Years ago, when interviewing a woman in a study of stepfamilies, I (Coleman) was struck by comments she made about her ex-stepdaughter. This woman had helped raise the girl from early childhood (age 2) into early adolescence. The father of this girl had physical custody of her because the child’s mother suffered from a drug addiction. The stepmother I interviewed and the father of this girl had divorced when the stepdaughter was 12 or 13 and the woman never saw the child after that. In the interview, the former stepmother shared through tears that after the divorce her ex-stepdaughter had called and written several letters begging her to get in touch, but she had not, she told me, because “it didn’t seem appropriate.” This was during an era when divorced couples generally were expected to sever all ties and not cooperate with each other in any way – after all, the thinking went, if the couple could get along well, then why had they divorced? When remarried couples divorced, children nearly always went with the biological parent and often never saw or interacted with their stepparent or stepsiblings again. This “clean break” of stepfamily ties after divorce may have seemed “natural” and “normal” to many adults – after all, stepparents were neither genetically nor legally related to stepchildren, but to some stepchildren and stepparents, such as the woman I interviewed and her ex-stepdaughter, these breaks were emotionally painful because they ended long-term family relationships. For example, the stepmother I interviewed had raised her stepdaughter for a decade and was likely an important figure in the girl’s life. The former stepmother’s comment that getting in touch with her stepdaughter “didn’t seem appropriate” nagged at me for years before our research team decided to explore what we called “ex-steprelationships.”
Ex-step kin are not rare. In the United States, about one-third of children will spend part of their childhood living with a stepparent. The divorce rate among remarriages is higher than that of first marriages, so a lot of these children will go through multiple family transitions. Maintaining ties with ex-stepparents could help children in terms of resources, relationships, and emotional stability. Our legal systems, however, generally do not recognize rights or responsibilities for ex-stepparents after a divorce. Without legal precedents, ex-stepkin are left on their own to figure out their postdivorce relationships. To explore this phenomenon, we launched a series of studies in which we interviewed former stepkin (stepchildren, stepparents, and stepgrandparents) using grounded theory methods in which we asked open-ended questions and let the study participants tell us what was important to them.
In the first study, we interviewed 41 young adults who had been stepchildren and who had experienced a parent’s remarriage breakup. Our questions focused on their experiences with former stepparents both before and after the divorce. We found three perspectives about ex-stepparents from stepchildren, which we labelled claimed, disclaimed, and unclaimed. About 25% of the young people we interviewed continued to claim their stepparent as kin after the divorce. Another 25% had claimed the stepparent as kin during the remarriage but cut all ties with them after the divorce (i.e., they disclaimed the stepparent). Finally, about half had never claimed the stepparent as kin (i.e., the unclaimed).
The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparents and those who had claimed them during the remarriage and disclaimed them after divorce had spent a lot of time with the stepparent when the remarriage was going well. During the remarriage, they felt close to their stepparents and considered them to be a family member if not a parent.
The ex-stepchildren who still claimed their stepparents as kin after divorce got help from parents in doing so. Their parents either encouraged them to stay in touch with ex-stepparents or were neutral about it, and thus did not discourage them from doing so. Those who had half-siblings from the dissolved remarriage were more likely to stay in contact with ex-stepparents than those who did not. The former stepparents were open to continuing to be in a relationship with them and did what they could to keep lines of connection open. Some ex-stepchildren waited until after the post-divorce flames and hostility had died down before becoming involved again with their stepparent. One man waited five years before reconnecting with his stepfather, and they rekindled a very close relationship. The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparent after the remarriage ended said that they continued to receive support from their ex-step in the forms of help with college expenses, other financial help, and the kinds of assistance young people seek from parents and parental figures (e.g., advice, emotional support).
The ones who disclaimed their stepparents, did so almost immediately after the end of the remarriage, often because of loyalty to their biological parent. Some said they cut off ties with the stepparent because their parent had revealed negative information about the ex-stepparent. These disclaiming ex-stepchildren took the side of their biological parent, and although it often was emotionally painful for them to do so, they quickly and decisively cut off ties to their ex-stepparents. These young people felt sad about the losses they experienced as a result of this divorce, and they often were still angry at the stepparent, whom they generally blamed for the divorce. In some cases, ex-stepchildren wished they could resolve some of their feelings and wanted to reconnect with the ex-stepparent, but did not know how to make this happen, and even felt ambivalent about whether it should or not.
The last group of ex-stepchildren, who had never claimed their stepparents as kin, was older when their parent remarried, the remarriage was relatively short, and the stepparent and stepchild had spent little time together. Some stated they had always disliked the stepparent. These ex-stepchildren felt no sense of loss and some were even relieved after their parent’s divorce from the stepparent. They had made no attempts to connect with their stepparent after divorce and neither had their former stepparent tried to contact them.
We were encouraged in this study that none of the ex-stepchildren thought that it was inappropriate to continue these stepfamily ties. Some of the claiming ex-stepchildren in our study noted, however, that a lack of social norms and expectations for the ex-steprelationships after a remarriage ends made them unsure at times about what to do. Maybe these young people and their stepparents and parents are creating new norms, but the absence of guidelines or social support is unfortunate, at least for some ex-stepchildren who claimed their stepparents as parents during the remarriage; ex-stepchildren who continued to claim stepparents as kin cited many advantages to maintaining those relationships.
