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SAA Research and Information About The Complications of Stepgrandparent Relationships

Grandparent Relations in Stepfamilies: A collection of SAA’s best articles and research findings

Grandparent Relations in Stepfamilies: A collection of SAA’s best articles and research findings

Relationships Across Generations: The Complications of Divorce and Remarriage
By Kay Pasley, Ed.D.

Stepfamilies Quarterly, Spring 1995

With the growing number of stepfamilies being formed, concern amongst those in the older generation often focuses on what divorce and remarriage mean for their continuing relationship with their grandchildren. This concern was expressed in a poem by Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman (1988) on the American Family where in one stanza she refers to grandparents:

. . . But what scares them most

is that son

got divorced last year

and now ex-daughter-in-law

remarries next month

and is taking grandson Zach away

Zach, who looks just like gran’pa

Oh Zach

are you lost forever?

Clearly, the relationship between generations is important to all involved because of the exchange of resources and support that often is provided across generations. In fact, all 50 states have laws that communicate implicitly the value of continuing relationships between generations by awarding of grandparent visitation. Following is a brief summary of what we now know about stepgrandparenting from the perspective of stepgrandparents, adult children, and stepgrandchildren.

Much like the ambiguity that surrounds the stepparent role when compared to the parent role, so is there ambiguity in becoming a stepgrandparent. It is the lack of clarity that can be problematic as relationships are renegotiated and developed. From the stepgrandparent perspective, they must deal with the loss (perceived or actual) of valued relationships, accept the adult-child’s single status and likely involvement in new relationships, and accept the remarriage that results in stepgrandchildren.

From the perspective of the older generation, grandparents often feel the need to sever the relationship with former sons-in-law or daughters-in-law except when ritual occasions demand contact. The more intimate relationship that preceded the divorce often becomes increasingly formal and distant, with each side attempting to avoid conflict. When there is a remarriage, two patterns of interaction emerge. One pattern is characterized by replacement. Here new in-laws replace the previous ones. In the replacement pattern the grandparents typically feel pressured to take steps to exclude former children-in-law and transfer their loyalties to new children-in-law, if they wish to maintain a conflict-free relationship with their own adult child. Such exclusion can end a valued relationship between a grandparent, the former in-laws, and the grandchildren. A second pattern is one of expansion. This pattern is more common among paternal grandmothers who retain connections with former daughters-in-law. Their continued connection facilitates continued contact with grandchildren even when the adult son and father of the grandchildren begins to disengage from his children. Here the coalitions between generations are strengthened. A pattern of expansion also is evident in two other situations: (a) when the former children-in-law remarry and the grandparents take on stepchildren, or (b) when the grandparent remarries. In the first case, it is the grandparent who must incorporate the new child-in-law and the stepchildren into their exiting relationship network.

In the second case, building and maintaining new relationships occurs on two levels: (a) the older generation must develop relationships with children and grandchildren of the new spouse, and (b) the adult-children and grandchildren must develop relationships with the new stepparent and his or her family.

When remarriage occurs among any of the generations, there is evidence that the nature of the contact and the services exchanged are altered. Reports from adult children suggest that when compared with adult children in intact, first marriages or those currently divorced, remarrieds are less likely to have telephone contact with their parents and to receive child care or other kinds of help from their parents. Other research suggests that when adult children remarry, they are more likely to provide disabled elderly parents with more assistance (e.g., personal care), although it may be provided through paid care. The level of assistance provided is higher than that provided by either single-adult children or widowed adult children.

From the perspective of stepgrandchildren, their relationship with stepgrandparents is characterized by less contact when compared to the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents. In fact, differences have been found in the level of contact between these generations by gender of stepparent. For example, less contact is reported by stepgrandchildren with the stepmother’s parents than with the stepfather’s parents. Interestingly, stepgrandchildren report that the amount of contact they have with their stepgrandparents is less than they desire. At the same time, they indicate that they don’t expect more frequent contact.

There is evidence that the parent and stepparent play an important role in the relationship that is maintained between the grandparent-grandchild generation. When conflict occurs between the grandparent and adult-child or the adult-child’s new spouse, the connection with grandchildren is diminished. In addition, stepgrandparents report that their failure to treat the stepchild as their adult child desires can result in severing of this relationship. Behavior that facilitates continued interaction across generations includes acknowledgment of the new marriage and stepchildren and equitable treatment of stepgrandchildren. Adult children can facilitate interaction between generations by communicating their understanding of the loss grandparents experience when divorce and remarriage occur and by offering suggestions on how their parents can be helpful in fostering adjustment in the new stepfamily.


Brody, E.M., Litvin, S.J., Albert, S.M., & Hoffman, C.J. (1994). Marital status of daughters and patterns of parental care. Journal of Gerontology, 49, S59-S103.

