Tenet 10. Individual, Marital, and Family Life Cycles Are More Likely to be Incongruent
That parent-child relationships predate the marital relationship is but one example of incongruence in stepfamily life cycles. Another common discrepancy is a greater age difference between partners in stepfamilies than in first marriage couples. Stepfamily couples who differ in age may each have children whose ages vastly differ as well, creating several developmental disparities.
Life course theorists propose that events that happen off-time are more stressful than normative, on-time events (Aldous, 1990). On-time events or developmental transitions are culturally typical experiences that are normatively expected by oneself and others, which often means more social support for these experiences. For instance, a first marriage between individuals in their 20s is celebrated by family and friends, whereas a first marriage between a high school student and a 40-year old might be seen by some as inappropriate. Life course scholars note that individuals prepare themselves to experience normative events, and even if not fully prepared, the social support they receive helps them adapt to the new status (e.g., bridal showers, weddings, and housewarming parties). Remarriage in middle age and later life are off-time events, and even younger individuals who remarry experience off- time status changes in stepfamilies.
For example, the television series Modern Family portrays an extended stepfamily with incongruent family life cycles. Jay, a 60-something man whose children (Mitchell and Claire) are middle aged, married parents themselves, is remarried to Gloria, a much younger woman with a teenage son. After remarriage, Jay and Gloria had a child together, Joe. When Jay and Gloria first married, she and her then preadolescent son disrupted Jay’s “empty nest.” Some of the humor of this comedy series is related to Jay and Gloria being at quite different places in their life courses. Jay wants to relax, slow down, and take time to enjoy the fruits of his earlier labors, while slowly turning the management of his business over to his daughter. Gloria is busy with a toddler, and when not engaging in child care, she wants to shop, have fun, and go out in the evenings. Jay, who may have thought his child-rearing days were long past, can now contemplate over a decade more of back-to-school nights, Little League games, and children’s play dates to supervise. Gloria, who may not have thought much about grandmotherhood before she married Jay, has stepgrand- children who are older than her oldest child and a toddler son who is years younger than his nieces and nephew. Manny, Gloria’s son and Jay’s stepson, is in the same grade in school as his step-nephew, and he is a stepbrother to adults that are two decades older than he is. Although this show normalizes family diversity in many ways, it is played for laughs when Jay asks a store clerk where the diapers are (for baby Joe), and the clerk brings him adult diapers, thinking they are for Jay. In real life, this would be a minor stressor for this stepfamily dad, but such life course disparities have the potential for more serious problems.
For instance, a newly remarried couple may try to foster family closeness by planning family outings and home activities at the same time that an adolescent stepchild is striving for individuation and personal independence. This is an example of remarital/stepfamily development needs being at odds with the developmental needs of individuals in the family. Stepparents who have little knowledge of normal adolescent development may feel rejected by the stepchild who refuses to participate in these family plans, the parent may worry that the remarriage is harming her or his relationship with the child; the stepparent may think the stepchild is being a disrespectful jerk. In reality, the adolescent stepchild is merely trying to grow up! Basic child development knowledge could be quite helpful (Adler-Baeder, Robertson et al., 2010; Ganong et al., 2002).