THE EXPERIENCES OF STEPFAMILIES HEADED BY SAME-SEX COUPLES
By Carly Nacer, M.Ed. and Brad van Eeden-Moorefield, MSW,PhD
Although we have decades of research that has taught us a great deal about the experiences of stepfamilies headed by different-sex couples and of general families headed by same-sex couples, we know much less about the experiences of stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples. There are several important reasons for this. First, until more recently stepfamily research focused almost entirely on legal stepfamilies (i.e., those created through a remarriage) rather than using more contemporary definitions of stepfamilies (e.g., those created through cohabitation or remarriage). These contemporary definitions include families formed when one partner has a child in the context of a previous relationship (e.g., cohabiting, marriage) and enters a new legal or non-legal relationship. Given no or limited access to marriage for same-sex couples, most stepfamily scholars historically excluded same-sex headed families from research, or never thought to include them. Second, the lack of legal access to marriage for same-sex couples and the fact that research on families headed by same-sex couples only began to emerge in research during the past several decades, most of these studies simply focused on outcomes of children from same-sex headed families. Only recently have researchers focused on the diversity of families created by same-sex couples. Each of these reasons limits what we know about this particular group of stepfamilies and their experiences. This is further complicated by the incorrect assumption that stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples are created only when one partner has a child in the context of a previous heterosexual marriage, divorces, comes out as gay or lesbian, and then enters a same-sex relationship (not necessarily in this order). For additional information about stepfamily formation see (Stepfamilies Headed by Same-Sex Couples: Demographics, Formation, and Legal Considerations).
In spite of these limitations, research suggests many of the experiences of different-sex stepfamilies and families created by same-sex couples generally are applicable to stepfamilies created by same-sex couples (van Eeden-Moorefield & Pasley, 2012). For example, stepparenting is more difficult than parenting by a biological mother or father in any type of stepfamily, and discrimination is stressful and difficult for most families headed by same-sex couples. The limited research does suggest stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples experience some unique challenges, yet they are largely resilient (van Eeden-Moorefield & Benson, 2015). Below, we focus on some of these unique challenges and experiences.
Discrimination comes in many forms such as lack of access to benefits, social institutions (e.g., marriage), teasing or bullying, and acts of violence. There is a wealth of information about how discrimination influences both individuals and families. On average, it is related to many negative outcomes ranging from fear, depression, and anxiety to reduced happiness in a relationship. These also can spill over and negatively influences one’s ability to parent.
Generally, research findings suggest that stepfamilies are viewed as dysfunctional and “not real” families, and many stepparents are made to feel invisible by the legal system (e.g., stepparents have all the responsibilities of being a parent with no legal recognition or standing; van Eeden-Moorefield & Pasley, 2012). Additionally, families headed by same-sex couples often also are viewed stereotypically as “not real” families, incapable of maintaining lasting relationships, and only wish to “recruit” children to become gay or lesbian.
For stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples, these discriminatory experiences can be much stronger (Berger, 2000). Specifically, these families are part of several minority groups and experience multiple forms of discrimination. For example, these families often are stereotyped and discriminated against for being a stepfamily, for being a same-sex headed family, and for being gay or lesbian parents. For some of these stepfamilies, they also can experience discrimination based on gender and or race/ethnicity. Further, these families experience discrimination from society, heterosexual individuals and families, and even from within parts of the LGBT community. As such, stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples often are caught in the middle and experience multiple forms of discrimination at the same time. This type of vulnerability and unique challenge is not as well understood, and more research is needed.
What we do know is that many stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples are highly aware of, and sensitive to, this discrimination and its potential impact on their child(ren), and they go to great lengths to protect their families. This ranges from using each other for support to taking the necessary steps to protect their child from as much discrimination as possible. In fact, research has found that some stepcouples pretend to be roommates only as a way to protect their (step)child from potential bullying or teasing by peers for being part of a same-sex headed family (Lynch, 2000). This level of flexibility and concern for their child’s well-being is not always ideal for the couples, but it represents a strong child-centered focus and is considered a strength for many of these stepfamilies. This further supports the idea that a family’s structure is not as important as how they interact as families (i.e., family processes).
Roles within Stepfamilies Headed by Same-Sex Couples
As noted, research has shown same-sex headed stepfamilies to be flexible and adaptable depending on family needs (Berger, 2000; Lynch, 2000). Society uses the heterosexual family as the “norm” and judges families based on their ability to carry out family roles in a way that closely mirrors expected norms (e.g., mothers are nurturing, fathers are breadwinners). These norms most often are attached to marriage and are partially rooted in structural functionalist theories. Given the historical denial of marriage to same-sex couples, these families have made their own roles for creating and living as families. This is a strength of these stepfamilies. In fact, research shows same-sex stepfamilies to be particularly good at rule setting as parents as well as communicating with one another. For those who become stepparents, they are less likely to attempt to move into a parenting role quickly, and more likely to allow it to develop slowly over time- something we know works well (Lynch, 2000).
