Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

35 Ways Stepfamily Structures
Differ from Typical Biofamilies

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council



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

Updated  04-29-2015

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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, or any of the three or more related stepparents and bioparents managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.  

      This two-part YouTube video offers perspective on what you're about to read. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this ad-free educational Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

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

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6

  • these stepfamily basics and Q&A items

  • how typical stepfamilies are similar to intact biofamilies

  • this example of a real stepfamily

 What's the Problem?

      Most people assume that average stepfamilies and intact biofamilies are "fairly similar." Both family types do have similarities - and also differ in over 60 ways. Average multi-generational stepfamilies differ more in structure from intact biofamilies than typical adoptive, foster, and same-gender families. Neither family type is better - they're different.

      Family members and supporters need to understand how different stepfamilies are to form realistic expectations. Many traditional (bio)family norms don't apply to  typical multi-home stepfamilies!

      This article summarizes 35 biofamily - stepfamily structural (vs. dynamic) differences. They promote ~30 unique family-adjustment tasks that most biopeople don't face and steppeople aren't prepared for. Option - before reading further, see how many structural differences you can name...

      The best time to learn these differences and what they mean is during courtship.

  Stepfamily-Biofamily Structural Differences

      "Structure" here refers to the elements that make a family. "Family dynamics" refers to how these elements interact. New steppeople need learn and work together at many concurrent merger tasks to meld and stabilize their three or more biofamilies over some years. 

      In reviewing this summary, note the individual differences and the collective impact of all of them on stepfamily adults and kids. Follow the links for more detail on any difference after scanning the whole table.

      If you're not interested in individual differences, the point of listing them all is to document how different typical stepfamily structures are. This is a key reason typical biofamily norms and expectations often don't apply to stepfamily life.  

Structural Element 

Typical Nuclear Stepfamily 

Typical Intact Biofamily 

1) Number of co-parenting homes Usually two or more homes linked by legal  documents, emotions, finances, genes,  ancestry, shared history, responsibilities, and memories Usually one nuclear home 
2)  Children born prior to a single parent choosing a (new) mate One to four or more  minor and/or grown kids (his and/or hers)  Usually none
3)  Number of active co-parenting adults three or more: you and me, your and/or my ex mate, and (maybe) their new mate/s One or two co-parents
4)  Number of absent bioparents One or more (if a co-parent has kids with several prior mates), living or dead Usually none, unless jailed, traveling extensively, or at war
5)  Grandparents (living and dead) Six to 12 Usually four
6)  Co-parenting ex mates, and their genetic and legal relatives One or more sets None
7)  Half siblings ("ours" kids) Possible None
8)  Resident and/or visiting minor kids; number of stepchildren More: typically 2 to 4  stepkids + (maybe) 1 or more "ours" kids Less: usually 1 to 4 biokids; no stepkids or half-siblings
9)  Physical and legal biochild custody Sole, joint, or split; usually subject to legal decrees and parenting agreements; often conflictual Shared; usually no legal suits or decrees
10)  Family size and complexity Bigger, more complex: typically 50 to 100+ genetic and legal members; often from different cultures Smaller, simpler: typically under 50 genetic and legal members (inlaws)
11)  Family variations (types) Almost 100,  considering co-parents' death, divorce, marriage, parenting, and custody variations; Result: "No one's like us - we're alone" One ("traditional"): mom, dad + biokids; much more social normalcy, empathy, and support
12)  Adults' ages at (re)marriage Older: typically 30-45+; wider age differences; more life experience; partners may be more mature. Younger: typically 18-30; smaller age differences, less experience, less mature
13)  Mates' prior family rules and rituals (e.g. "who carves the turkey in this home?") three or more sets: each mates' birth-family, first marriage family, and absent-parent family/s Usually two sets (each spouse's birth family)
14)  Mementos of mates' prior union/s and their kids' biofamily life Many emotionally-loaded, tangible and abstract reminders None
15)  Major personal tangible and abstract losses (broken bonds) to mourn Many: from divorce and re/marriage and cohabiting; for kids, parents, and close relatives; many losses are involuntary Far fewer due to marriage. More losses are intentional choices
16)  Spouses' parenting values and styles (e.g. child discipline) Pre-formed before re/wedding and cohabiting; They often conflict and need compromising Evolved together over years; differences are usually less stressful
17)  Family communication and problem-solving styles and skills. Pre-formed; intra and inter-home style-conflicts are likely; compromises needed Evolved together over years

      This is a LOT to digest, isn't it? We're about half done with 35 common structural differences between typical stepfamilies and intact biofamilies. Do you need a break before continuing?

