In light of the post about contacting divorced SM. PIOG.
October 3, 2012
When Branches Tangle in a Stepfamily Tree
By ELISSA GOOTMAN
HERE’S 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 — siblings, parents — 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 doesn’t 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 “The Smart Stepdad,” “The Happy Stepmother” and “The Step-Tween Survival Guide.” But when stepdads aren’t smart, stepmothers aren’t happy and the marriages that brought them together do not survive, there are no road maps for the dos and don’ts of ex-step etiquette.
“This is a new area, really on the frontier of American family life and kinship,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins and author of the 2009 book “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.” “We don’t really know whether there is enough bonding to make a step-relationship survive the breakup of the family.”
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: “never claimed” (those who never embraced their stepparent as a family member), “unclaimed” (those who considered the stepparent to be a parent figure during the marriage, but not afterward) and “claimed” (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. “A lot of the tension may have been over the children,” said Mary T. Kelly, a marriage and family therapist in Boulder, Colo., who leads “Married With Baggage” 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.
“It’s the reality we don’t like to talk about,” Ms. Kelly said. “We’re very addicted to happy endings in this culture.”
Paul Hokemeyer, a Manhattan therapist, said he had seen plenty of “situations where the kids say: ‘Get out of here! I don’t want you here!’ ” to their stepparents.
But haven’t children been known to direct such comments at their own parents? “They don’t mean it,” 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 fiancé 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 fiancé broke off the engagement, forbidding Gretchen, she said, from having any contact with the boys. “I begged and pleaded and tried to state my case,” she said. “To no avail.”
Even if her ex-fiancé had been an ex-husband, Gretchen’s situation might not have changed.
“You have no legal ties to an ex-stepkid,” Professor Coleman said, adding that the parent “can stop you from seeing that child again.”
But Gretchen’s former fiancé saw things differently than she did. In his view, the breakup was accompanied by such animosity that, he said, “I made a judgment call that it wasn’t in the kids’ best interests” for them to maintain contact with her. The boys “liked her a lot,” he said. “I gave it a lot of thought.”
Denise, 43, a banker, said that when her first marriage dissolved, her parents were distraught over losing her ex-husband’s daughter, whom they treated as a granddaughter. “You know the movie with Tom Hanks, where he goes back and he’s a kid and he goes to F. A. O. Schwarz and dances on one of those keyboards?” she said, referring to a scene in the film “Big.” “My parents bought her one of those.”
Denise has three stepchildren from her current marriage; her parents are kind to them, she said, but “this time around they’ve been a little more cautious.”
If you don’t talk to your brother for 20 years, he’s still your brother. Don’t talk to your ex-stepbrother, and he becomes just another former acquaintance.
Former step-relationships take work, planning and juggling. Drop the ball, and there’s 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 “one-third of my parents” during the years she was married to his father. “Being in that stepfamily was a really positive experience,” 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.
“It 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,” he said. “With my mom, it was never in question: you’re going to go over there for Christmas. But with this, there were no rules. It was: ‘Oh, I guess we’re going to go over there. We need to talk about this and figure it out.’
“We just kind of separated over time. There were no heated words. You’re talking 10 years later under these ambiguous circumstances.”
Mr. McCaulley’s former stepmother, Sheila Martin-McCaulley, agreed. “I always felt like I didn’t want to interrupt,” she said. “An ex-stepmom — where in the world does that person fit in?”
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.
“They wanted to go talk to them,” she said. “There was one who wanted to fly on a plane to another state.” She counseled them to write letters instead, sending the message that “I know it’s hard for you to be connected to me right now, but when you’re ready, I’m here.”
After writing such a letter, Dr. Papernow advises, send cards on major holidays, and keep the messages brief. “Resist the temptation to leak your despair onto the child,” 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.
“I had a deep emotional investment, and they with me, because I had raised them,” she said. Over 30 years, she grew to feel “tired of being the only one doing all the work.”
“I loved these kids,” she said. “But they weren’t kids anymore.”
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 “kind of rocky” at the outset, she said. “Very odd,” Ms. Marshall agreed. With time, things shifted. “She got over the, ‘Oh, my dad is with this really young person,’ and we started to get to know each other,” 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. “When you’re dealing with a divorce, everything gets shaken up, and you’re never quite sure how other people are going to take that decision,” 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 “the best thing that came out of that marriage,” Ms. Russell said.
WHAT’S 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. Hokemeyer’s 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?
“When there’s a divorce, there’s 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,” Dr. Hokemeyer said. “Make sure that you are acting out of genuine love and concern for the other person, and not out of anger and attempts to manipulate.” 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.
Posted on CafeMom Mobile
Add your quick reply below:
You must be a member to reply to this post.
Add your quick reply below:
You must be a member to reply to this post.