Table of Contents:

Structural Complexity

As we have repeatedly noted throughout this book, stepfamily members seldom anticipate how complicated, sometimes overwhelmingly so, their family lives will be (Browning & Artelt, 2012; Goldner, 1982; Papernow, 2013). Although there are many relevant aspects to structural complexity, four receive the most attention: (1) Stepfamilies are more structurally complex than other family forms; (2) Children often are members of two households; (3) Children have a parent who is elsewhere in actuality or in memory; and (4) Co-parents of children in the stepfamily are part of the stepfamily.


For adults, challenges often include maintaining ties with children from previous relationships, continuing to co-parent with a former spouse or partner, and developing and maintaining relationships with new partners and perhaps stepchildren (Ganong et al., 2002). Stepchildren are faced with maintaining ties with nonresidential parents, and perhaps nonresidential siblings, while developing and maintaining relationships with one or more stepparents and stepsiblings.

Using genograms has been recommended as a way to help stepfamilies understand better the complexity of their family structure (Visher & Visher, 1996). Genograms are “family trees,” graphic representations of family histories (usually three generations are portrayed) that also includes family relationships, multigenerational and cross-household patterns of interaction, and information about family structure and changes in structure over time (see Fig. 13.1). Genograms provide people with a clear visual image of how complex their families are (read Browning & Artelt, 2012 ; McGoldrick, Gerson, & Schellenberger, 1998; Papernow, 2013 ; Visher & Visher, 1996 for suggestions on how to use genograms for assessment and intervention). After completing the genogram on a large piece of paper we have asked individual family members to show us who they consider to be in their family (by drawing a circle around their family members, or in other ways). Invariably, each family member selects slightly different groups of people as members of their family. For example, a residential stepfather usually does not include the nonresidential father and his wife as members of his family, whereas stepchildren often do so (Funder, 1991; Gross, 1987). This usually is a surprise to the adults, and it can lead to a discussion about boundaries and varying perceptions and expectations.

In stepfamilies, negotiation is a necessary communication skill for developing, maintaining, and enhancing relationships (Visher & Visher, 1996). This is especially true in the early months and years when new stepfamilies are attempting to merge two family cultures. For example, a stepparent may believe that children should earn their spending money; the parent thinks that they should receive an allowance. Whose “culture” should prevail? It is important for clinicians and educa-

Kardashian-Jenner stepfamily genogram tors to facilitate methods of interacting that allow everyone to state their needs and preferences

Fig. 13.1 Kardashian-Jenner stepfamily genogram tors to facilitate methods of interacting that allow everyone to state their needs and preferences, to recognize and acknowledge when these differ from those of others, and to create acceptable solutions. Otherwise, these differences in family culture will likely deteriorate into the nearly universal feelings that stepparents are too harsh and parents too soft with the children. Given the often tenuous nature of new stepfamily relationships, the indiscriminate expression of thoughts and opinions may be damaging, and should not be encouraged (Papernow, 2013). Instead, step- families that encounter disagreements may need to be coached on how to be assertive but constructive in stating what they see as problems or what they would like to see changed.

Papernow (2001) called this “conducting difficult conversations wisely” (p. 4) and in ways that have “the best chance of being able to be heard and ... that will be most likely to build and strengthen relationships rather than damage them” (p. 1). She proposed ten tools for conducting difficult conversations in stepfami- lies. Some of these are basic communication skills (e.g., sending “I” versus “you” messages, empathizing, taking turns), and others are tailored to stepfamily situations. Among the latter are what Papernow calls, “In my world.” (p. 4). This is a tool to aid stepfamily members in expressing what they believe are the ways in which families should normally function. Papernow calls these their “no brain- ers”—behaviors and household practices that are obviously “correct” for some stepfamily members. However, they may be foreign concepts to new step-kin with different family histories. Our examples about getting milk and stocking the refrigerator illustrate these “cultural clashes.” Papernow thinks that constructive communication that builds relationships create what she calls middle ground. According to Papernow (2013) middle ground is the area of shared values and experiences that makes being together easier; it is that “no brainer” area where everyone agrees. No one has to think about milk and refrigerator space because there is no disagreement about it.

Shared middle ground brings stability to stepfamilies, but it is not always easy to acquire. Stepfamilies tend to lack middle ground; even minor issues have to be thought about and negotiated in the beginning when they are starting out. Therefore, a goal for those working with stepfamilies is to thicken the middle ground—to communicate, and negotiate, if necessary, until there are more and more areas of agreement. Beginning with small disagreements and solving them satisfactorily can create confidence in stepfamily members that they can slowly thicken their middle ground to a level that is comfortable without being stultifying.

Stepfamilies who communicate early in the relationship formation process and share realistic assumptions about the tasks that must be accomplished develop middle ground much sooner than those who do not. As newly formed stepfamilies communicate about rules (e.g., mealtimes, curfews) and rituals (e.g., holiday celebrations, birthdays), they build middle ground that reduces the intensity of effort it takes to accomplish understanding and stability. However, as family transitions occur (e.g., babies born, children moving in and out of the household), stepfamilies that do not communicate with renewed vigor may get stuck, the development of middle ground stalls, which decreases satisfaction and stifles positive and nurturing interaction.

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