‘90s FAMILY : Stepping Carefully : Stepparents and stepchildren rarely stay in touch after a divorce. But with a lot of patience, initiative and commitment, you <i> can </i> keep the relationship going.
Fifteen years ago, amid the pain and confusion of ending her eight-year marriage, one thing was clear to Judi Andersen: She wanted to stay in touch with her two stepdaughters.
The 14-year-old met her halfway; the 12-year-old, angry and disappointed, wasn’t as interested, Andersen said.
“(The younger one) built a wall; (the older one) built a bridge. And since I was into bridge-building, a bridge got made,” said Andersen, now 45, living in Canyon Country and remarried.
The younger daughter’s reaction is more typical, according to researchers, who point out that former stepparents and stepchildren usually don’t stay in touch after a divorce. The reasons vary from simple awkwardness to outright animosity.
The breakup of the stepfamily “is an increasing phenomenon and we have so few models of how to do it,” said Marilyn Coleman, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri and co-author with her husband, Lawrence Ganong, of “Remarried Family Relationships” (Sage, 1994).
With a national divorce rate of 50% and a slightly higher re-divorce rate, researchers estimate that up to two-thirds of children who experience their own parents’ divorce will go through a subsequent one involving a parent and stepparent.
That causes a lot of uncertainty.
“For most of the roles we play in life, there are scripts for them. With stepfamily relations there are none. So it’s really hard for people to know what to do,” said Coleman, who formed a stepfamily with Ganong 15 years ago.
Coleman recalled a stepmother who had raised a girl from 4 to 16. When she and the girl’s father divorced, the girl went to live with her mother in another state. The girl called and wrote to her former stepmother, but without response.
“I asked her why she didn’t call or write back. Clearly this girl was reaching out to her,” Coleman said. The woman, near tears, explained it this way to Coleman: “It didn’t seem right.”
In addition to little societal support for maintaining the relationship, there often is outright discouragement from the biological parent. The parent may discourage the stepparent-stepchild relationship to avoid contact with the ex-spouse or to try to escape the stigma of another failed marriage.
“(Biological parents) view ties with . . . stepparents as more tenuous and problematic,” said Mavis Hetherington, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and stepfamily researcher for 30 years.
Robert, 31, of Los Angeles, experienced the divorce of his mother and stepfather when he was 16, after their eight-year marriage. Although he had spent some of that time in boarding school, he was close to his stepfather. “We went duck hunting, fishing and to football games,” Robert said. “He was in important figure in my life.” Then came the divorce.
“It was difficult because my mother instantly wanted me to side with her. In this case I had a non-biological father-son bond that was difficult to basically walk away from,” said Robert, who remains close to his former stepfather. “It is hard to break a bond, and that caused a rift between me and my mother a little bit.”
Hetherington said she is not surprised at how close Robert is with his former stepfather, whom he usually introduces as his father. “That is more likely to happen with sons and stepfathers than with daughters and stepfathers,” she said.
Stepfather-stepson relationships tend to go well even when the remarriage occurred at pre-adolescence--a particularly difficult time for children to accept and bond with a stepparent.
As a stepfamily forms, the pre-adolescent is encouraged to join in at a time when developmentally they are pulling away, experts say.
“So there is a lot of conflict, particularly between adolescent daughters and their stepmothers,” Hetherington said.
When Patty (who asked that these names be changed) was in junior high school, her father married Ann. Even though Patty knew her father’s relationship with Ann contributed to her parents’ divorce, she tried to like her stepmother, who was 10 years younger than her father.
“I was a teen-ager and not the easiest, but . . . not only did she resent my relationship with my father, she tried to dress like me,” said Patty, now 29 and a mother living in Los Angeles.
Stepmothers, experts say, are less likely than stepfathers to be in contact with stepchildren after a divorce.
“Between the stepfather and stepmother, often the stepmother has less attachment (to the children) than the stepfather. . . . As a result, dissolving the relationship would not be a problem,” said Alan Booth, a professor of sociology and human development at Penn State University and an expert on family issues.
“(My stepmother) called me one or two times after the divorce,” Patty said. “I talked to her, but I was dying to get off the phone. I felt awkward. She said she wanted to get together. I never did.”
Because relationships with stepparents can be filled with conflict, stepchildren and stepparents often don’t realize how important a role they have played in each other’s lives. Even a remarriage that lasted only five years can represent a big chunk of a child’s life or occur during a critical time of development.
Jacqueline (not her real name), a businesswoman with three children, was married for six years to an attorney who has three children; the youngest one lived with them. “He became an airline pilot because of me,” said Jacqueline, now 67, explaining that he finished school with her encouragement and that she even bought him a plane.
She said she called him after the divorce but never heard from him and now concludes that he never really liked her.
Miscommunication and hurt feelings may affect whether stepparents and stepchildren try to stay in touch, experts say.
“The stepparent may feel the child doesn’t really like them and they do. There is not the communication as much as there should be,” Coleman said.
Coleman said it takes a lot of work--”a lot of real initiative”--to continue those relationships. “You are making your own way in doing that.”
Bill White, who divorced his second wife, Jan, six years ago, said he strongly encouraged his two children from his first marriage to stay in touch with their former stepmother. White, 54, and living in Westlake Village, called his second wife a “wonderful person . . . with depth and intelligence and probably more decent than most people you’d meet.”
Both children, now 26 and 22, stay in close contact with Jan. The 22-year-old splits her college vacation time between the homes of her father and her former stepmother.
White added: “I give credit to my children and to Jan and her (new) husband. Everybody has made it work.”
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