In light of the post about contacting divorced SM. PIOG.
October 3, 2012
When Branches Tangle in a Stepfamily Tree
By ELISSA GOOTMAN
HEREâS a not-so-uncommon predicament: A divorced man with kids marries a woman who also has children. At the wedding, their respective constellations of relatives â siblings, parents â get to know one another. Over the years, they start to bond as an extended family. Homes are shared for weekend and holiday visits. Gifts are exchanged, relationships forged.
Then the couple splits.
Suddenly these step-relatives, unbound by biological or legal ties, are former step-relatives, left to puzzle over the sorts of questions that can require a whiteboard to explain.
Do you invite your ex-stepsister to your wedding, given that you shared a bunk bed with her for seven formative years? How long should you continue texting your ex-stepson if he doesnât text back? And what, if anything, do you call your ex-stepgrandmother?
For thousands of people, such questions are not hypothetical. While the number of people with former step-relatives is not tracked, researchers agree that it is substantial, with no indications of shrinking.
In a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of adults surveyed said they had at least one step-relative. Studies have shown that second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. And a rise in births among cohabitating couples could lead to more situations in which people are effectively ex-steps, even if their relationships were not legally sealed through marriage.
There are books offering help adjusting to stepfamily life, with optimistic titles like âThe Smart Stepdad,â âThe Happy Stepmotherâ and âThe Step-Tween Survival Guide.â But when stepdads arenât smart, stepmothers arenât happy and the marriages that brought them together do not survive, there are no road maps for the dos and donâts of ex-step etiquette.
âThis is a new area, really on the frontier of American family life and kinship,â said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins and author of the 2009 book âThe Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.â âWe donât really know whether there is enough bonding to make a step-relationship survive the breakup of the family.â
In a recent study, Marilyn Coleman and Lawrence H. Ganong, professors at the University of Missouri, interviewed 29 people ages 18 to 32 who have former stepparents.
They found that relationships fell into three categories: ânever claimedâ (those who never embraced their stepparent as a family member), âunclaimedâ (those who considered the stepparent to be a parent figure during the marriage, but not afterward) and âclaimedâ (those who continued to consider their ex-stepparent as a family member after the divorce).
But how do the dynamics play out within those categories? Below, an alternative (and thoroughly unscientific) taxonomy, compiled after interviews with researchers, therapists and ex-step-everythings.
When parents divorce for the first time, they often try to reassure their children that they are not responsible for the breakup. When second marriages end, it can be hard to make such assertions with a straight face. âA lot of the tension may have been over the children,â said Mary T. Kelly, a marriage and family therapist in Boulder, Colo., who leads âMarried With Baggageâ workshops for remarried couples.
When stepfamilies are ravaged by fights over how to discipline the children (fathers tend to be more lenient than their new wives), or between teenagers and their stepparents, those involved may be relieved to go their separate ways.
âItâs the reality we donât like to talk about,â Ms. Kelly said. âWeâre very addicted to happy endings in this culture.â
Paul Hokemeyer, a Manhattan therapist, said he had seen plenty of âsituations where the kids say: âGet out of here! I donât want you here!âÂ â to their stepparents.
But havenât children been known to direct such comments at their own parents? âThey donât mean it,â he said. With stepparents, apparently, they often really do.
Not surprisingly, divorcing couples may not agree on the matter of whether certain relationships born of the defunct marriage should continue.
Gretchen, a 39-year-old sales representative (who, like many people interviewed for this article, did not want her last name used), lived with her fiancĂ© and his two sons for a year and a half. She grew close to them, she said, seeing them as the future half-siblings of the children she one day hoped to have. Then the fiancĂ© broke off the engagement, forbidding Gretchen, she said, from having any contact with the boys. âI begged and pleaded and tried to state my case,â she said. âTo no avail.â
Even if her ex-fiancĂ© had been an ex-husband, Gretchenâs situation might not have changed.
