#190: Steps by Step

inset 0190.1   Our system of kinship has 2 fundamental categories: relatives by blood and relatives by marriage. Can the relationships between 2 people be both? Yes indeed, as we saw last week with Mookie Wilson…his brother had a child, Preston…then Mookie married Preston’s mother, making Mookie both Preston’s uncle and step-father…and BTW, Preston considered Mookie the only father he’s ever known. So yes, there can be overlap. But that overlap can be tricky.

190.2  Within what I call the nuclear step-family…parents, children, siblings…one cannot be both blood and step. For parents: your step-mother is married to your biological father, but is not your biological mother…so by definition she can’t be both your biological mother and step-mother…because she isn’t your biological mother*. For children: your step-son is the biological child of your spouse, but not of you…so again, they can’t be both a biological child and a step-child to you.

*  …except that real life is messy. So for example your biological parents could have split up soon after you were born. Dad marries your step-mother, who raises you until you are a teenager…you have no contact with your real mother. Then your step-mother dies, and your Dad marries your real mother, who now functions as a step-mother…your “new” mother…even tho she is blood…get it?

190.3  But what happens when we extend step-relatives beyond the nuclear step-family? Could someone, for example, be both your biological uncle and your step-uncle? Well, since last week we had a case where a person’s biological grandparent and step-grandparent were the same person, owing to the fact that step-siblings had married…you’d think it could work for uncles…and you’d be right.

chart 669

190.4  One such possibility is Chart 669A…here Y had daughter B, X had sons A and CA married B and had you…then X married Y. Now C is your biological uncle, being your father’s brother. But C is also your mother’s step-brother, so in that sense your step-uncle. Please ignore the fact that your father is also your mother’s step-brother…it’ll be easier on your sanity, I think.

190.5  In Chart 669B, your father A marries your Aunt B, making her your step-mother…C is your biological uncle, being your mother’s brother…but he’s also now your step-uncle, being your step-mother’s brother…but here again, looked at that way, your mother X is also now your step-aunt…are you sure you want to extend steps beyond the nuclear family? Just askin’…

chart 670

190.6  Last week we looked at 2 different ways you could have a step-uncle…left side of Chart 670, Uncle C is a step-uncle because he’s your step-mother’s brother. I call this a self-step relationship since it comes about because you yourself are in a step-relationship. On the right side, Uncle C is your biological mother’s step-brother, so again your step-uncle. Con-step come from consanguine…meaning it is not you, but one of your relatives, that is in a step-relationship. It has been suggested to me that there might be yet another way…

chart 671

190.7  In Chart 671, your 1st cousin C is the son of your mother’s sister B. Suppose B divorces C’s father D and remarries…her new husband E is now cousin C’s step-father…does that also make E your step-uncle? Before you say yes, what was D? As the husband of your biological aunt you probably called him “uncle”…looked at that way, wouldn’t E now be just your  “uncle”…the same as D was? Or perhaps you’d say “uncle by marriage.” But this would be based on E‘s  relationship to your aunt, without regard to his relationship to you cousin. See the tangles that develop when you start expanding steps beyond the nuclear step-family? You’re free to of course…knock yourself out.

chart 672190.8  But this is a good time to recall some basics. In Chart 672, we’re assuming you marry a woman named B who has a son C by a previous marriage. Consider B’s father A…is he your father-in-law or your step-father? And what is C…your son-in-law or your step-son? Native speakers of English can parse in-laws versus steps fairly automatically…still, we do have 2 parallel systems of terminology…or 3 really, when you consider your biological aunt’s husband, whom most people again would address as “uncle”…but ultimately acknowledge as an “uncle by marriage”…certainly neither a step nor an in-law.

190.9  So where does this leave E in Chart 671? Would he be your “step-uncle by marriage”? This is what we here at Related How Again? call a connection, not a relationship. And not to gild the lily, but notice that in Chart 669A, A‘s father-in-law Y is also A‘s step-father…it can happen in the best of families, sez me.

190.10  And just to put steps into some historical context, check out this quote from The Mountain of Names: A History of the Human Family written by Alex Shoumatoff in 1985.


What’s important to realize here is that such a “marriage chain…of six marriages among seven people” would have been the result of deaths, not divorces. Today, one can have a biological mother and a step-mother both alive at the same time…this was almost never the case with our ancestors. It is notable that there were “families with an extremely dense and complex mix of natural and step-parents and full and half siblings”…and “[of the resulting children] some of them did not have any parents in common.”

190.11  And of course among the full and half-siblings would be step-siblings as well…but as is correctly pointed out, some of the children would ultimately not related to some of the others in any simple way, short of something like “my step-brother’s half-brother”…again, more of a connection than a relationship, as our kinship system would currently reckon it. Altho like anything else, that can change…today there is some impetus to refer to your half-sibling’s half-sibling…of no blood relation to you but on the “other side”…as your “quarter-sibling.” If the culture wants and needs it, the language will provide it. Next week…what the heck, we might as well tackle step-cousins…and coming soon: The Hatfields and McCoys Revisited.

wicked ballsy

chartt 673

Paralleling the 2 kinds of step-relatives, I distinguished in Related How Again #144 between the 2 kinds of sibling-in-laws….starting at 144.8. “Spousal” means you get it thru your spouse…you can’t have one without having a spouse, since A is your spouse’s sibling. “Fraternal” means you get it thru your sibling…you can’t have one without having a sibling, since B is your sibling’s spouse. If you are an unmarried only child, you can have neither type, nez pah?

That these really are 2 different things can be seen by the fact that A‘s parents in Chart 673 are your in-laws…but B‘s parents are not your in-laws…they are your sister’s. Spousal and fraternal siblings-in-law are actually the 2 ends of one single relationship…for example, to your spousal BIL A you are his fraternal BIL. Can 2 people be both to each other? Of course…it happens every time 2 siblings from one family marry 2 siblings from another family. Diagram it out if you don’t believe me…but I’d believe me…


Copyright © 2014 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s