'Blended Families' and other Euphemisms

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'Blended Families' and other Euphemisms

Newspaper article

By: Anne Karpf

Date: April 15, 2006

Source: Karpf, Anne. The Guardian (April 15, 2006).

About the Author: Anne Karpf is a British writer, journalist, and sociologist who is a regular contributor to The Guardian, a Manchester, England—based daily newspaper. Karpf writes on social, political, and Jewish issues. Karpf also appears regularly as a social commentator on various BBC television programs.


The blended family is one of the most prominent features of the modern Western society social fabric. However, it is not a recent invention so much as an institution that has grown in prominence in the past forty years. The rise of the blended family is a product of three inter-related demographic factors: the divorce rate, the remarriage rate, and the incidence of cohabitation or common law relationships.

In earlier times throughout Western cultures, when the mortality rate was higher among adults of child rearing years than it is today, it was far more common for a family with children under the age of majority to lose a spouse or parent to death; divorce was extremely rare, due to both religious prohibitions and corresponding legal limitations. Where a spouse and parent died leaving a family behind, the Christian rule of marriage as a partnership that existed until death created the corollary acceptance of remarriage as a proper means to create stability for a family unit. In this sense, what is now termed a blended family was well accepted.

Prior to the 1960s in virtually all Western nations, cohabitation was perceived as being socially unacceptable and in some cultures there were strong religious and legal prohibitions concerning "living in sin."

The rise in the birth rate after 1945 was a factor that contributed to a liberalizing trend in a number of aspects of Western society. The divorce rate climbed dramatically from the mid 1960s to a peak in 1980 in North America and most European countries, as legislative regimes that had previously required a divorce petitioner to establish fault or adultery on the part of their spouse were replaced by less rigorous "no fault" divorce. In the United States, the 1980 rate rose to a record 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women per year, a 500 percent increase since the end of World War II.

In lock-step with the trends in divorce, the marriage rate in the same demographic has fallen and the cohabitation rate has risen to the point where in 2006 more than 8 percent of all American households are unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couples. In countries such as Canada, Australia and Holland, the corresponding figure is in excess of 10 percent. The most telling statistic concerning the rise of the blended family from anomaly to societal institution is the fact that as of 2005, only 63 per cent of American children were being raised in the care and residence of both biological parents.

Anne Karpf notes that the expression blended family is a euphemism, as it represents a desire on the part of the newly joined parents to create a seamless and harmonious family unit from what are often several disparate parts.


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The reference to the American situation comedy "The Brady Bunch" is a common one in the literature and published commentaries concerning both the structure and the function of the modern blended family. In the television world, the blended family represented a relatively smooth and harmonious transition from two separate families to one unit. The Brady Bunch was aired from 1969 to 1974 on American network television and it was subsequently syndicated for rebroadcast in many parts of the world. Its enduring popularity as a reference point in discussions regarding the success of the blended family, more than thirty years after it ceased production, is an interesting aspect of how Western society desires the blended family to function in fact. The fictional Brady family achieved what for many blended families is a dream bordering upon the fanciful—a blended family that operated like the nuclear family depicted in an earlier generation of American television programs of the 1950s, such as "Father Knows Best" or "Leave it to Beaver."

The Brady Bunch styled blended family, where two previously married persons join their families together might now be properly referenced as a traditional blended family, as the blended family today is just as often a creation of previously married, previously cohabited persons where children are a product of that unmarried union, or variations of each. Karpf emphasizes the modern reality of blended family actually becoming an ever expanding set of concentric family circles, where the new partner brings their own extended family unit into each relationship.

The modern definition of a blended family is such that one in three Americans is either a step-parent, step-child, step-sibling, or other member of a step-family. One in three American children can expect to be a part of a step-family before they reach the age of eighteen.

The blended family is a significant and volatile family institution because it presents a host of potential familial minefields for the new spouses, chiefly in terms of the relationship with the other spouse's children that are brought into the union. In Western countries as many as 70 percent of second marriages that involve the introduction of a step-child into a new family unit fail. Dealing with the children themselves, the establishment of a new parental role, and the dynamics of the dealings with the new child in the face of a continuing biological parent exerting influence on the child are some of the issues that have spawned an industry. The thousands of Internet sites devoted to the dynamics of the blended family reflects the explosion in the number of information sources available to persons who are experiencing trouble with children in these structures.

Beyond the issue of the children who form a part of the blended family, the entire notion of parental and familial responsibility is altered. The extent of any duty owed to one's step-relations is not capable of precise legal definition; in many blended families expectations may exist concerning such duties that complicate the new structure.

A further significant issue associated with the rise of the blended family to societal prominence is the nomenclature used to describe the family members in the newly combined unit. The hyphenation of the names is a rather technical way in which to refer to a member of one's family; society has not yet created a distinct language with which to describe its blended family composition in a more familiar fashion.

The growth of the blended family as an institution is unlikely to decrease. As a matter of statistical probabilities alone, the more people who become a part of an blended family, the more such family members they will bring into any subsequent unions of their own.



Chedekel, David. The Blended Family Sourcebook. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Green, Jennifer, and Susan Wisdom. Stepcoupling: Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today's Blended Family. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.

Massolini, Maxine. Blended Families: Creating Harmony as You Build a New Home Life. Chicago: Moody Press, 2000.

Shriberg, Elaine Fantle. Blending Families. New York: Berkley Publishers, 1999.

Web site

University of Washington. "In Touch / Blended Families." 2004 〈http://www.washington.edu/admin/hr/benefits/worklife/carelink/intouch/intouch_blnded-fam.pdf〉 (accessed June 18, 2006).

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'Blended Families' and other Euphemisms

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'Blended Families' and other Euphemisms