Same-sex headed stepfamilies do encounter some struggles regarding their roles. Parents may face frustration in their attempts to blend together as one unit (e.g., Jenkins, 2013). Struggles between the child(ren) and the stepparent may make the biological parent feel as if he or she is living two lives; one with their partner and one with their child. For example, the child may not welcome the stepparent into the family and, therefore, the biological parent has to keep his or her new relationship and life with his/her child separate from one another. Children may encounter loyalty concerns, as they feel torn between their biological family and their stepfamily. For example, a child may come to like the stepparent and, at the same time, hear their biological parent (the ex-partner) talk negatively about the stepparent. This can lead a child to feel guilty about liking their stepparent and disloyal to their biological parent. These challenges can be exacerbated when conflict is high between ex-partners or spouses. This is especially true when the ex-partner is heterosexual and has negative feelings about the other coming out as gay or lesbian. In fact, many struggle with when and how to come out to ex-partners and also fear losing custody or visitation if the ex-partner finds out. Many parents are committed to creating and strengthening their new families, but have to find a way to balance this with the stereotypes and stigma that exist in the outside world.
Children in Stepfamilies Headed by Same-Sex Couples
Much of the research on stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples focuses on the experiences and adjustment of children, although it is fairly limited compared to what we know about children in different-sex stepfamilies and the general literature on children with same-sex parents. This general research suggests children in stepfamilies do experience some increased risk for depressed mood, anxiety, and slightly lower decreases in academic achievement (van Eeden-Moorefield & Pasley, 2012). However, most tend to adjust and do well over time, just as with different-sex stepfamilies. The extent to which ex-partners are able to manage conflict is key to a child’s ability to adjust. The general research on children in same-sex headed families suggests they do well, are no more likely to identify as LGBT compared to children raised in different-sex families, and are more accepting of diversity (Moore & Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, 2013).
We agree with research that children in stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples will do well when conflict between ex-partners, coming out, and discrimination are managed appropriately (e.g., Jenkins, 2013). Social support is also key to creating positive environments and outcomes for these children. In fact, these families create strategies that help them deal with the stereotypes they face. Strategies include communicating with their children on how to talk to others about their family structure, as well as creating a close social support network with families, friends, and others in the gay community (Moore & Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, 2013). The specific research that is available on children in stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples focuses on these children’s internalization of social messages related to being in a same-sex headed family and their sense of community belonging. Below, we discuss each of these areas.
Internalization of Society’s Messages
Children are easily influenced by societal messages about what is “normal,” “abnormal,” and who is considered a legitimate family. When messages are internalized, children living in stepfamilies headed by same-sex couples can develop a sense of shame, uneasiness, and fear related to what others will think when they find out about their family (Robitaille & Saint Jacques, 2009). Research also finds that being part of a same-sex headed family is more challenging for children than being part of a stepfamily. Children in these families repeatedly hear messages that suggest they are in an abnormal or immoral family, they will grow up to be gay, or worse. This is a particular risk for those who are younger and particularly sensitive to what is considered “normal” by peers. As children hear others' views and opinions, they may begin to believe the comments and view their own family in the ways in which they are being described, and this may lead to stress, depression, acting out, and other negative outcomes.
Accordingly, many young children are more likely than older children to want to hide the fact that they are in a same-sex headed stepfamily, and actually do so. Fear of judgment and rejection from others is a concern for these children, and leads them to hide their families from their peers (e.g., Goldberg, Kinkier, Richardson, & Downing, 2012; Lynch & Murray, 2000). Given the child-centered nature of many stepcouples, research finds they tend to be acutely aware of these unique challenges and do well at considering their child's needs based on level of comfort, age, and developmental stage. This is especially evident as the family considers when, how, and whom to come out to.
In spite of these challenges and potential negative influences, newer studies find this to be less of a concern (but still a concern) today. On average, children tend to be more accepting of diversity, more careful of whom they choose as friends and, at times, highly selective at confronting those who have negative beliefs. When we consider this with the increased acceptance and tolerance of all gay and lesbian-headed families, we expect this to continue to be less of a concern for children in the future. However, we also caution people to be aware of the great differences in acceptance levels across communities and states. For now, ensuring children feel supported and connected to affirming communities is critical.
Sense of Community Belonging
Children with same-sex parents, including those in stepfamilies, consider themselves as part of both the LGBT and general heterosexual communities. This often is the case because although these children are part of a same-sex headed family, they most often identify as heterosexual (Goldberg, Kinkier, Richardson, & Downing, 2012). For many of these children, the support and acceptance from the LGBT community plays an important role in their lives and provides a sense of belonging and comfort. It also provides a place where these children feel they fit in and to which they are connected.
Research has identified a couple of patterns related to involvement and connection with each community, although most focus on involvement only with the LGBT community. First, among children who were well-connected to the LGBT community during childhood, the connection tends to weaken as they transition to adulthood (Goldberg, Kinkier, Richardson, & Downing, 2012). Some believe this is due mainly to the child’s developing sense of independence and exploration of where they fit in the larger community and world. For example, some adult children move away from home and join other social groups as a way to explore their interests and expand their network of friends. The other pattern is opposite. For those children, they often report low involvement with the LGBT community during childhood and increasing involvement as they become young adults.
What appears to differentiate these patterns is the timing of their parent’s coming out. For those parents who are out earlier in their child’s life, their child is more likely to be connected to the LGBT community earlier (Goldberg, Kinkier, Richardson, & Downing, 2012). The opposite is true for parents who come out later in their child’s life, including adolescence. What is important about these findings is that the LGBT community plays an important role in these children’s life and their adjustment. In many ways, it also teaches these children to become advocates for their families, themselves, and of diversity more generally. So, ensuring these connections are available and fostering them can play a supportive role for these stepfamilies and their children. Such connections also can help protect children from some of society’s negative effects, especially those related to discrimination.
* Dr. Brad van Eeden-Moorefield is an Associate Professor and Carly Nacer is a Doctoral Student in the Child & Family Studies. Both are at Montclair State University.
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