A Demographic Turning Point

In the early 1970s, in the USA, a major turning point occurred in the history of stepfamilies. For the first time ever, more stepfamilies were formed after divorce than after the death of a parent (Strow & Strow, 2006). This demographic trend also occurred a few years later (mid-1970s and early 1980s) in other western nations (e.g., Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

For a variety of reasons, and due to multiple changes in American society, divorce rates increased rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. The increase in the number of divorced individuals, many of whom were parents, led to a rapid increase in the number of postdivorce stepfamilies. Divorced parents did not remain single for long-most divorced parents remarried or repartnered soon after divorce, and therefore many stepfamilies were formed.

In these postdivorce stepfamilies, stepparents were no longer automatically replacements for absent parents. Nonresidential biological parents often were still in contact with their children and their former spouses. They also continued to financially support their children at some level. Postdivorce remarriage no longer closed the family circle and reconstituted the nuclear family; instead, adding a stepparent postdivorce created new kin and new interaction patterns. It also created issues that could not be ignored.

If stepparents were not replacements for deceased or otherwise absent parents, what were they? What roles in the family were they expected to perform? What types of relationships were they expected to have with stepchildren and stepchildren with them? Growing numbers of stepfamily members felt like they were living in a new and rare family form, and they needed help. Unfortunately, therapists, teachers, clergy, and other helping professionals who interacted with these postdivorce step- families seemed unprepared. It was as if stepfamilies had been discovered as a new and troubling family form.

Shortly after the “demographic turning point” in the early 1970s, it became difficult for researchers, clinicians, and policy-makers to ignore postdivorce stepfamilies. However, when scholars began to explore the terrain of stepfamily life, it was predominately with a nuclear family map. Because this map did not allow families to have more than two parents at a time, researchers, practitioners, and stepfamily members were forced to become pioneers in discovering the topography of this “brave new world.”

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