- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

More than four in 10 American adults have at least one step-relative in their family, a new study says.

“Blended” families are as likely as others to say that “family” is the most important element in their lives, said Kim Parker, author of a new report from Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project.

However, they also are more likely to say their family lives “turned out differently” from what they expected.

“Having a stepfamily is not something most people anticipate or plan for, and that is reflected in the survey findings,” Ms. Parker said, referring to the finding that 54 percent of adults with step-relatives said their family lives turned out “differently” from their expectations.

Among adults with no step-relatives, just 41 percent agreed with such a statement.

The persistent forming, breaking up and re-forming of American couples and families is keeping researchers busy.

Not only do Americans marry more and divorce more than people in other industrialized countries, but Americans (co-habiters and marrieds) break up faster, too, sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin wrote in his 2009 book, “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today.”

All these transitions have made it difficult for researchers to keep track of everyone’s comings and goings, which means data on stepfamilies are thin.

For instance, a 2003 Census Bureau report counted 3.2 million minor stepchildren and 1.1 million adult stepchildren in American households. But author Rose Kreider added that because of the way Census 2000 data were collected, those numbers may be “only about two-thirds” of all the stepchildren living with a stepparent.

The Pew study, based on an October survey of 2,700 people, said 42 percent of adults had at least one living step-relative.

The most common step-relative was a sibling (reported by 30 percent of adults). Eighteen percent said they had a stepparent and 13 percent said they had a stepchild.

More men than women said they had a stepchild, but women were more likely to report other step-relationships.

Blacks were most likely to report any step-relationship (60 percent), compared with Hispanics (46 percent) and whites (39 percent).

Stepfamilies also were more common among people with high school education (47 percent) or “some” college (45 percent), compared with college graduates (33 percent).

The Pew survey also asked about the quality of life in families.

It found that, regardless of step-relationships, most adults were “very satisfied” with their lives — 78 percent with no step-relatives and 70 percent with step-relatives said this.

But when it came to feeling “obligated” to provide assistance to a family member, blood ties clearly won out.

Among adults with both a parent and stepparent, 85 percent said they would feel “very obligated” to help their parent, but just 56 percent said they would feel the same about their stepparent.

Similarly, when asked about children and siblings, the strongest obligations were felt toward biological children (78 percent) and full siblings (64 percent) compared to stepchildren (62 percent) or half-siblings (42 percent).

No doubt, these different attitudes stem from the unique challenges of blending families.

Remarriage means the “incorporation of new kin and quasi-kin” into the nuclear and extended families, and yet there are “ill-defined roles for these new relationships,” Census Bureau analyst Diana B. Elliott said in a 2010 paper on remarriage.

Given these intrinsic difficulties — plus higher divorce rates among remarriages and lower satisfaction with relationships reported by many new wives — one could even expect that remarriage would be “an unattractive option for Americans today,” Ms. Elliott wrote. Yet, “[M]any Americans continue to remarry, and may even remarry multiple times,” she said.

“Some stepfamily experts say it takes seven years for a stepfamily to blend,” said Paula Bisacre, author, founder of Remarriageworks.com and former columnist for The Washington Times.

“My husband and I have often likened our stepfamily’s dynamics to American psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model of group development,” Ms. Bisacre wrote. In other words, she wrote, like a sports team, a stepfamily has to “go through these stages for it to grow, tackle problems and identify solutions.”