Traditionally, the definition of a family incorporated two adults of each gender, whom sustain a socially affirmed sexual relationship. These individuals would share at least one child together, residency and collaborate finances (Murdock, 1949). However, the perception of what formulates a, “family unit” has altered throughout time, across many divergent populations and cultures. In modern society, the traditional definition of what constitutes a family is regarded as too specific and restricted, as many family dynamics exist that are incongruent with this perspective. A step family, also known as a blended family, is formed when a divorced or widowed individual gets remarried and a new group is formed, including a child or several children. Such families have dated back to the 17th and 18th century, where 5% of children were placed into a step-family following the death of one or both parents. However, since the 1970s more step-families have been established due to the rate of divorce and remarriage following an upward trend (Robinson, 1980). Consequently, within this essay I am going to discuss whether there are significant differences between traditional biological families, and stepfamilies.
There are several ways that stepfamilies differ from biological families, each dissimilarity has an implication on both the child, and the family. One important difference is the influence of family arrangement on academic performance. According to Tillman, 2007, adolescents who don’t live with both biological parents, but rather within a stepfamily arrangement, suffered detrimental effects to their academic performance. There has been extensive research into the relationship between educational outcome and economic security, with results highlighting a strong relationship between socioeconomic status and academic achievement (Sirin, 2005). Therefore, living within a stepfamily unit, could have important implications on later employability and financial security. However, there are many children who are still within a biological family, but have a poor academic performance. This shows that there are other factors, which can influence achievement, and it is not solely as a result of parental separation. Furthermore, juvenile delinquency is when a minor performs an unlawful act, and is found to be influenced by parental divorce. Research indicates that teenagers who don’t reside with their biological, first marriage family are significantly more delinquent (Brown & Demuth, 2004). However, the diathesis stress model of crime suggests that there are biological components, in addition to environmental triggers that provides a tendency to becoming a criminal. Such biological factors, include a genetic mutation on the X chromosome, which increases levels of the enzyme MAOA. MAOA has been linked with reduced levels of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which has been linked with aggressive, violent and sexual behaviour (Brunner at al., 1993). Therefore this highlights that although environmental factors, such as parental divorce, can trigger violent behaviour, there is also a biological component, which would need to be present for this to occur.
A second difference between the two family types is that there is more pressure on the formation of relationships in stepfamilies. In a biological family, a strong reciprocal attachment is formed between the infant and the parents. In the indiscriminate attachment stage, which occurs from around six weeks to seven months, infants show preferences for a primary or secondary. From seven months of age, in the discriminate attachment stage, infants have a strong attachment and preference for their primary caregiver (usually their Mothers), but by nine months multiple attachments are formed with alternative caregivers, such as Fathers, siblings and grandparents (Schaffer & Emerson, 1964). Whereas, according to Visher and Visher, 1985, individuals possess expectations about how their new family should function. One mythical belief is that stepmothers are wicked. In an attempt to prove that stereotype wrong, the stepmother tries to over-compensate and tries too hard to form a relationship with her step-children. This can create a further problem as if no gratitude is expressed, the stepmother may get frustrated and angry, or cease her efforts, creating more tension and awkwardness. Research has shown that adult attachment style determines whether a positive relationship between stepmother and child can be formed. Results highlighted that secure and anxious attachment types were more likely to feel insufficient in forming relationships with stepchildren, whilst avoidant styles felt they treated their stepchildren unjustly (Ceglian & Gardner, 2001).
Frustration can stem from another mythical belief that integration and love occurs instantly. For many children, there is still another biological parent present, and frequent trips between houses are made. Children may feel like they are being disloyal to their other biological parent, if they form a good relationship with their step-parent. Furthermore, if there is animosity between both biological parents, children often stuck in the cross-fires, resulting in anger and resentment of the child. It takes time for children to accept and settle into the new familial lifestyle and to realise that a good relationship with a step-parent does not diminish or invalidate the relationship shared with their biological parent, it is just different. Research has shown that it can take between two to four years for a step-family to settle down and adapt to the new familial arrangement and setting (Bray, n.d). It is important that all members of the family are understanding and patient with the process, although seeing a family therapist or psychologist may help the adaptation run more smoothly.
It may appear that biological families and stepfamilies have little areas in common; a biological family involves a strong attachment and love that develops from the moment an infant is born, whereas a step-family requires more conscious efforts to form relationships. However, there are some similarities between the two family dynamics. For instance, in both circumstances, each member of the family is regarded as a valuable member, despite whether they are related by blood or because of marriage. Each family member adopting a different role in the family was highlighted by research conducted by Grossman et al., 2002. Their research investigates the role of the Father; whose role is more playful, encouraging risk taking. However, the role of the Mother is to be nurturing, and therefore children will want their Father when in a positive mood, but want their Mothers when they are unhappy. Furthermore, special and unique bonds between step-siblings can be formed, which are not that different to blood siblings.
Additionally, the familial arrangement of a step family can be similar to that of a biological family. In both instances, there are two parents, who work together for the good of their children, as they strive to meet their needs. Whilst the connection and relationships may not be the same as a biological family, both sets of parents want what is best for the children involved. As most stepfamilies live together for extended periods of time, and spend the majority of their time together, resembling a first-marriage family dynamic, respect from both the parents and children is a necessity. There are many changes that occur, both in biological families and stepfamilies, and respect is the core feeling of any type of family, which should practiced in every new situation.
Finally, another similarity between a step family and a biological family is that a strong relationship, is often the key to a strong family (Bray, n.d). For example, if the biological mother was strong, level headed and self-sufficient, and remarried in order to gain a companion rather than a second parent, and the husband was completely devoted to his new wife, the stepfamily would be a much stronger unit. This is the same for a biological family, which is more likely to be successful and nurturing if the two parents truly love each other. This provides a strong example for the children to observe and paves the way for a secure relationship with their child, built on love kindness and understanding towards each other. Research conducted by Hazan and Shaver, 1987, suggests that there is a ‘continuity hypothesis’ between early attachments styles with primary caregivers and the type of relationship(s) formed as adults; securely attached infants will proceed to form healthy, long lasting relationships, whilst relationships formed by those who were insecurely attached will tend to have a lot of jealousy and result in divorce.
There has been an increase in divorce rates since the 1970s, resulting in a shift of family arrangements. Consequently, in contemporary society, being apart of a step family is increasingly common. There are many differences and similarities between a family you have gained via the marriage of a parent, and those you acquire through biology. However it can be concluded that without possessing mythical beliefs about how the new family ought to function, but by having time and patience, a happy family environment can be achieved, similar to that of a first marriage household.