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Although exact statistics are difficult to come by, according to the National Stepfamily Resource Center's fact sheet, more than half of Americans today have been, are now or will eventually be, in one or more step-situations during their lives. The Stepfamily Foundation, around since 1975, puts the estimate even higher, maintaining that "64 percent of families today live in some form of divorced and/or stepfamily relationship."
"I'm not sure if it's 64 percent, but it is the most prevalent lifestyle," says Robert Klopfer, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Stepping Stones Counseling Center in Ho-Ho-Kus, which specializes in enriching the quality of stepfamily life.
"When we started Stepping Stones in 1994, people didn't really know a lot about stepfamilies. And today, it's very prevalent, even though I still think there's some feeling about being identified as part of a stepfamily that people have trouble with. For some people, it's a bit of a stigma."
After Schwartz saw that long-ago news item, he was so sure other producers would pick up on it that he immediately registered the "Brady" concept with the Writers Guild of America. And yet, except for rare shows like ABC's new comedy "Modern Family" in which Ed O'Neill's character has two adult children, a much-younger wife and an 11-year-old stepson who idealizes and endlessly prattles about his deadbeat dad "The Brady Bunch" remains the standard bearer for TV stepfamilies.
But experts say the show conveys a fantasy image of stepfamily life. In it, Mike, a widower, and Carolwhose reasons for being single Schwartz deliberately left vaguemesh their families seamlessly and never really argue with each other.
In reality, stepfamilies are formed by two different cultures coming togetherand there are lots of clashes.
"Usually you've got the Hatfields and the McCoys under the same roof," says Jeannette Lofas, founder and president of the Stepfamily Foundation, based in Manhattan.
Says Klopfer, " 'The Brady Bunch,' in essence, operated as a first family most of the time. There were no other parents, so there were all these kids with two adults, and they had awareness of step-relationships, but they didn't seem to have step issues. And it worked very well for television."
What's the harm in that?
"I think it set a model for many people," he says. "In the early stages of stepfamily life, which we call the fantasy stages of living together, the two adults fall in love, and they imagine it will be like 'The Brady Bunch,' where everybody will love each other and will get along and will have these little minor 30-minute episodic events that will happen and will all get worked out very quickly. [But] the statistic that we use is, it usually takes about four to seven years for a stepfamily to bond, to really feel like a real family."
And those are the lucky stepfamilies. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, when children are involved, 66 percent of those who are living together or are remarried break up.
Klopfer says one big problem is that when a couple in love marries, "the kids aren't in love. They're not even in like."
Lofas says parents have to be committed to learning a family-management system.
"They have to work with their spouse to create house rules that they can both get behind," she says. "The major, major, major problem is that families are forming without rules."
Stepfamilies get formed after three major developments the death of a spouse, abandonment by one parent or divorce all traumas that need to be worked through, Klopfer says.
For kids of different ages, there are "unique stressors," he says.
Adolescents, "at a time when they're trying to psychologically separate from their biological parents," find life infinitely more complicated when a new person, with possibly different views on discipline and independence, is introduced into the family.
"With younger kids, you have the whole issue of wanting to keep their families together, living in a fantasy world sometimes, imagining that if they're just good enough, or bad enough, maybe their biological parents will get back together again," Klopfer says. "So, you may have a perfect child who never does anything wrong and blames himself for the divorce. Or the opposite, the kids what I call kamikaze kids will try to do everything in their power to break up this new relationship."
Klopfer and his wife each had children from previous relationships, and at the beginning of forming a family, they struggled through issues, he says. They attended a Stepfamily Association of America support group in Fair Lawn and found it very helpful. And they decided to start Stepping Stones.
"When we started in 1994, there were not really a lot of materials around to help people, and ... people didn't know what to do," he says. "But a lot of people, especially women, read and get all these books that are available now, even 'The Idiots' Guide to Stepfamilies,' which isn't a bad book. People have knowledge now of what to do and what not to do."
Klopfer also sees the stigma of being in a stepfamily going away.
"I think there's a much greater acceptance of divorce in our culture," he says. "And schools are used to dealing with issues now where there are more than two parents.
"There's a whole big change in our culture, this sense of inclusion, of wanting people to feel a sense of belonging, as opposed to a sense of being on the outside looking in."
There may even be a growing awareness that there's really no such thing as "The Brady Bunch."
"They solved all their problems in 24 minutes," Lofas says. "We have never been able to do that."