Structural  Element

Typical Stepfamily

Typical Intact Biofamily

18)  Possible "outsider" family-interference and/or support More interference: ex-mates + their new partners (if any); + courts; + bio and step relatives Less: bioparent/s and relatives
19)  Prior adult and child divorce experiences Usual (~90%) on one or both "sides" of the new stepfamily, unless prior mate/s died None; a co-parent's parents or siblings may have been divorced
20)  Caregivers' legal parenting rights and responsibilities re minor kids' school / health / custody / etc. (varies by State) Fewer and less clear rights (stepparents and stepgrandparents); responsibilities are more confusing; A legal parenting agreement may exist which usually excludes any stepparents More and clearer rights (bioparents and biograndparents); responsibilities are far clearer. No legal documents to negotiate, litigate, or enforce.
21)  Prenuptial legal agreement/s about asset and debt ownership More common; symbolizes the real possibility of re/divorce; Can promote major loyalty conflicts Uncommon unless one or both spouses are very wealthy
22)  Folklore / social image / common descriptive adjectives More negative image: "blended" / "wicked (stepmoms)" / second best / "unreal" / "unnatural," / "minority" / "non-traditional" / "abnormal" More positive image: intact biofamilies are "regular" / "normal" / "natural" / "real" (family) / "traditional"
23)  Marital (a) experience and doubts, and (b) commitment and hope More experience and realism, so more doubts are probable - specially if there were prior divorce/s; Commitment may be higher More idealism, fewer doubts; commitment (usually) high, unless marrying because of duty (responsibility), guilt, and/or fear
24)  Incest taboo: Odds of sexual abuse or inappropriate intra-family attractions or actions Higher odds; attractions may occur between stepparent and stepchild, and/or (teen) stepsibs Lower odds; the incest taboo seems to grow from family members living together since kids' infancy
25)  Adults' and kids' three-generational family roles (Mom / stepmom / uncle / step-cousin / half-sib / etc.) Up to 30 roles;  less role clarity: norms learned "on the job" - few social guides; role stress (anxiety / overwhelm) is much more likely Up to 15 family roles; norms are cultural, learned over years since childhood; many social guides
26)  Co-parents' self-confidence in, and authority to, discipline minor kids Initially unequal: stepparents may (vs. will) earn authority over time; Discipline values and styles existed before commitment vows, and often conflict. Usually equal, if both parents wish; discipline styles and values evolve over years together
27)  Last Names Re-wedded biomom's last name may differ from their kids'; Without adoption, typical stepsibs have different last names Adults and kids usually all have the same last name, so less chance of identity and loyalty (priority) confusions
28)  First names Higher odds two people will have the same name - e.g. two co-parents, or "his" and "her" Sarahs; can be confusing! Usually different, unless parents name a child after one of them or a relative - e.g. "Michael Jr."
29)  Minor or grown child/ren's presence (resident and/or visiting) More stressful; this is the most commonly quoted surface reason for stepfamily stress and re/divorce. The next is money. Less stressful; kids presence usually strengthens bioparents' bond and spousal commitment

Structural Element

Typical Stepfamily

Typical Intact Biofamily

30)  Members' definitions of "who belongs to my family?" Less clear: definitions usually differ in and between linked stepfamily homes, causing confusions and inclusion/exclusion conflicts Definitions are clearer and more consistent: major membership disagreements are less common
31)  Family-member loyalty, bonding, and cohesion Initially, pseudo (pretended) or little bonding among merging families; this may or may not improve with time; significantly more fragile Generally much stronger bonding throughout the family life-cycle; bonds usually transcend personal and family traumas
32)  Financial (a) assets, (real estate, trusts, insurance policies, savings accounts, investments...), (b) debts, (c) ownership, and (d) asset allocations  Usually more assets, owned by more people. Ownership and allocation conflicts are more common. ("Should I help pay for your child's school expenses?")  Fewer assets and debts. Ownership is usually joint and uncontested, unless divorcing. Allocation conflicts can occur as the family matures.
33)  Family nurturance level during each co-parents' childhood Theory: higher odds of  emotional / spiritual deprivations, abuses, and neglect) for both mates. If true, this is often denied to one's self and others Theory: lower odds of low birth-family nurturance and psychological wounds, unless the family is chronically troubled.
34)  Family nurturance level now - how often adults and kids get most of their primary needs met well enough: Probably lower, because of more people, conflicts, and adjustment needs, and the complexity of stepfamily mergers. Probably higher on average, because there are fewer people, conflicts, family-adjustment needs, tasks, and losses.
35)  Human-service professionals' accurate knowledge of basic family norms, traits, realities, stressors, and dynamics Lower. Most legal, media, clergy, education, and counseling professionals have no informed stepfamily training. Common error: "stepfamilies are pretty much like (intact) biofamilies" Higher: Clergy, doctors, family lawyers and judges, educators, counselors, and their supervisors are more often trained and experienced in biofamily norms and dynamics

      Pause and reflect. What are you thinking and feeling now? Have you ever seen a comparison like this before?  What did you just learn? Is there someone else you feel should study and discuss these 35 structural differences?

      Feedback please - take this 1-question anonymous poll : how many of these 35 biofamily - stepfamily differences did you already know?

       These structural family differences cause up to 30 stepfamily-unique adjustment tasks. They are often...

  • concurrent,

  • recurring (e.g. if "the other" ex remarries), and these tasks...

  • add to "normal" personal, home, and family-life tasks.

      Typical courting and newly-committed partners and their supporters aren't expecting or prepared for these adjustment tasks. This causes significant stress in and between family homes, until co-parents learn "what's normal" by trial and error, and correct their expectations. This often takes four or more years after committing and cohabiting, as co-parents slowly merge and stabilize their several multi-generational biofamilies.


      This Lesson-7 article shows you specifically how different average multi-home stepfamilies are from typical intact biofamilies. These structural factors are only half the differences - the others are development tasks and family dynamics. Knowledge and acceptance of all ~60 differences will help your stepfamily members form realistic role and relationship expectations and promote long-term success! 

+ + +

Next review the ~ 30 task differences between average stepfamilies and intact biofamilies. Then continue working on Lesson 7 with your family adults and supporters.

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