Stepfamilies: Fighting a War at Home

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

War has never been easy on love, marriage, and families—and stepfamilies are not immune to its effects.

by Eleanor Spackman Alden

War veterans and their spouses and children have, throughout history, had to cope with the effects of being away from their families for months and even years. The family system that existed before deployment may not survive long absences or the personality changes of their returning loved ones. Today many veterans also face both physical and emotional disabilities as part of the fallout of war. These stressors do not occur in a vacuum, but, rather, in a family system that will be forever changed to varying degrees.

In November, our country celebrated Veterans Day, a day honoring those soldiers who have fought in past wars as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many families, however, are veterans of a war of sorts here at home. With their partners deployed, spouses have taken on the role of solo parent, trying to function without a partner to consult daily. Their children are effectively living in a single-parent household, and some are so young they likely will not recognize their own biological parent on his or her return from war. Some of these families will eventually go through a divorce and subsequently form stepfamilies.

The divorce rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be as high as 80%, according to Michael G. Rank, a Vietnam veteran and associate professor of social work at the Figley Institute in Florida, who, in 2008, spoke at a conference in Denver, Colorado, on posttraumatic stress disorder. Given that the divorce rate for first marriages averages about 50% nationally, it seems possible that, as a group, veterans of all wars could have a higher divorce rate than civilians. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continue, veterans may end up with the highest rate of stepfamily formation of any group of veterans in modern times.

Veterans Day elicits thoughts about the freedoms and values for which so many soldiers have fought and sacrificed. Many Americans are free to achieve our personal potential because our society values democracy and respects diversity. An example of that diversity is the various family structures that exist. Yet, the image of the “ideal” American family still tends to exclude one form: the stepfamily.

Step as a descriptive term for relationships (such as stepparent, stepchild, stepfather, and stepmother) has only been part of the vernacular for just a few centuries. It comes from the old German word steif, meaning bereft. (Words such as orphan and foster were more common centuries beforehand.) Since the beginning of human awareness of kinship, stepfamilies have existed side by side with what many people currently view as a “normal” family unit: children living with two biological parents. Mythology, fairy tales, and historical records point to a time when stepfamilies were seen as commonplace and describe in detail the challenges they faced. As the biblical tales about Joseph and Moses, stories about the Greek gods and King Arthur, and the lives of a number of U.S. presidents—including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—make evident, we are surrounded by people who were raised in or lived in stepfamilies, and became who they were because of that family form.

The majority of children—in both contemporary and historical times—have been raised in a family with one or more stepparent-type figure who has provided support, safety, nurturing, guidance, and, hopefully, love. Because approximately 85% of all cultures in history were polygamous, children had at least one stepmother. The greater the family’s status, the more stepmothers the family had. Those societies honored stepfamilies as successful because they expressed the highest form of family values: the ability to include, in a loving relationship, those not related by blood.

In the past, when marriages ended because of a parent’s death—oftentimes during childbirth—or the abandonment of children by parents who were unable to cope, children frequently were placed in orphanages or with foster or adoptive parents who had the financial means to raise them. The truly poor, though, did not have the resources to raise such children, so sold them into slavery (sometimes benignly called “indentured servant positions”).

During the past 100 years, though, the attitude toward stepfamilies has shifted to one that views stepfamilies as second rate, as if their “stepness” has made them dysfunctional. A primary cause of this shift is western society’s collective discomfort with divorce. This present mythology about stepfamilies is a far cry from honoring them as the most successful of family structures. Although our culture need not return to the cultural myth that stepfamilies are more successful than what we now call “normal,” we might restore stepfamilies to a position of “equal and different.”

A first step in this direction involves hard, but immensely rewarding, work. Stepfamily members will need to learn how to self-regulate their feelings—that is, to behave appropriately when their feelings are intense. They also must learn to respect others’ personal space and privacy, whether emotional, physical, or psychological; handle their responsibilities appropriately, neither avoiding tasks that are their “job” nor assuming tasks that are not theirs; and honor and respectful family members they don’t naturally love. Living in a stepfamily can increase both the parent and child’s ability to adapt successfully to life’s changes, to be more aware of people’s differences and honor them, and to be more flexible and open in making decisions about the life they lead. In simpler terms, stepfamily members are less insular, and they demand that people learn cooperative skills.

A stepfamily that is formed with awareness, consciousness, and understanding produces wiser people who are often the forerunners of change and growth in the culture around them. They, like any “normal” family, can be functional at their best and dysfunctional disasters at their worst, and everything in between. How we treat each other—with honor and respect—and cherish our roles and each other as best we can will determine the outcome.

As we find various ways to honor our veterans on Veterans Day and at other times during the year, we can strive to respect and honor the many stepfamilies that will be formed because of the sacrifices made by those military men and women. The new stepfamilies must be seen as equal but different from the original family units the soldiers left behind when they were deployed. For the sake of our veterans, as well as the benefit of all, our culture needs to change its negative attitude toward stepfamilies and restore them to a place of honor.

Eleanor Spackman Alden, LCSW, BSD, is psychotherapist who, for more than 40 years, has helped veterans and their families, stepfamilies, and those going through divorce navigate painful or difficult transitions. Author of the recently published StepWisdom: Knowledge From the Ages for Successful Stepfamilies (Wheatmark), one of her main interests is changing the paradigm about how our culture views stepfamilies. You can read more about Eleanor, who resides southwest of Denver, Colorado, at

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