Duran-Aydintug, C. (1993). Relationships with former in-laws: Normative guidelines and actual behavior. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 19 (3/4), 69-82.

Henry, C.S., Ceglian, C.P., & Ostrander, D.L. (1993). The transition to stepgrandparenthood. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 19 (3/4), 25-44.

Johnson, C.L., & Barer, B.M. (1987). Marital instability and the changing kinship network of grandparents. Gerontologist, 27, 330-335.

Kennedy, G.E., & Kennedy, C.E. (1993). Grandparents: A special resource for children in stepfamilies. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 19 (3/4), 45-68.

Sanders, G.F., & Trygstad, D.W. (1989). Stepgrandparents and grandparents: The view of young adults. Journal of Divorce, 5, 127-140.

Spitze, G., Logan, J.F., Glenn, D., & Zerger, S. (1994). Adult children’s divorce and intergenerational relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 279-293.

Grandparent Relations in Stepfamilies: A collection of SAA’s best articles and research findings

Grandparents Offer Special Gifts
By Elaine A. McClaren

Stepfamilies Quarterly, Fall 1989

"While Grandma spoils my children with the extra cookie before dinner or the fancy pair of hi-tops, she also does much more. She provides a vital sense of continuity and heritage which can only come from grandparents and extended family."

My mother has a cross-stitch hanging in her kitchen that reads "If Mother Says No--Ask Grandmother." A succinct axiom about the spoiling that goes on at Grandma’s house. I like to be spoiled every now and again and I like to see my kids being fussed over . . . so spoiling is okay with me. Every now and again.

Many of my favorite stories are about my mother as a child, a teenager, a young bride and mother. My Grandmother’s version of these stories infuses a perspective about my mother that she would not, or perhaps could not, have shared.

My nieces and nephews also love to hear childhood stories about their moms and our lives as children. Not the ones that begin "When I was your age . . .", followed by some admonishment to be grateful. No, the stories that make my nieces and nephews marvel are mostly about when we were naughty. These stories make my nieces and nephews feel good about themselves and their future.

As a young adult I became involved with theater production and needed to cry on command. To cry, I would think about my mother dying and about having no one left on earth who really knew me as a child. It worked every time. Children who are prematurely deprived of contact with grandparents, aunts and uncles are being denied the only chance they will have of imagining their parents as the children they once were. Without this panoramic view of parents, children are trapped by juvenile perceptions of parents as paragons, and have difficulty becoming fully independent.

I use the words "prematurely deprived" to make a point. Death is the only excuse for denying a child his inherent right to grandparents. When bickering, vindictiveness and hostility deny him the right, it’s a criminal shame.

Grandparents are defending their grandchildren and themselves in the courtrooms of America. Beginning with Wisconsin in 1975, all fifty states have now enacted laws that give grandparents "standing" to request visitation when it has been denied by a parent or custodians. Unfortunately a mandated visitation schedule often constrains the very relationship grandparents are attempting to nurture.

There are several reasons parents, who want to give their children everything they had and more, allow divorce to interfere with their children’s grandparental relationship. Many divorced parents missed the significance of intergenerational relationships in their own lives because death or divorce isolated them from their grandparents. Because these parents did not benefit from grandparenting and may not be convinced of suffering from the lack, they often jettison the grandparental relationship when they jettison a marriage. Even those parents who realize the value of grandparenting find it nearly impossible to find time to nurture that bond in today’s fast paced lifestyles.

Divorce is an angry business. And anger is such a pervasive feeling that it easily infiltrates all other family relationships, especially when families choose sides. Because being angry is the other side of the coin to feeling hurt and betrayed, hurting back by interfering with the intergenerational relationship seems a reasonable response.

Although most grandparents have "the best interest of the child" in mind when they are fighting to maintain contact with their grandchildren, some grandparents have sinister motives. These outlaw grandparents use grandchildren as spies, meddle inI the stepfamily business, and dispense rations of hostility along with the milk and cookies. Gradually grandchildren confronted with such loyalty issues stop visiting their grandparents, which no amount of legal "standing" will change.

Grandparents do so much more than help their children and grandchildren keep the straight and narrow in perspective. Grandparents can be an important stable association for a child through the divorce turmoil and remarriage transition.

The cross-stitch in my father’s kitchen, "Grandfathers are for helping and loving" is an excellent motto for all parents and grandparents to embrace. . . and a darn nice way of being spoiled.

Elaine A. McClaren writes a newspaper column, "Life in Step," for two Chicago Suburban newspapers.

These materials were provided to Flying Solo® by Stepfamily Association of American, Inc. To find out more about SSA Membership, articles, and products, you can contact SSA in the following ways:

By e-mail --
By telephone – (402) 477-STEP (7837)
By facsimile – (402) 477-8317

By mail –
Stepfamily Association of America
215 Centennial Mall South,
Suite 212
Lincoln, Nebraska 68508

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