Structural Complexity

Tenet 4. Stepfamilies Are More Structurally Complex Than Other Family Forms

Stepfamilies are more complex units than first marriage families because they tend to have more people, roles, and relationships. Unlike most first marriage families, which typically begin with only the married couple—stepfamilies are most often multigenerational units from the beginning—the remarried couple, one or more children, and at least one former partner (either living or deceased). Increasingly, there are children in stepfamilies from multiple parents, as a result of repeated household transitions and their parents having reproduced with more than one partner (Gennetian, 2005). Consequently, children can have half-siblings that are not related to each other—in short, the structural complexity of stepfamilies is not only because of divorce, remarriage, and repartnering of adults, but also because of multiple partner fertility producing complicated and convoluted sibling ties (Gennetian, 2005).

More people mean more types of relationships. For instance, a first marriage family with three people has three dyadic relationships: Husband-wife, mother-child, and father-child. By adding a second child, they create a fourth type of relationship, sibling-sibling. In contrast, in a stepfamily formed by a divorced woman with physical custody of her child and a divorced man with physical custody of his child, there are nine types of relationships—the remarried/repartnered couple, stepfather-stepchild, stepmother-stepchild, residential mother-child, residential father-child, stepsiblingstepsibling, nonresidential mother-child, nonresidential father-child, and two former husband-wife co-parenting dyads. This example would be even more complicated if there were multiple children from additional prior unions.

Remarriages following divorce often result in four adults in parental positions — a mother, a stepfather, a father, and a stepmother. Between the two households there may be several sets of his and hers children, as well as the possibility of ours children if the couple reproduces together. Although both first marriage families and stepfamilies have extended kin, stepfamilies often have more of them (e.g., step- grandparents in addition to grandparents, whole complements of step-aunts, step- uncles, and step-cousins). In order for adults and children to get their needs met in a newly formed stepfamily, clinicians argue that stepfamilies have to integrate all of these relationships into some kind of workable whole (Visher & Visher, 1996), or create a new family culture (Goldner, 1982; Papernow, 2013).

The multiplicity of people and relationships demands clear communication between stepfamily members if the system is to function smoothly. Therefore, by virtue of their complexity stepfamilies place great demands on their members’ problem-solving and communication skills (Adler-Baeder, Robertson et al., 2010; Ganong et al., 2002). It should be noted, however, that complexity does not equal problems, distress, or dysfunction. Some people like the challenges, stimulation, and excitement of more people and relationships, and they may welcome the additional complexity of stepfamilies. Others may find the complexity a minor inconvenience, and still others may equate complexity with chaos, and their stress reaches crisis proportions.

Clinicians postulate several reasons why complexity is an important contributor to the greater stress experienced by some stepfamily members. For example, some people (e.g., individuals with substance abuse problems, clinical depression, or certain personality characteristics such as low frustration tolerance) may be predisposed in general to difficulties in establishing and maintaining satisfying relationships and they do not have the necessary skills to solve problems in complicated interpersonal environments (Adler-Baeder, Robertson et al., 2010 ; Ganong et al., 2002).

Other individuals are not cognitively or emotionally comfortable dealing with ambiguity, and complexity creates ambiguity. Ambiguities in stepfamily relationships are legion, ranging from what stepparents should be called to how to celebrate holidays and what time, where, and how to eat dinner, never mind what to eat (Berger, 1998; Wald, 1981; Whiteside, 1982). A major source of ambiguity in step- families concerns internal and external boundaries (Browning & Artelt, 2012; Crosbie-Burnett, 1989; McGoldrick & Carter, 2011; Pasley, 1987). Internal boundaries refer to rules about task performance and membership in specific subsystems within the stepfamily; external boundaries refer to rules about who is and is not a member of the stepfamily. In new stepfamilies, the internal boundaries that establish a hierarchy are sometimes challenged; a stepparent may assume that he or she will be the head of the household (or will share these duties), but children may resist the authority of the stepparent and may resent what they see as a demotion in rank for themselves. Stepfamily members may also have different rules about personal space and privacy, and these boundaries must be created anew when stepfamilies form (Browning & Artelt, 2012).

I ndividuals who are exceptionally impatient or who have little tolerance for ambiguity may attempt to reduce the complexity by pushing for relationships to develop quickly. For instance, individuals with low tolerance for uncertainty may rush stepparent adoption in the belief that legally transforming step-relationships will resolve ambiguous feelings and clarify how individuals should interact with each other (Ganong et al., 1999), thus making family life seem more manageable.

The structural complexity of stepfamilies also contributes to stepfamily systems being emotionally different from first marriage families. In the early months and years of stepfamily life, feelings among family members may be extremely varied. Early on in the life of a stepfamily, the adult couple may be intensely connected to each other sexually and emotionally as the couple bonds together. Meanwhile, parent-child ties may remain close, but feel to children as if they are less connected because parents are investing emotionally in their new partners. Emotional ties between stepchildren and stepparents in new stepfamilies generally are unclear, less intense, perhaps conflicted. Over time, these stepfamily bonds are likely to change, but it is unrealistic to expect stepparent-stepchild emotional bonds to match those of parents and children, unless the stepchildren are quite young when the stepparent enters their lives (Ganong, Coleman, & Jamison, 2011; Ganong, Coleman, & Markham et al., 2011). In contrast, emotional bonds between family members in nuclear families, although they may be diverse, evolve over time, with couples creating their relationships before parent-child ties are formed.

The structural complexity of stepfamilies intersects with relationship quality to create a staggering array of emotional environments. For example, Batchelder (1995) identified what she called a relationship orientation, which is a directional attitude toward another person in a relationship (i.e., positive, negative, or neutral). Each individual has an orientation toward the other person in a dyadic relation- ship—for example, a husband can feel positive (+), neutral (0), or negative (-) towards his wife, who may feel positive (+), neutral (0), or negative (-) towards him. When these individual orientations are taken together (e.g., they can both feel positive about each other, both negative, and one neutral and the other positive), for any given dyadic relationship there are nine potential relationship orientations that can be portrayed on a matrix (see Fig. 12.1).

Consequently, as more people and more relationships are added, the numbers of relationship orientations increase dramatically. For example, Batchelder calculates 27 relationship orientations in a family of three members (9 times 3), a number that swells to 89 after postdivorce remarriage. According to Batchelder, postdivorce families with four children have 251 possible relationship orientation combinations following a parent’s remarriage. This actually underestimates the potential emotional complexity in stepfamilies because it does not reflect ambivalent feelings in relationships or the fact that individual relationship orientations can change. Although Batchelder’s combinatorial model is not strictly about stepfamilies, it underscores the potential for emotional complexity among stepfamily members,

Fig. 12.1 Relationship orientation matrix

particularly when families are first forming. That is, at any point in time some step- family relationships are emotionally close (e.g., between mother and child, between spouses), while others may be experienced as hostile or neutral. Given the emotional complexity, it is not surprising that stepfamily members in general report that their relationships are less close than do members of first marriage families (Anderson & White, 1986; Arranz Becker, Salzburger, Lois, & Nauck, 2013; Peek, Bell, Waldron, & Sorell, 1988).

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