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Achieving positive stepfamily relationships : negotiating fairness, forgiveness, and acceptance : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand
Being part of a stepfamily is a common experience for many children and parents in Aotearoa New Zealand. This type of family structure comprises a range of complex relationship dynamics that need to be negotiated, nurtured, and developed into healthy family functioning.
This research was based on a positive psychology perspective (the study of wellbeing) and examined the typical fairness issues stepfamilies encounter, and the strategies they used to resolve those issues. Each family member’s emotional reactions to those situations, and if forgiveness was given and why, were also investigated.
Forty one stepfamilies were recruited to participate in this research, from which 79 were stepchildren and the rest were a combination of step and biological parents.
The research involved holding a family meeting, which was supported by an instructional DVD. During this meeting each participant recorded their responses in a specifically designed research booklet, and the Brief FAM General Scale was used to assess family functioning.
Each participant was asked to recall and offer a situation and a resolution in regards to fairness that they had instigated. From this all other family members would respond by rating their emotions, fairness, and forgiveness in their response booklets.
Descriptive statistics and Generalised Estimating Equations were used to analyse the quantitative responses, and thematic analysis tools to analyse the qualitative responses.
Fourteen scenario categories and seven resolution categories were developed from the 589 situations recorded. The top issues were differential treatment of children,
fighting amongst children, household chores, and missing out. The main resolutions were compromise, communication, and sharing.
Emotionally participants were more negative towards themselves than other family members around these situations. Situations causing the most emotional distress were when children missed out due to either living between two households or were neglected by their other biological parent. Forgiveness generally occurred when a situation had been rectified or improved, or a person wanted to move on from it. Forgiveness tended not to be given when a perceived offense was reoccurring or not rectified. Step relationships did not significantly influence fairness or forgiveness ratings compared to the nature of the situation and the resolution end result, both of which significantly influenced these ratings.
Advice was provided by the participating stepfamilies for other stepfamilies that are either in the beginning stages of their stepfamily development, or not functioning as well. Seven themes emerged from this advice using qualitative analysis: hold family meetings to work through issues; spend quality time with each other, listen to each other, use compromising and negotiation strategies, show every family member respect, treat all family members equally, express love to each family member, and do not bring your children into you and your ex-partner’s feud.