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Step-Relationships: Family or Friend?


A nationwide Pew Research Center survey found that 42% adults have at least one stepparent, stepchild, or stepsibling in their family. This number continues to grow each year with remarriage rates increasing throughout the United States. Even though the act of gaining a stepparent or stepchild is becoming common place, there are still many questions surrounding these relationships and their impact on children and adults. One of the most talked about topics is how the changing landscape of families impacts bonds and stability.

This survey found that individuals with a stepfamily are just as likely to rate family as the most important element in their life. They are also nearly as likely to say that they are very satisfied with their family life (70% compared to 78% for those without a stepfamily). While stepfamilies typically are not what a person initial plans for, this study does show that most individuals are just as satisfied with their step-relationships as they are with other members of their family.

What this survey did find to be different is the level of obligation individuals feel towards their step-family members compared to others. It was found that 85% of children with a living parent would feel extremely obligated to help their parent if they were faced with a serious problem, while only 56% said they would feel the same level of obligation to assist a stepparent. That at first glance appears to be a rather large gap, especially when considering that the same individuals have remarked that they are just as happy with these step-relationships are they are with others. This trend, with a much smaller gap is also found with parents and their obligation to their children. Out of adults with grown children, 78% said they would feel very obligated to help them while only 62% stated they would feel very obligated to help a grown stepchild.

These numbers show that while adults are generally happy with their stepparents or stepchildren, they still feel a stronger obligation to their biological or non-stepparents and children. At first glance the thought could be that step-relationships are overall not as close as biological ties or perhaps that those relationships are not as solidified. As a comparative, this survey also asked individuals how they would feel concerning their best friend if they needed assistance and only 39% of adults responded that they would feel very obligated to help.

This seems to put stepfamily in middle ground: closer than the dearest of friends, but not quite as close as non-stepfamily members. I would be interested to find out if the step-relationship responses would be close to those with in-laws, as I would venture a guess that the numbers would similar.

Just as with in-laws, stepfamily members are often not chosen by you. You instead pick a spouse which brings stepchildren, or as a child you are along for the ride when one or both of your parents remarry. Your connection to these new people in your life needs to be built instead of being instantaneously there. You will need to venture into a world of new traditions, new rules, and new expectations. There is an underlining dynamic that you are suddenly in the middle of. Just as you need to navigate through the first years post marriage with your in-laws, you are navigating into yet another subset within your home with stepfamily members. It can be a delicate journey but it can bring a great reward because even if you don’t mirror your biological child or parent relationship, you can still create a strong bond with your stepfamily that lasts a lifetime.




Step-Relationships: Family or Friend?

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2015). Step-Relationships: Family or Friend?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Nov 2015
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