Sammye — May 15, 2021
My ex husband and I married when my son from previous marriage was 2 yrs old. We had a daughter together a few years later but divorced when my son was 14. He began living with a woman less than six months after the split and thats when he ended his relationship via a letter he delivered to the high school my son attended. My son called him dad and thought of him as his dad. The emotional abuse he inflicted on my son was uncalled for and the results were very damaging to a young boy. His excuse for doing so was lame and transparent. All in all it was his bitterness and looking for revenge to hurt me thru my son for ending our marriage.
Lawrence H Ganong — May 20, 2021
This is so sad. Your ex's behavior toward your son was cruel and unnecessary. I think sometimes ex-stepparents are unthinking or unclear about what to do with stepchildren after divorce, but in your family the poor conduct seems deliberate. Thank you for sharing this. I wish you the best going forward.
Shannon — June 7, 2021
Here's my story, I married a man back in 2001 he had 3 children a girl 5, a girl 4 and a boy 2. This was at the time their mother lost custody due to a drug addiction. I became their full time mother until 2011, when I could no longer take his physical abuse. After the divorce was final I tried to come meet the kids and take them out to eat and to the movies but he wasn't supposed to be there. He hid his truck so when I brought them home I got out and tried to visit with his parents. He came around the corner of the house next thing I know it was 3 days later and he finally let me go. I just couldn't take the physical abuse attached to seeing any of them. I haven't seen them since.
Somethings Fishy — June 13, 2021
Sammye, tour story leads that maybe you did something to destroy this family you had built... you clearly hurt this person very much...
Michelle — July 22, 2021
I’m seeking answers because my step mom left without a goodbye when I was about ten years old. I’m 27 now and I still think of her often, wishing we could have stayed connected.
John — October 29, 2021
I am glad to see I am not alone in this mess. I am a broken old man who tried to do the right thing when my old friend told me she was getting pregnant at 44. I felt obligated to help her because she was there when my mother was sick and later died. I always thought I would repay her in some way. The time came when she told me she was using a young woman’s egg and a sperm donor and would up eventually give birth to twins. I encouraged her throughout her pregnancy even when her own mother wouldn’t talk to her for four months because she didn’t think the children would be her biological grandkids. I was told by my friend she was going to get help by many of her friends but never saw any step up to help. I eventually moved in with her to help her through her time then stayed on after she gave birth. Her aunt informed us that social security has a program that offers money to stepchildren from my own retirement fund. So we got married and applied for this money and received it into the mom’s account with me spending my entire savings money … over $250,000 on everything from soup to nuts. And if I factor in my time the figure jumps up to almost two million. Then I had to have bypass surgery and after release from the hospital I was not allowed to return home because she felt I would be a burden and had to raise her two kids and hold down a job. I was abandoned. No place to live and no money money left. I missed my step kids every minute and still do after two years . I cry ever night … We got a divorce because of the abandonment but was not allowed to communicate with the twins. I am now 75 years old and heartbroken and not sure what to do. I wish my ex wound let me at least see the kids once a month or even once a quarter … she is treating me as though I am dead. Not even sure what she has told the kids. I tried to stay in their lives by remembering birthdays and holidays but am not even sure if they were even given the gifts I sent. There was never even acknowledgement the gifts even arrived yet alone given to them in my name. I take the entire blame for allowing this to happen to me … had I known it would end like this I would have never gotten involved. Oh well … life goes on. Hang in there folks.
Shawnda Powell — November 6, 2021
Here's my story when I first met Jason (my ex-husband) I had met his at the time 5 year old daughter we married a year later in 2014 during the marriage she began to call me mom and I treated her as my own as I would any other kid. Me and her father ended up divorcing when she was 11 and after we had divorced I tried to stay in contact with her and let her know that I still loved her and still wanted to be a part of her life I had sent her a gift for Christmas and when her dad and I were going through the divorce her dad told me to not contact her anymore so I didn't but then on November 1 2021 she had sent me a friend request on Facebook and I accepted it and then she called on video chat on Facebook and we talked for about 2 hours and I was able to give her the answers she had been looking for. During that conversation she told me that she had been looking for that mother figure since her biological mother abandoned her when she was 2 or 3 and she said "I've been looking for that person but I've realized that I'm not gonna find that person because that person is you" and to this day she still calls me mom and still tells me she loves me and her dad sent me a message saying that if I message or talk to her again that he is going to press charges. The bond that was created between me and my daughter is a kind of bond that you don't find often I just wish that her dad could see the kind of bond that we have and allow her to still be a part of my life I have missed every single day since I left him 4 years ago.
Lawrence H Ganong — December 3, 2021
I would encourage you to reach out to her, if you can find contact information. She may have wanted to stay in touch but did not know how or was prevented from doing so.
Jeanine — January 26, 2023
I am married a woman with 2 kids (then 4 and 7) 5 years ago. We recently got divorced and she took them to another country without allowing us to even say goodbye. I have no legal right and although I was their mom (my youngest cannot remember a life before me), I have no rights. I am at the mercy of my ex who allows me to talk to them once a week. The communication with my oldest is strained, I can only imagine what was said about me. I will keep trying though. What I do know is that I am mourning the loss of my children. I loved them like they were my own
Joe — February 13, 2023
Was/Am married for 13 years when it's. My two step kids are now 23 and 20, so I was there for most of their life and raised and loved them as my own. now the kids are gone my wife wants to do something else with her life. Both kids want me to be involved in their lives since to them I am their dad. But it makes me so sad and scared to think that I could lose all that.