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This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles
on how to evolve a
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
family, or any of the
three or more
related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear
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
help co-parents agree on a long-range perspective on "Where do
we want our stepfamily to go?" and "How're we doing?"
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
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
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."
100 structural types of stepfamily. In America,
about 90% of these
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
over time; and...
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...
co-parent begins to date a
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.
6)The merger and gradual
grieving and restabilizing (or not) of the three or more co-parents' extended biofamilies.
sentence describes a stunningly complex process of...
accepting (or ignoring) their new
agreeing on (or disputing) who
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.
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
developmental (mid-life, retirement, aging) phases, too.
Never a dull moment!
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'
the extent of their stepfamily awareness and
the (emotional + mental + physical + spiritual) health and
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
Each version of this
phase can take many years.
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
Stepfamily Growth Paths
The paths over time are...
stable bonding, nurturing, and fulfilling
enduring significant pain and stress
("dysfunctional," low-nurturance); and...
eventual psychological or legal re/divorce
(a) psychological wounds and (b) awareness of these universal
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
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.
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.
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
path. They consistently fill members' adjustment and developmental
needs well enough, and promote all adults and kids fully
developing and using their individual talents.
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
Most (~60%) American co-parents
are unaware of stepfamily realities,
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
self-improvement lessons before
commit. They earn the highest odds of leading
their complex stepfamily across the years on the
developmental path and passing that priceless legacy on to their
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