In modern stepfamilies, there is recognition that the biological parents may never have married. Unless one biological parent of a stepchild is deceased, typical nuclear stepfamilies do not live in one house, consisting of three or more parents, biological and otherwise. It is also possible, in a less strict sense, that the new mate chooses the role of full- or part-time caregiver without marital commitment. However, it is generally understood that after a "child" reaches adulthood, a parent's subsequent marriage cannot create a stepparent relationship without the adult "child's" express written consent.
In a simple stepfamily, only one stepparent has a prior child or children. Usually this is thought of in terms of minors, but the children of a stepfamily can also be adults. Stepbrothers and stepsisters exist in a blended, or complex stepfamily. In any case, any subsequent children conceived through the new marriage are one's half-siblings instead of stepsiblings, being related through one blood line, that of the one biological parent. Having a new child does not change the identity of a stepfamily, nor does legal stepchild adoption.
The earliest recorded use of the prefix step-, in the form steop-, is from an 8th century glossary of Latin-Old English words. Steopsunu is given for the Latin word filiaster and steopmoder for nouerca. Similar words recorded later in Old English include stepbairn, stepchild and stepfather. The words are used to denote a connection resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent and are related to the word ástíeped meaning bereaved, with stepbairn and stepchild occasionally used simply as synonyms for orphan. Words such as stepbrother, stepniece and stepparent appeared much later and do not have any particular connotation with bereavement. Corresponding words in other Germanic languages include: Old High German stiuf- and Old Norse stjúp-.
Although, historically, stepfamilies are built through the institution of marriage, and are legally recognized, it is currently unclear if a stepfamily can be both established and recognized by less formal arrangements, such as when a man or woman with children cohabits with another man or woman outside of marriage. This relationship is becoming more common in all Western countries. Many divorced parents, often with children, re-couple with new partners outside of traditional marriage.
Historically and to this day, there appear to be many cultures in which these families are recognized socially, as de facto families. However in modern western culture it is often unclear as what, if any, social status and protection they enjoy in law.
The stepparent is a "legal stranger" in most of the US and has no legal right to the minor child no matter how involved in the child's life they are. The biological parents (and, where applicable, adoptive parents) hold that privilege and responsibility. So if the biological parent doesn't give up his or her parental rights and custodial to the child, a parent's subsequent marriage cannot create a stepparent relationship without the parent written consent before a "child" reaches adulthood. In most cases, the stepparent can not be ordered to pay child support.
With regard to unmarried couples; one can easily imagine such social and legal recognition; most notably in the case of common law marriage. Unmarried couples today may also find recognition locally through community consensus.
Still it is not at all clear what formal parenting roles, rights, responsibilities and social etiquette, should exist between "stepparents" and their "stepchildren". This often leaves the parents in unexpected conflicts with each other, their former spouses and the children.
For all the confusion which stepparents may feel, it is often even less clear to the stepchildren what the interpersonal relationships are, or should be between themselves and their stepsiblings; between themselves and their stepparent; and even between themselves and their birth parents.
These relationships can be extremely complex, especially in circumstances where each "step spouse" may bring children of their own to the home or in households where children are expected to actively participate in each of the newly created families of both birth parents.
Although most stepfamilies can agree on what they do not want to be for one another, they are often hard pressed to agree upon what they do want to be for one another. This makes it difficult for everyone in the family to learn their roles. It is especially difficult for the children, because the roles and expectations of them change as they move between the homes and families of both of their birth parents.''
It is important to check with local laws when looking to complete a stepparent adoption. While having the non-custodial parent consent to the adoption is the easiest way to complete a stepparent adoption, it is still possible to have one completed when they either do not consent, or cannot be located.
If the biological parent who is not involved in the child's life cannot be found, a stepparent adoption can still occur. Typically, a public notice must be published in the newspaper for 30–45 days, stating the intention to have the biological parents' rights terminated, and the intent for the stepparent to adopt the child. If the biological parent does not respond to the notice, then the stepparent adoption will continue as though the absent parent consented to the adoption.
The middle stages consist of the Mobilization and Action stages. In the Mobilization stage, the stepparent can begin to step forward to address the family's process and structure. The tasks of this stage are to confront differences in each member's perception of the new family, as well as to influence one another without shaming or blaming. In the Action stage, the family begins to take action to reorganize the family structure. The goal here is to make joint decisions about new stepfamily rituals, rules, and roles. The focus in this stage is on the stepfamily's unique "middle ground" (i.e. the "areas of shared experience, shared values, and easy cooperative functioning created over time", p. 39), and on balancing this new middle ground with honoring of past and other relationships.
The later stages consist of the Contact and Resolution stages. In the Contact stage, the couple is working well together, the boundaries between households are clear, and stepparents have definite roles with stepchildren as "intimate outsiders." The task for this stage is in solidifying the stepparent's role, and in continuing the process of awareness. Finally, in the Resolution stage, the stepfamily's identity has become secure. The family accepts itself for who it is, there is a strong sense of the stepfamily's middle ground, and children feel secure in both households. The task for this stage is to nourish the depth and maturity gained through this process, and to rework any issues that might arise at family "nodal events" (e.g., weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.).
In fiction, stepmothers are often portrayed as being wicked and evil. The character of the wicked stepmother features heavily in fairy tales; the most famous examples are Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. Stepdaughters are her most common victim, and then stepdaughter/stepson pairs, but stepsons also are victims as in The Juniper Tree—sometime, as in East of the Sun and West of the Moon, because he refused to marry his stepsister as she wished, or, indeed, they may make their stepdaughters-in-law their victims, as in The Boys with the Golden Stars. In some fairy tales, such as Giambattista Basile's La Gatta Cennerentola or the Danish Green Knight, the stepmother wins the marriage by ingratiating herself with the stepdaughter, and once she obtains it, becomes cruel.
