Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

How Typical
 Stepfamilies Develop

Three Possible Paths

 By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


  The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/develop.htm

Updated  05-03-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents in a divorcing family, or any of the three or more related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily. 

          This article outlines three possible developmental paths that typical new stepfamilies follow over time: nurturing, enduring, or dying (divorce). Awareness of these paths and the factors that determine them can help co-parents agree on a long-range perspective on "Where do we want our stepfamily to go?" and "How're we doing?"

      The wry title of David Campbell's book on careers applies well to stepfamily development: "If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Probably End Up Somewhere Else." That's why forging and using a stepfamily mission statement is vital for long-term family stability, harmony, and satisfaction.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6

  • these stepfamily facts and Q&A items

  • traits of high-nurturance ("functional") families, and...

  • this example of a real stepfamily's evolution

       Persons, relationships, families, and civilizations all have identifiable beginnings, developmental stages, and endings. Social scientists have described the developmental cycle of typical families. This cycle has a common theme, but varies in detail for different kinds of family: biological ("traditional"), absent-parent, childless, homosexual, foster, communal - and stepfamily.

 Typical Stepfamily Development Phases

      Compared to average intact biofamilies, typical multi-generational stepfamilies must negotiate many extra phases in their evolutionary path. They usually have more related adults and kids; many more concurrent conflicts and adjustment tasks; and different social, co-parenting, religious, and legal environments. These combine to create many more possible routes to the final family-development step of "co-parent death and survivors' grieving." 

      Note that there are over 100 structural types of stepfamily. In America, about 90% of these follow one or both partners' divorces. The rest follow the death of a spouse. Each type follows some version of this basic stepfamily-developmental cycle:

          1) One or two divorces or mate-deaths, followed by...

      2) Surviving adults, kids, and emotionally-bonded relatives grieving (or ignoring) their divorce or death-related losses over time; and...

      3) A one or two-home absent-parent (vs. "single-parent") nuclear family stabilizing (or not). "Stabilizing" requires all relatives to adapt to or resolve significant family conflicts over parenting responsibilities, and child custody, visitations, and financial support. Eventually...

      4) One co-parent begins to date a new partner with or without kids; and...

      5) The couple eventually chooses a dwelling (his, hers, or new) and cohabits, with or without re/ marrying, and with or without existing kids. This causes...

      6)  The merger and gradual grieving and restabilizing (or not) of the three or more co-parents' extended biofamilies. This simple sentence describes a stunningly complex process of...
  • accepting (or ignoring) their new stepfamily identity, and agreeing on (or disputing) who belongs to this  new family system; and over time...

  • learning and adapting to (or ignoring) stepfamily norms and realities, and...

  • working together to master up to 36 concurrent personal and family-adjustment tasks that can span a decade or more. How these tasks progress creates many unique stepfamily-development paths.

      To achieve a stable high-nurturance stepfamily, all adults must (a) navigate through this array of alien new tasks successfully, while they help each of their dependent kids to fill up to 35 unique adjustment needs. The adults must do this at the same time their youngsters are negotiating their own developmental steps toward stable adult independence. Each adult is going through their own developmental (mid-life, retirement, aging) phases, too. Never a dull moment!

          Another probable development phase can occur during steps 4-6 above: 

      7*)  An ex-mate gets re/married, re/divorced, and/or has a(nother) child. Each time this happens, the whole extended-stepfamily system must (a) adjust it's membership, roles, rules, priorities, rituals, asset ownerships, allegiances, dreams, loyalties, and logistics again; (b) grieve the old ones, and (c) restabilize. Typically this takes four or more years from the new couple's commitment. .

      Restabilizing (or not) is largely determined by...

  • effectiveness of your adult members' communication, plus...

  • the extent of their stepfamily awareness and knowledge, plus...

  • the (emotional + mental + physical + spiritual) health and priorities of the stepfamily's leaders.

* This re/marriage-adjustment phase can be repeated several times, so it's a developmental "corkscrew" (a spiral through time) vs. the traditional intact biofamily's straight evolutionary path. Each version of this phase can take many years. Eventually...

      8) The youngest stepchild or half-sibling leaves home for good, and the traditional biofamily develop-mental phases (grandchildren > retirement > death) run their course. These developmental phases usually involve many more people in a stepfamily than in average extended biofamilies. Your stepfamily's developmental path "ends" when (a) the youngest of your three or more related co-parents dies and (b) is grieved "enough."

      Depending on several key variables, any stepfamily will have one of three possible outcomes as it moves through these developmental stages. Knowledge of these outcomes can help co-parents make healthy decisions as they work at merging their biofamilies and stabilizing their complex new stepfamily system.

     Three Possible Stepfamily Growth Paths

          The paths over time are...

    • stable bonding, nurturing, and fulfilling ("functional"),

    • enduring significant pain and stress ("dysfunctional," low-nurturance); and...

    • eventual psychological or legal re/divorce and dis-integration.

      Co-parents' (a) psychological wounds and (b) awareness of these universal hazards and problems, and their (c) dedication to overcoming them together, determine which path their stepfamily will follow. Social scientists estimate that well over half of recent U.S. stepfamilies have taken the last path. Most of the others endure significant stress and stop short of legal re/divorce.

      If a flight agent told you that your plane had over 50% chance of crashing, would you take your family aboard? I write this article to alert and motivate you, not depress you.

      Let's compare key stepfamily traits of these three developmental paths. Do you know which path you're on? Notice individual trait-differences and the theme of all of them.

