she and her former spouse remarry people who already have children, there will be a total of 22 possible dyadic rela?tionships. The new stepfamily contains some of the original family relationships (e.g., mother-son), but it also contains relationships never found in first-marriage nuclear families (e.g., stepsister-stepbrother).

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