Communication Studies, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Family Communication 22:1 (2022), pp. 33-54.



Copyright © 2021 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. Used by permission.


Stepfamilies are inherently complex family systems, marked by change, flexible boundaries, and early conflict. But the developmental pathways by which long-term stepparent relationships become positive require more study. We interviewed 38 stepchildren who had reached adulthood, to understand how their relationships with a stepparent became positive. Four relational trajectories defined these positive relationships: punctuated, consistent positive, progressive incline, and modulated turbulent. Distinctive communicative practices were associated with each trajectory, such as communicating assurances, “siding,” or revelations of character. In addition, the trajectories shared three common processes: responsiveness to stepchild vulnerability, stepparent “adding value” to the family, and maturation/ reframing of the past. Findings support the existence of multiple pathways to positivity and suggest that major fluctuations are experienced along the way. Findings are interpreted in light of existing research on stepfamily development and Afifi’s theory of resilience and relational load. Recommendations are offered for stepfamilies and professionals who serve them.