The Relationship Difference

The Relationship

Whilst likeability and attraction can be instant, relationships however do not just appear.

Meaningful and long-lasting relationships and secure attachments between us and others are built, established and maintained over time. Relationships are also by no means static. They can (and will) change and are influenced by time, experiences and life and developmental stages. The reality is that relationships can ebb and flow much like ballroom dancing. Sometimes you’re dancing tango, sometimes you’re dancing the waltz, sometimes you are sitting in the bleachers taking a breather (or perhaps not wanting to continue to dance at all!).

In this way parent-child and stepparent-stepchild relationships are no different from any other type of relationships. They can be sensitive to external factors and take time to become embedded in family life. But the characteristics of a parent’s relationship with a biological child and with a step-child however, can be very different. These differences come about as a result of some unavoidable reasons:

  1. The parent/child relationship (more often than not) has a longer history than the stepparent/stepchild relationship – Biologically related parents and children have had a much longer time to get to know each other and greater opportunity to develop shared activities and interests than stepparents and stepchildren. For biological parents the bonding process typically begins at point of conception (especially for mothers) and continues as their children grow. This means that parents are generally more tolerant of their children’s personalities and behaviours than someone who doesn’t know them so well. The reverse is also true. Children are bonded to, and thus often more tolerant of, their biological parents.
  2. Stepparents may be asked to assume a parental role before emotional ties with their stepchild have been established – Biological parents have the opportunity to grow into their parenting roles. Stepparents on the other hand are often thrust (or jump) into the role of “instant parent”. They are also expected to immediately adjust to this new role as though parenting/step-parenting is an inborn skill – which it is not!
  3. There is no legally recognised relationship between stepparents and stepchildren – Unlike birth, adoptive or even foster parents there is a lack of a legal relationship, which can add to the ambiguity of the stepparent role. This can lead to some stepparents feeling less involved and/or a loss of stature in terms of parental authority and responsibility.
  4. Children’s loyalty to their biological parents may interfere with their acceptance of a stepparent (regardless of how nice the stepparent may be). In an intact (healthy) family, children typically love both parents (and others) without concern for their parent’s emotional wellbeing. Children in stepfamilies no matter their age, are always going to have natural loyalty binds towards their biological parents, such that they can feel guilty or disloyal at the entry of a stepparent into their inner sanctum – even if their parent’s separation was friendly and amicable or if a parent is deceased or has abandoned them. There is often the conundrum for kids of “If I care about (or even like) my stepmother, I betray my mom.” Or “If I care about (or even like) my stepfather, I betray or hurt my dad.”

The contrasts between a parent’s relationship with a biological child and with a step-child can be subtle or very obvious depending on a number of factors.

These factors include: whether the stepfamily was formed when the children were infants or minors or when children are teenagers or grown up; the level of conflict or animosity that exists (if any) between the separated parents and also between the stepparent and the children’s ‘other’ parent; the other parent’s support or acceptance of their ex having re-partnered; and the personalities and temperaments of all those involved.

The different characteristics between these relationships, can manifest themselves in daily family life and in the behaviour of family members towards one another in variety of ways.

  • Children can be quick to offer grace and forgiveness to biological parents, but have a low tolerance for stepparents, even if both the parent and stepparent are behaving in the same way or saying the same thing.
  • Because they have always been around, biological parents are afforded “insider” status while stepparents are often viewed with a “you don’t belong, outsider”perspective.
  • Children love (biological) parents, period. It isn’t decided; it’s automatic and deeply felt, whilst love for a stepparent has to be nurtured, tested and retested, and is ultimately a choice (for both the child and the stepparent).
  • Auto-approval. This is the attitude that says, “If mom/dad says it, it must be right” and results in a natural bias toward approval of a biological parent’s actions. Stepparents typically do not receive a benefit-of-the-doubt attitude (especially if a stepparent’s opinion or instruction contradicts or differs from one or other of the biological parents).
  • Auto-trust. Children assume that biological parents can be trusted and depended on (even if proven otherwise). Stepparents typically have to repeatedly prove their trustworthiness.
  • Biological parents are granted access to a child’s inner world and personal space (by the child). “My space is your space.” If, however, a stepparent moves in too quickly, it can be perceived (by the child) as a violation of the child’s personal boundaries.

(excerpt above taken from ‘The Attachment Difference”, Ron L. Deal).

Box 1: Comparison of parent’s relationship with a biological child and with a stepchild

 Parent-Child RelationshipStepparent-Child Relationship
Family StructureCouple relationship established before the children
Child/parent relationship precedes couple relationship
Related by bloodNo blood ties. Related by living together or marriage
Love and closeness emphasised and encouraged from child’s birthRespect emphasised
Relationship StatusContinuous from birth

Uninterrupted and universally accepted
Often subject to outside influences and control e.g. the child’s other biological parent and myths such as “the wicked stepmother”

Complicated by divorce/death and accompanying grief and loss issues

Created and sustained by a partner relationship; the primary impetus for contact may be via the biological parent. If the partner relationship ends, the step relationship might also end.
Focus and SupportAccepted and encouraged by extended family member and also by societyParents may try to preserve existing relationships with biological children above the investment in a stepchild relationship, thus curtailing the parent’s ability to connect to their stepchildren

Partial societal acknowledgement

May or may not be accepted by extended family members
Family HistoryHave had time to establish history and traditionsLittle or no shared history or experiences

Often there is grief; there are unresolved issues and hurts, and disappointments which may have never been properly addressed
Positions and RolesPositions in the family for all members are generally known and understood
Biological parents – ascribed by birth
Child has only one role – biological child
Positions in family are widely misunderstood and hold tremendous potential for conflict

Stepparent – achieved over time


Child has the role of both biological and stepchild
LanguageClear unambiguous label for mother and father in all languagesLack of terminology around what children can call their stepparents
Legal StatusClearly definedAmbiguous and unclear
Parenting StylesParent’s ways and expectations are familiar and predictable to childrenStepparents are (in the beginning at least) unknown and unpredictable.
It is definitely ok to want and to aim for a loving, close relationship with your stepchild.

But lofty expectations that your relationship with your stepchild will develop and operate the same as your relationship with your biological child, can lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict and often failure.

The best way to tackle the differences in the parent-child and stepparent-stepchild relationships is to have healthy expectations about both the time it can take to establish a relationship beyond a superficial level and the nature of relationship you might be actually able to establish. Remember also to let the kids set the pace and not to rush the process (even if their speed it slower than you would like). Expect setbacks and loyalty binds. And above all be willing to persist and keep trying.

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