Blended families are the result of two adults establishing a union, with at least one having had a child or children previously. Because the concept of family itself is evolving to include gay partnerships, “commuter” relationships with separate households, and cohabiting couples, the definition of the blended family is also fluid. Blended families reflect all the nuances of the modern nuclear family, while bearing the additional impact of members’ prior family relationships.
Sociologists characterize family by long-term commitment, strong group identity, and an economic structure that provides for any children within the union. Kinship, common ancestry, or marriage are traditionally, though not always, present. The exceptions to these guideposts are apparent in the blended family. In most, a previous commitment has already ended; identifying with the new family unit is a lengthy process and not guaranteed; possibly, there is economic involvement, with all its implications, from outside the new family, in terms of child support. The strength of blood and legal bonds is especially ambiguous in the blended family.
Considering the overall 50 percent divorce rate in the United States and the fact that 50 percent of marriages are remarriages, blended family dynamics are an influential social phenomenon. One in three Americans is now part of a stepfamily, and demographers predict that the aging baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will have to rely more on stepchildren than biological children for elder care. Thus, resolving complicated blended family relationships is culturally significant.
Three types of blended families and several variations thereof exist and are reflected in popular culture: (1) the biological mother-stepfather arrangement (most common, as divorced mothers usually gain custody of their children); (2) the biological father-stepmother; and (3) the couple who each brings biological children to the new union, as in the popular TV series from the 1960s and 1970s, The Brady Bunch. In the book-based movie Yours, Mine and Ours, a widowed couple also each had their own children and went on to have mutual biological children. A recent remake of that film depicted the wife’s adopted children of various races and ethnicities, calling to mind the real-life celebrity union of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whose biological child followed and preceded single and joint multiracial adoptions, respectively. An even more intricate—and controversial—family configuration was the nonmarital, noncohabiting relationship of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and her multiple adopted children, some of whom were also his legally adopted children, and the ensuing marriage of Mr. Allen and one of his own children’s adopted siblings, the legal daughter of his former romantic partner. Social reaction, both positive and negative, to such multilayered connections is indicative of the blended family experience.
Without diminishing their delicate, interpersonal dynamics, the notoriety of the blended families described in the previous paragraph helped dispel step-family myths. Historically wrought with negative connotations underscored by fairy tales like Cinderella, the archetype of the stepmother, in particular, has given way to more benevolent images. However, the possible pitfalls of step-parenting are an aspect of the blended family that cannot be overlooked. Preexisting parent-child allegiances and the influence of family members outside the home or held in memory weaken loyalties to, and the authority of, step-parents. Moving to a different community may be part of the new arrangement, and transitional strains may result. Indeed, the term blended family itself may be a misnomer, as families do not so much blend as they expand, potentially encompassing residential and nonresidential stepsiblings and half siblings, additional sets of grandparents, and other extended stepfamily members, and, in the case of “serial” couplings and breakups, ex-stepfamily members. Binuclear family is another term used to describe two families joining to form a new one.
New family members are often of unfamiliar backgrounds, and the lack of homogeny in second and third marriages increases their rate of failure to 60 percent, while shortening the expected duration from 8 years for a first union, to 7. A couple’s compatibility strongly depends on familiarity with one another’s culture, but because people are older at the time of successive marriages or cohabitation (mid- to late 30s vs. early to mid-20s for first unions), the pool of available partners has diminished, and they may marry outside their generation, social class, ethnicity, or religion. Adding children to the mix, especially adolescents, without sufficient time for couple adjustment, increases stress.
Ironically, most blended families involve cohabitation, rather than marriage, yet the remarriage model, and related research, is the only reference available to institutions like school and church. One case study illustrates confusion over family ties: A single mother’s live-in boyfriend coached her daughter’s sports team. The community questioned his relationship with the child, as the parents were not legally married, and ruled that he could not coach because he was not part of any team member’s family. Yet, this man had served as stepfather to the child all her life.
Theorists acknowledge that lack of biology between some blended family members can be problematic. The family—that basic unit of civilization—is an intimate, stressful, and potentially dangerous experience. Some social scientists who subscribe to the biosocial perspective, which posits that genetics and evolution govern roles and relationships, assert that society should not encourage the formation of stepfamilies, as danger increases when no biological ties rule behavior. Indeed, 30 percent of adult-child sexual assault cases involve a stepfather, and higher incidence of child abuse statistically links to a mother’s cohabiting boyfriend. The issue of incest becomes a concern also, especially whenever revelations of sexual activity, even marriage, between stepsiblings becomes known.
Nonetheless, blended families help those divorced or widowed reorganize their lives and maintain familial structure. Women living in poverty may raise their socioeconomic status through subsequent family formation. People are more mature when they remarry, and such relationships are more egalitarian. Children benefit from the commitment, communication, cohesion, and effort required of successful blended families.
- Booth, Alan and John N. Edwards. 1992. “Starting Over: Why Remarriages Are More Unstable.” Journal of Family Issues 13(2):179-94.
- Ganong, Lawrence H. and Marilyn Coleman. 2004. Stepfamily Relationships: Developments, Dynamics and Interventions. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Giles-Sims, Jean. 1997. “Current Knowledge about Child Abuse in Stepfamilies.” Pp. 215-30 in Stepfamilies: History, Research, and Policy, edited by I. Levin and M. B. Sussman. New York: Haworth.
- Herbert, W. 1999. “When Strangers Become Family.” U.S. News and World Report, November 29, pp. 58-67.