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Stepfamilies have special needs

By Natalie Gately - posted Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Successful stepfamilies can provide a stable and harmonious family environment that benefits all family members. Furthermore, some researchers suggest that a well functioning stepfamily is as effective as the traditional nuclear family structure.

Stepfamilies are the fastest growing family type in Australia, yet they experience greater rates of separation than first relationships, resulting in both children and adults going through another major upheaval and transition. Therefore it is imperative that support and understanding is afforded to these families so in future society is not dealing with the breakdown of third and fourth marriages.

Traditionally, a stepfamily was formed after the death of a biological parent. A new wife or husband was found to replace the parent, and they assumed the role associated with mothering or fathering. There were not usually issues of child residency or custody, visitation or access, or child support payments.


Today, both of a child’s own biological parents may be very much involved in their child’s life and upbringing, despite the separation. This can result in stepparents finding themselves in a virtual no man's land. Their roles can be ill defined and they are not automatically a stand-in mother or father, even though they may take on many care-giving roles. These days the way most stepfamilies form is after parental separation.

It is estimated that divorce and separation rates involving children are in the vicinity of 32-50 per cent, depending on who is collecting the statistics and if they include married, de facto or non-de facto parents. What is known is that these relationship breakdowns do not deter parents from entering into second or subsequent relationships, sometimes quite quickly.

Parents typically repartner within one to three years post-separation. In the event of both parents repartnering, the child is now a part of TWO stepfamilies. It is important to note this is post-separation, not post-divorce. It indicates that many new relationships are being formed while the dissolution of the last relationship is still being resolved in agencies such as the Family Court or the Child Support Agency. The aim of this article is to raise awareness of some of the difficulties that stepfamilies face.

While many separating parents make decisions collaboratively without any outside intervention, some chose to utilise the services of the Family Court. This leaves the Family Court judges in the unenviable position of deciding the residency conditions of a child with two opposing but equally good parents. The process involves each parent trying to justify why the child should spend the majority of the time with them.

This is typically achieved by proving they are the better parent by pointing out all the flaws in the opposing parent. This makes co-operative parenting very difficult, once the court decision is finalised, as many have exposed secrets and said hurtful things about their former partners hard to forgive.

Although the courts attempt to resolve these issues within an appropriate time frame, it is not unusual for one case to span a number of years. As parents begin to establish new intimate relationships, these new partners inevitably become integrated into the system. When this happens it is not unusual for the opposing parent to include information about the stepparent as ammunition in pointing out the reasons why the child should not reside with the new stepfamily.


Some stepparents refer to this as “character assassination” displaying anger and hurt such as … "they took her word for what I was like" … "I wanted to fight back over all the lies written about me" … "have slandered my name and written it in dirt".

Despite being brought into the process, many felt they had no defence in protecting themselves or answering their critics. Although the court tries to gather as much information as possible, these stepparents have the perception that the court excludes all but the biological parents in custody disputes.

They acknowledge that their presence will actually exacerbate conflict within the court, but feel justified in being there because they are not “new” partners anymore. Most have been living with their new partners for at least two years and have been part of their stepchild’s life and support system for that time.

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If you would like to participate in a totally confidential email, phone or mailed survey investigating the difficulties and strengths of couples in stepfamilies, please contact

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About the Author

Natalie Gately is a Lecturer in the School of Law and Justice at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, and facilities workshops for couples in stepfamilies. Her most recent research has focused on the experiences of stepparents in the Family Court of Western Australia. Currently she is examining the difficulties and strengths of the adult couples in stepfamilies. For further information or for the full PDF published articles, please contact

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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