A test of the Relational-Cultural Theory with stepfamilies

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Counseling Psychology

First Committee Member

Margaret Crosbie-Burnett, Committee Chair


The clinical stepfamily literature has suggested that stepmothers have a more difficult experience in stepfamilies than stepfathers; however, this assertion has been seldom tested in the empirical research literature. Although many theorists and clinicians have posited that societal expectations associated with the mother role account for the assumed variation in stepmothers' versus stepfathers' experience, the sparse research literature does not fully support this explanation. Similarly, although the Relational-Cultural Theory, which purports that women value relationships more than men do, in terms of their sense of self, has been widely used in theoretical works and clinical applications, researchers have only begun to test the tenets of the theory. Therefore, this study examined the difference between stepmothers' versus stepfathers' marital happiness and family happiness using the Relational-Cultural Theory to explain this difference, if such a difference existed in the data. The study utilized an existing data set of stepmothers' and stepfathers' responses to questions on the Stepfamily Adjustment Scale (SAS). The two goals of this study were: (1) to empirically test the Relational-Cultural Theory with a sample of stepparents and (2) to test an assertion in the clinical and theoretical literature on stepparents that stepmothers are less happy, in general, than stepfathers.Utilizing hierarchical multiple regression to test the proposed mechanism of the theory that disconnection in salient relationships leads to psychological distress, the results of the study provided partial support for the Relational-Cultural Theory. Parental role salience, or valuing the stepparent-stepchild relationship, proved to be a key predictor of both marital happiness and family happiness; valuing the relationship was associated with family happiness more than marital happiness. The findings also partially supported the theory's proposition that disconnection in valued relationships leads to psychological distress or less happiness; post-hoc analyses with subsamples revealed that this result was primarily "carried by" stepfathers, which contradicted the theory. Similarly, the results did not support a gender-based difference in parental role salience or the outcome variables, and these findings helped clarify and refute the long-held clinical assumptions that stepmothers have more difficulty in stepfamilies than stepfathers coupled with the theory's assertion that women, in general, are more relationally-oriented than men. Overall, in addition to refining the existing clinical and theoretical literature on stepfamilies, the results of this study helped to advance the empirical literature on Relational-Cultural Theory with a new population---stepfamilies.


Psychology, Social; Psychology, Clinical

Link to Full Text