âYou have no legal ties to an ex-stepkid,â Professor Coleman said, adding that the parent âcan stop you from seeing that child again.â
But Gretchenâs former fiancĂ© saw things differently than she did. In his view, the breakup was accompanied by such animosity that, he said, âI made a judgment call that it wasnât in the kidsâ best interestsâ for them to maintain contact with her. The boys âliked her a lot,â he said. âI gave it a lot of thought.â
Denise, 43, a banker, said that when her first marriage dissolved, her parents were distraught over losing her ex-husbandâs daughter, whom they treated as a granddaughter. âYou know the movie with Tom Hanks, where he goes back and heâs a kid and he goes to F. A. O. Schwarz and dances on one of those keyboards?â she said, referring to a scene in the film âBig.â âMy parents bought her one of those.â
Denise has three stepchildren from her current marriage; her parents are kind to them, she said, but âthis time around theyâve been a little more cautious.â
If you donât talk to your brother for 20 years, heâs still your brother. Donât talk to your ex-stepbrother, and he becomes just another former acquaintance.
Former step-relationships take work, planning and juggling. Drop the ball, and thereâs no guarantee that anyone else will pick it up.
Many a stepmother would be thrilled to be described the way Graham McCaulley, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, speaks of his: as âone-third of my parentsâ during the years she was married to his father. âBeing in that stepfamily was a really positive experience,â he said.
Post-divorce, Mr. McCaulley and his former stepmother tried to get everyone together: there were monthly sibling dinners, annual family barbecues, holiday reunions.
âIt went from every Christmas, every birthday, to a little more sparingly, maybe just a call, and then everybody just kind of doing their own thing,â he said. âWith my mom, it was never in question: youâre going to go over there for Christmas. But with this, there were no rules. It was: âOh, I guess weâre going to go over there. We need to talk about this and figure it out.â
âWe just kind of separated over time. There were no heated words. Youâre talking 10 years later under these ambiguous circumstances.â
Mr. McCaulleyâs former stepmother, Sheila Martin-McCaulley, agreed. âI always felt like I didnât want to interrupt,â she said. âAn ex-stepmom â where in the world does that person fit in?â
Sometimes one person shoulders the burden of maintaining a step-relationship. Patricia Papernow, a Massachusetts psychologist, has seen clients grow distraught after former stepchildren refused to return their phone calls.
âThey wanted to go talk to them,â she said. âThere was one who wanted to fly on a plane to another state.â She counseled them to write letters instead, sending the message that âI know itâs hard for you to be connected to me right now, but when youâre ready, Iâm here.â
After writing such a letter, Dr. Papernow advises, send cards on major holidays, and keep the messages brief. âResist the temptation to leak your despair onto the child,â she said.
For years, Elizabeth Einstein, a marriage and family therapist in Ithaca, N.Y., who has written books about stepfamilies, worked to maintain her relationship with two ex-stepchildren, despite the fact that the divorce was not a happy one.
âI had a deep emotional investment, and they with me, because I had raised them,â she said. Over 30 years, she grew to feel âtired of being the only one doing all the work.â
âI loved these kids,â she said. âBut they werenât kids anymore.â
A FRIENDLY OUTCOME
When Greta Russell started dating her first husband, she was closer in age to her teenage stepdaughter, Kim Marshall, than to him. The mother-stepdaughter relationship was âkind of rockyâ at the outset, she said. âVery odd,â Ms. Marshall agreed. With time, things shifted. âShe got over the, âOh, my dad is with this really young person,â and we started to get to know each other,â Ms. Russell said.
After four years, the marriage fell apart, and Ms. Russell, now 36, was unsure what would happen to her relationship with Ms. Marshall. âWhen youâre dealing with a divorce, everything gets shaken up, and youâre never quite sure how other people are going to take that decision,â she said. But by then, Ms. Marshall, now 25, was in college; they were two adults, bound not by the legal ties that had brought them together but by the friendship they had cultivated.
It is still âthe best thing that came out of that marriage,â Ms. Russell said.
WHATâS YOUR MOTIVE?
The decision to nurture former step-relationships can mean accepting certain awkward situations, like waiting in the same hospital as your former husband while your former stepdaughter-in-law gives birth to a baby who would have been your stepgrandchild.
When a client of Dr. Hokemeyerâs expressed a desire to be present at the hospital while the daughter of her longtime but now former husband gave birth, the therapist worked with her to answer what he considered the key question: what was her motive?
âWhen thereâs a divorce, thereâs a profound sense of loss, and people try to mitigate that loss by holding on to relationships that they would be better off letting go,â Dr. Hokemeyer said. âMake sure that you are acting out of genuine love and concern for the other person, and not out of anger and attempts to manipulate.â In the birth case, Dr. Hokemeyer and his client determined that her motives were pure. She genuinely cared for her ex-stepdaughter-in-law and wanted to preserve their relationship, which was meaningful and deep, though convoluted to describe.