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Extended family

The step-family tree

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When step-relatives become former step-relatives, questions emerge that can require a whiteboard to figure out.

Here's a not-so-uncommon predicament: A divorced man with kids marries a woman who also has children. At the wedding, their respective constellations of relatives - siblings, parents - get to know one another. Over the years, they start to bond as an extended family. Homes are shared for weekend and holiday visits. Gifts are exchanged, relationships are forged.
Then the couple splits.

Suddenly these step-relatives, unbound by biological or legal ties, are former step-relatives, left to puzzle over the sorts of questions that can require a whiteboard to explain.

Do you invite your ex-stepsister to your wedding, given that you shared a bunk bed with her for seven formative years? How long should you continue texting your ex-stepson if he doesn't text back? And what, if anything, do you call your exstepgrandmother ?

For thousands of people, such questions are not hypothetical. While the number of people with former step-relatives is not tracked, researchers agree that it is substantial, with no indications of shrinking.

In a 2010 study by the Pew Research Centre, 42 per cent of adults surveyed said they had at least one step-relative. Studies have shown that second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. And a rise in births among cohabitating couples could lead to more situations in which people are effectively ex-steps, even if their relationships were not legally sealed through marriage.

There are books offering help adjusting to stepfamily life, with optimistic titles like The Smart Stepdad, The Happy Stepmother and The Step-Tween Survival Guide. But when stepdads aren't smart, stepmothers aren't happy and the marriages that brought them together do not survive, there are no road maps for the dos and don'ts of ex-step etiquette.

"This is a new area, really on the frontier of American family life and kinship, " said Andrew J Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins and author of the 2009 book The Marriage-Go-Round : The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. "We don't really know whether there is enough bonding to make a step-relationship survive the breakup of the family. "
In a recent study, Marilyn Coleman and Lawrence H Ganong, professors at the University of Missouri, interviewed 29 people aged between 18 and 32 who have former stepparents.

They found that relationships fell into three categories: "never claimed" (those who never embraced their stepparent as a family member), "unclaimed" (those who considered the stepparent to be a parent figure during the marriage, but not afterward) and "claimed" (those who continued to consider their ex-stepparent as a family member after the divorce).

The decision to nurture former step-relationships can mean accepting certain awkward situations, like waiting in the same hospital as your former husband while your former stepdaughter-in-law gives birth to a baby who would have been your stepgrandchild.

When a client of Dr Paul Hokemeyer, a Manhattan therapist, expressed a desire to be present at the hospital while the daughter of her longtime but now former husband gave birth, the therapist worked with her to answer what he considered the key question: what was her motive?

"When there's a divorce, there's a profound sense of loss, and people try to mitigate that loss by holding on to relationships that they would be better off letting go, " Dr Hokemeyer said. "Make sure that you are acting out of genuine love and concern for the other person, and not out of anger and attempts to manipulate. "

In the birth case, Dr Hokemeyer and his client determined that her motives were pure. She genuinely cared for her ex-stepdaughter-in-law and wanted to preserve their relationship, which was meaningful and deep, though convoluted to describe.

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