In some fairy tales, the stepdaughter's escape by marrying does not free her from her stepmother. After the birth of the stepdaughter's first child, the stepmother may attempt to murder the new mother and replace her with her own daughter—thus making her the stepmother to the next generation. Such a replacement occurs in The Wonderful Birch, Brother and Sister, and The Three Little Men in the Wood; only by foiling the stepmother's plot (and usually executing her), is the story brought to an happy ending. In the Korean Folktale Janghwa Hongreyon, the stepmother kills her own stepdaughters.
Fairy tales can have variants where one tale has an evil mother and the other an evil stepmother: in The Six Swans, the heroine is persecuted by her husband's mother, and in The Twelve Wild Ducks, by his stepmother. Sometimes this appears to be a deliberate switch: the Brothers Grimm, having put in their first editions versions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel where the villain was the mother, altered it to a stepmother in later editions, perhaps to mitigate the story's violence. The Icelandic fairy tale The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword Gunnfoder features a good stepmother, who indeed aids the prince like a fairy godmother, but this figure is very rare in fairy tales.
The stepmother may be identified with other evils the characters meet. For instance, both the stepmother and the witch in Hansel and Gretel are deeply concerned with food, the stepmother to avoid hunger, the witch with her house built of food and her desire to eat the children, and when the children kill the witch and return home, their stepmother has mysteriously died.
In many stories with evil stepmothers, the hostility between the stepmother and the stepchild is underscored by having the child succeed through aid from the dead mother. This motif occurs from Norse mythology, where Svipdagr rouses his mother Gróa from the grave so as to learn from her how to accomplish a task his stepmother set, to fairy tales such as the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, where Aschenputtel receives her clothing from a tree growing on her mother's grave, the Russian Vasilissa the Beautiful, where Vasilissa is aided by a doll her mother gave, and her mother's blessing, and the Malay Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, where the heroine's mother comes back as fish to protect her.
This hostility from the stepmother and tenderness from the true mother has been interpreted in varying ways. A psychological interpretation, by Bruno Bettelheim, describes it as "splitting" the actual mother in an ideal mother and a false mother that contains what the child dislikes in the actual mother. However, historically, many women died in childbirth, their husbands remarried, and the new stepmothers competed with the children of the first marriage for resources; the tales can be interpreted as factual conflicts from history. In some fairy tales, such as The Juniper Tree, the stepmother's hostility is overtly the desire to secure the inheritance of her children.
In Classic of Filial Piety, Guo Jujing told the story of Min Ziqian, who had lost his mother at a young age. His stepmother had two more sons and saw to it that they were warmly dressed in winter but neglected her stepson. When her husband discovered this, he decided to divorce her. His son interceded, on the ground that she neglected only him, but when they had no mother, all three sons would be neglected. His father relented, and the stepmother henceforth took care of all three children. For this, he was held up as a model of filial piety.
The ubiquity of the wicked stepmother has made it a frequent theme of revisionist fairytale fantasy. This can range from Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, where the stepmother queen is desperately trying to protect the land from her evil stepdaughter's magic, to Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, where, although it is known that stepmothers are evil, the actual stepmother is guilty of nothing more than some carelessness, to Erma Bombeck's retelling where Cinderella is lazy and a liar. More subtly, Piers Anthony depicted the Princess Threnody as being cursed by her stepmother in Crewel Lye: A Caustic Yarn: if she ever entered Castle Roogna, it would fall down. But Threnody explains that her presence at the castle caused her father to dote on her and neglect his duties to the destruction of the kingdom; her stepmother had merely made her destructive potential literal, and forced her to confront what she was doing.
Despite many examples of evil or cruel stepmothers, loving stepmothers also exist in fiction. In Kevin and Kell, Kell is portrayed as loving her stepdaughter Lindesfarne, whom her husband Kevin had adopted during his previous marriage. Likewise, Lindesfarne considers Kell her mother, and has a considerably more favorable view of her than Angelique, Kevin's ex-wife and her adoptive mother, due to feeling neglected by Angelique during her childhood. The Disney film Enchanted also makes references to the "evil stepmother" belief, as the villainess is a stepmother, but her wickedness comes from her selfishness and power hungriness rather than the simple fact she is stepmother. When a little girl tells the heroine, Princess Giselle, that all stepmothers are evil, Giselle reminds her that she personally knows some wonderful women who were good stepmothers, and the fact a woman is a stepmother does not suddenly change her personality. This is shown later on when Giselle gets married to a man with a daughter from a previous marriage, thus becoming a stepmother herself. As Giselle is a sweet and caring woman, she makes a good wife and mother.
In literature, evil stepfathers include Claudius in Hamlet (though his role as uncle is more emphasized), Murdstone in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Living Doll" the King from the movie Radio Flyer,and Gozaburo Kaiba (who adopted Seto and Mokuba Kaiba) from Yu-Gi-Oh!, as well as The Stepfather films.
In his opera La Cenerentola, Gioacchino Rossini inverted the tale of Cinderella to have her oppressed by her stepfather. His motive is made explicit, in that providing a dowry to Cenerentola would cut into what he can give to his own daughters An analogous male figure may also appear as a wicked uncle; like the stepmother, the father's brother may covet the child's inheritance for his own children, and so maltreat his nephews or nieces. Modern films, however, seem to cast stepfathers in a somewhat kinder light, implying honorable men who marry divorced women or single mothers make good stepfathers.
Many romance novels feature heroes who are the stepbrother of the heroine. The step-relationship generally stems from a marriage when the hero and heroine are at least in their adolescence.