The New York Times

March 11, 2007

A Family Feud That Is Familiar


A "little problem" between a stepson and a stepmother. A father's estrangement from his children.

Rudolph W. Giuliani found himself distracted in the midst of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by questions about skeletons in the closet of a messy divorce. He had to respond to remarks last week by his son, Andrew, 21, that, as a stepson, he had "a little problem" with Mr. Giuliani's wife, Judith Nathan, and had not until recently spoken to his father "for a decent amount of time"

Mr. Giuliani told reporters, who bombarded him with questions at a California event, "It's the kind of thing that I think affects a lot of families these days" He also has a daughter, Caroline, 17, by his former wife Donna Hanover.

"And I believe that these problems with blended families are challenges."

Mr. Giuliani may have been scrambling to right his campaign and preserve his presidential ambitions, but in speaking of the difficulties between his current wife and his children from a previous marriage he tapped into the struggles of millions of American families who have to regroup when a new marriage, or recoupling, follows a divorce or breakup.

The Census Bureau says more than 3.6 million American households, nearly 10 percent of all households with children under 18, are "blended," meaning they include stepparents and stepsiblings or half siblings. The bureau says 15 percent of all children in the United States, or 10.6 million, live in these households.

But many call that figure conservative because it does not count children who have stepfamilies, but whose primary residence is with a biological parent who has no new partner.

Whatever the living circumstances, conflict is the norm rather than the exception, say stepfamilies and the psychotherapists who counsel them. High expectations, jealousies, divided loyalties, problems with the ex and lingering hurt often combine to turn blended households into battlegrounds and family members into fairy tale clichés: more Cinderella?s twisted stepfamily than "The Brady Bunch."

Blended families are the topic of scores of books, online chat groups and family therapists.

"Sometimes families blend very easily, but that's rare," said Jeannette Lofas, the founder of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York. "Generally what happens is that the kids reject the new stepparent, the stepparent gets mad at the stepchild, and there's a battle."

But scenarios are as varied as the circumstances surrounding falling in and out of love.

Lisa and Dave Brodeur, a Massachusetts couple, who married eight years ago, met at a children's basketball game while separated from their spouses. They say they instantly clicked. With four children between them, from 7 to the teens, Mr. Brodeur said he proposed marriage two years later, envisioning his own version of family bliss.

"I thought this was going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said. "We'd be together, my daughter would have siblings and, economically, we would be better off."

Mrs. Brodeur, who is 40 and a special education paraprofessional at a preschool, said she saw a less rosy picture but "I thought our love for each other would pull us together, which it has."

The Brodeurs are still married. But if they stitched together their clans -- her daughter, son and a stepson from a previous marriage and his daughter -- it was not without messy seams: rejection of the stepfather by Mrs. Brodeur?s daughter, complaints of unequal parental treatment from some of the children, meddling and child support problems involving exes and disagreements over discipline. All of it put stress on the couple's relationship.

"At times, it's been almost unbearable," Mrs. Brodeur said. "You?re always in the middle. My goal at one point was to make it through the day without any conflict."

Combining their families has been harder than either imagined, but the Brodeurs, who have three of the four children in college, say they managed because of perseverance, and with the help of professionals.

"You need somebody to advise you," said Mr. Brodeur, 52, an office manager. "People just don't realize what they're getting into."

The health of blended families hinges on how adept they are in navigating emotional landmines and in the success of the adults in being parents together, counselors said. It is possible to do better than struggling to survive, some therapists said. Some families thrive, and the rewards are many. Not least is bringing into the lives of children an adult who isn't a birth parent but who can love them and even be a positive influence on their lives.

For a stepparent, said Emily Bouchard, a stepmother and family coach in Washington State, who operates, an online service, "the biggest reward is building a connection of their own with the stepchild, because it's a chosen love, not a required one."

But it takes years of hard work, Mrs. Bouchard and others said. It is estimated that the divorce rate for second marriages with children from a previous union is substantially higher than that for first marriages, which hovers between 40 and 50 percent, some studies suggest.

Every family member is prone to feelings that make the transition into a new family dynamic difficult right off the bat, said Ms. Lofas of the Stepfamily Foundation. The organization keeps a list of common complaints:

"I want my old family back." (Child)

"I come in to put some order in the place, and they all reject me." (Stepfather)

"Sometimes I think she's looking to find the worst in my kids." (Father)

"Everyone in his life -- his kids, his former wife and his business -- come before me." (Stepmother)

"I told the children that they don't have to listen to her." (Mother)

Some therapists note that it can take at least three years of turmoil before couples are even ready to join forces to tackle the strife. But the road to family harmony can be smoother, they say, if couples abide by general rules, like acknowledging feelings of loss, abandonment and anger; avoiding bad-mouthing the other parent or stepparent; and not expecting too much too soon.

"Some people want to have a loving family, and it is very doable," Mrs. Bouchard said. "What's unrealistic is to expect to be unified and loving immediately."

But some families face a tougher challenge than others. Those with teenagers, for example. Younger children are more adaptable.

Mr. Giuliani's case, some experts agreed, seems particularly tough because it comes with the considerable baggage of a public and bitter divorce. (Ms. Nathan is Mr. Giuliani's third wife. His first marriage, to his second cousin, Regina Peruggi, was annulled.) The fallout from the divorce -- highlighted by Mr. Giuliani's open courtship of Ms. Nathan while still married to Ms. Hanover and Ms. Hanover's accusations at a news conference that Mr. Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, had engaged in adultery even before his relationship with Ms. Nathan -- seemed evident in Andrew Giuliani's statements to the press, including telling ABC in an interview, "I got my values from my mother."

FAMILY therapists said complications like adultery can fuel anger, which may surface in future family relations. It is not unusual for children to side with one parent.

"For the kids there are so many factors that affect how they accept a second relationship, but there's a lot of loyalty guilt," said Susan M. Davis, a clinical social worker in Los Angeles, who specializes in stepfamilies.

One of Mrs. Bouchard's stepdaughters, Robin Bouchard, 25, said teenagers have a sense of ownership not only about parents, but also about their home. She said she was 15 and living with her father when her stepmother came into the picture.

"One time she put her name on a half-eaten yogurt, and I was so outraged," the stepdaughter said. "I made a smoothie with it. How dare she label something in my refrigerator? It was because she had a cold, and she didn't want anyone else to get her cold."

In more successful experiences, expectations and reality coincide. Kathy Volpe, 48, said she always wanted to be a mother and had her chance when she married her husband, Chris, 42, who had primary custody of his daughter, now 8.

Mrs. Volpe said she assumed the day-to-day care of her stepdaughter, Sophie, but has been mindful never to convey the impression that she is taking the birth mother's place.

"Respect is our saving grace," Mrs. Volpe said.

Mr. Volpe, an information technology business analyst in Ohio, said the family has had its share of conflicts over visitation and child-rearing, but he says everyone, including his former wife, is clear about roles.

"It's both parents' responsibility to help maintain relationships as much as they can be maintained," he said. "Parts of your family can coexist very nicely."

His daughter has her own take on the family. Mrs. Volpe said she insists on calling both mother and stepmother the same: "Mom."