Stepfamily communication

Dawn O. Braithwaite, Paul Schrodt

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Stepfamilies are one growing family form that represents both opportunities and challenges to the members who live in them, the professionals who work with them, and the scholars who study them. Defined as families in which “at least one of the adults has a child (or children) from a previous relationship” (Ganong & Coleman, 2004, p. 2), stepfamilies represent one of the more dificult family forms to index and study. Earlier estimates suggested that about one-third of U.S. children would spend at least part of their lives as stepchildren (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995), and more recently, Stewart (2007) reported that 15 percent of children under the age of 18 currently live in amarried stepfamily. In fact, stepfamily membership is underrepresented in national data sets as stepfamily members' time is often split between households and an increasing number of stepfamilies are cohabiting outside of marriage (Teachman & Tedrow, 2008). In addition, children in any given household may be the product of different adult relationships, and thus, many stepfamilies spring from multiple marriages and cohabiting relationships, creating changing and fluid boundaries. Whatever challenges exist to estimating the incidence of stepfamilies, social scientists agree that they are a prevalent and growing family type that is often misunderstood and understudied. Until recent years, stepfamily scholarship as a whole tended toward what Ganong and Coleman (1994; 2004) labeled a “deficit-comparison” approach, as stepfamilies were compared against intact families, and their differences from the traditional family archetype were most often evaluated negatively. Making an effort to move beyond a deficit approach, one key question researchers have addressed involves the ways stepfamilies are qualitatively similar and distinct from intact, first-marriage families. While scholars have necessarily focused on challenges stepfamilies face, some are also examining communication behaviors that promote growth and resilience in stepfamilies (e.g., Afifi, 2008; Golish, 2003). The broad interdisciplinary contributions to the study of stepfamilies are a strength of the available empirical and clinical work (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). More recently, family communication scholars have sought to understand the central role of communication in the formation and enactment of stepfamily relationships. While scholars across disciplines study communication variables relevant to stepfamily processes, scholars with a central focus on stepfamily communication are contributing work that centers communication as the primary, constitutive social process by which relationships are formed and enacted (cf. Baxter, 2004). Central to family communication scholarship is the recognition that families are discourse dependent, meaning that all families form and negotiate expectations and identities via interaction (Galvin, 2006). From this perspective, all families are discourse dependent. However, families that depart from cultural norms, as is the case with stepfamilies, are even more dependent on interaction to define and legitimate themselves as family and negotiate boundaries and expectations for those inside and outside the family. In essence, those who study family communication enlighten the discourses and processes by which families interact and negotiate relationships and expectations of what it means to be a family. In this chapter, we review research on stepfamily communication and advance a set of claims that can be made about stepfamily interaction, as well as a set of new directions that future scholars can take to advance the recent proliferation of stepfamily scholarship that has emerged over the last two decades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Family Communication
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781136946370
ISBN (Print)9780415881982
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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