Mates are psychologically wounded. No, or they're healing their wounds effectively Yes, and they are not healing their wounds Yes, and they are not healing their wounds
Mates know and heed these courtship danger signs. Yes No, or somewhat No
Mates studied and discussed Lessons 1 thru 7 or equivalent Yes, during courtship or soon after committing Probably not, or mates discounted them No
Re/married bioparents' priorities Wholistic health comes first, re/marriage sec-ond, all else third, except in emergencies. This is spontaneous, not dutiful Inconsistent or unclear priorities; biokids or ex mates often come first, despite stepparent protests and resentment Biokids or ex mates come first; stepparent/s feel secondary and resentful; no effective problem-solving
(Re)marriages Strong, stable, and growing. Effective problem-solving Stable; mates are significantly dissatisfied. but can't problem-solve Unstable, dissatisfaction increasing in one or both mates. No effective problem-solving
Adults accepted their identity as a stepfamily and what it means Yes, and taught these to their kids May have accepted their identity, but are ignoring what it means Rejected or ignored their stepfamily identity, and/ or ignored what it means
Both parents of each stepchild are fully accepted as family members by adults and kids Yes Probably not, or a divorced parent rejects their stepfamily membership One or more kids' bio-parents are rejected / excluded from stepfamily membership
Family adults' ability to communicate effectively Consistent in and among all homes and adults Occasionally among some adults Rarely or never effective
Family loyalty conflicts Adults can spot and resolve them, and teach their kids how to do so No shared awareness of these conflicts or how to resolve them Increasing stress from unresolved loyalty conflicts in and between homes
Values conflicts Adults can spot and resolve them, and are teaching their kids how to do so No shared adult awareness of these conflicts or how to resolve them Increasing stress from unresolved values conflicts in and between homes
Relationship triangles Adults can spot and resolve them, and are teaching their kids how to do so No shared adult awareness of these conflicts or how to resolve them Increasing stress from unresolved triangles in and between homes
Adults evolve and use a healthy family grieving policy Yes, and they teach their kids the policy and how to follow it Grieving policy is unspoken and unhealthy; adults are unaware Family adults are ignorant of grieving basics and have a toxic policy
Symptoms of unfinished grief in adults and kids Few or no symptoms, or grief is progressing Some symptoms, grief is ignored or repressed Many members have these symptoms
Stepfamily mission statement All adults evolve one together, and use it to guide them thru difficult times Few or no family couples have or use a meaningful family mission statement No mission statement, and no clear long-term family goals
Spirituality and religion shared faith among all members strengthens stepfamily functioning different degrees of faith and beliefs - may be conflictual a significant source of stress and conflict in and between homes
Cooperation among co-parenting ex mates and their kin Voluntary, and consistently high Forced, inconsistent, and moderate to low Constant stress with and among ex mates and kin
Primary stepfamily problems Resolved promptly, co-operatively, and effectively Resolved temporarily or rarely; minimal cooperation Never identified or resolved
Degree of bonding among members relatively strong and stable in and between all homes moderate to weak; varies among homes  superficial or no bonding among step-kin
Merger of co-parents' extended biofamilies progressing steadily, conflicts usually resolved cooperatively moderate or no progress; conflicts often unresolved no progress; us vs. them attitude; unresolved conflicts are common
Intra-family legal battles - usually between divorcing bioparents Few or none Some, over child-related conflicts and/or money, Frequent, fierce, expensive, and divisive,  causing more problems.
Minor kids' developmental and adjustment needs Met consistently and coopera-tively by step-family adults Met sometimes, conflicts likely among adults Rarely met well enough; kids are wounded and act out
Co-parental roles and responsibilities Consistently clear and harmonious in and between homes Often unclear and conflictual; no problem-solving often unclear and increasingly conflictual; no problem-solving
Child discipline Generally cooperative and effective in all co-parenting homes Moderately effective, often conflictual in and between homes rarely or never effective; adults fight, kids often act out
Stepfamily and re/marital supports Adults able to find and use qualified supports Adults may use ineffective supports Adults don't have an effective support system

       Pause, breathe, and notice what you're thinking and how you feel. Have you ever seen a comparison like this before? Note how many factors determine which developmental path a stepfamily takes over time. How many typical stepfamily adults and supporters do you think could name most of these factors? My experience is: "none."


  • Circle each box above that causes you a significant reaction like guilt, alarm, anxiety, guilt, satisfaction, relief, etc. Identify why the item causes these feelings.

  • Reflect - which path do you feel your stepfamily is on so far?

  • Follow selected links to learn more about each item of interest.

  • Decide if you want to show this comparison to someone and discuss it with them.

  • Consider using this article as the topic of a family and/or support-group meeting.


      Based on 36 years' clinical research, this article proposes three basic developmental paths that typical stepfamilies follow over their years: nurturing, enduring significant dissatisfactions, or eventual legal or psychological re/divorce.

      Literature suggests that only about 10% of typical U.S. stepfamilies achieve the nurturing path. They consistently fill members' adjustment and developmental needs well enough, and promote all adults and kids fully developing and using their individual talents.

      A larger minority of stepfamilies (~30%) evolve along a path in which co-parents choose to endure significant marital and family stress, but stop short of legal re/divorce.

      Most (~60%) American co-parents are unaware of stepfamily realities, hazards, and problems, and unconsciously lead their nuclear stepfamilies down a path of escalating dissatisfaction, conflicts, and dis-integration.

      Ideally, courting co-parents will choose to work at these self-improvement lessons before deciding to commit. They earn the highest odds of leading their complex stepfamily across the years on the nurturing developmental path and passing that priceless legacy on to their descendents.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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