The complexity of step relationships

Family Law|August 12th 2015

Researchers at the University of Missouri have conducted one of the first studies into the complex relationship between former step children and step parents.

They spoke to 41 younger adults who had been part of step families that later broke up. Around half the participants said they had considered the step parents part of their family, and of those adults, approximately half again had maintained a relationship with those step parents after the marriage or relationship with their biological parent ended.

A number of factors affected any continuing relationship between former step parents and step children, the researchers found. These included the extent which the children had had an emotional reaction to the divorce and whether or not their biological parent encouraged them to continue the relationship.

Professor Marilyn Coleman said:

“For a substantial portion of these children’s lives, they’ve been living with a stepparent, who, in many cases, became a parent to them. Then, the couple breaks up, the family breaks up, and what happens to these kids? Stepparents may have invested a lot of time, a lot of emotion in raising a child and then end the relationship completely. Sometimes, there’s an assumption that when the relationship ends, there’s no need to continue ties. But for children who have grown up viewing someone as a parent, it may not be so easy for them to lose that relationship.”

Professor Larry Ganong, meanwhile, highlighted the ambiguity of step relationships, in which roles are not precisely defined, and this uncertainty becomes even more pronounced if the central marriage or relationship breaks down.

” When there’s a second divorce, there are neither blood nor legal ties binding stepparents and stepchildren, so that creates an added level of complexity about who’s in families and why.”

The research was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

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