Are stepchildren always short of true love? Can stepfamilies be really happy? Angela Lambert looks at how difficult it is to graft new relationships on to old ones
Danielle Barre, 54, has had a successful career in advertising and marketing and now runs a consultancy. Her stepson, Seth Stein, 35, is an architect who lives and works in London. He is married with one child.

Danielle: "Seth was seven when his father and I married. I was very much aware that he was unhappy, and with very good reason [Seth's mother had died when he was five]. He was very upset and his father was not able to help him to grieve, so he was at a loss to know what to do with these feelings. He was a terribly attractive child with a nice personality, but there were clearly ... unresolved issues. I didn't know how to handle it, only that these were things beyond my ability, so I made it a condition of the marriage that we should get professional help for Seth's predicament. Soon after marrying, we started family therapy at the Tavistock. I think therapy helped, but I can't really assess it. It was certainly a fairly traumatic way of starting a marriage!"

Seth: "At first, it was all fun. When I met Danielle, she was a novelty, not a threat. I didn't want to stop my father marrying her ... It was quite intense. The family was just my father and Dani and me; absolutely no one else. We were a very close-knit club. It's possible that therapy helped, though I can't quite think how. I resented it terribly because I went after school and that prevented me from seeing Batman and I didn't like feeling different. It lasted 18 months and I hated it."

Danielle: "Had it not come out then, the problems over the years would have had a much more damaging effect. It let off the steam. Then I had a premature baby, who died after three days. That was going to be the baby who would bond us all in a common experience."

Seth: "After that, nobody was allowed to be very emotional."

Danielle: "Later, when I did have my own child, I was curious as to whether I'd feel differently about my natural child."

Seth: "I was Dani's unbiological child - it sounds like a soap powder!"

Danielle: "... but I made a commitment to Seth when I took him on by marrying his father and that was very strong. I had never tried to get him to call me Mother - why should he? I'm not - but his father was a disciplinarian and I tried to redress the balance. I wanted to earn his friendship. He gave me the courage to have another child. I felt, here, now, at last we are a family. But it was a family united by a host of emotions that none of us knew how to deal with."

Seth: "I blanked out a lot. The breakthrough came when they split up. I was 18 and, as their marriage fell apart, we became much closer."

Danielle: "As things became rougher in the marriage, I realised I had by now earned the obligation to support Seth. We supported each other as best as we could. It wasn't a happy time, but we became very close."

Seth: "OK, so they split up, and that was the trigger to a softening of our relationship. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't see Dani because she was my step-mother and now, contractually, she would be released. In fact, she provided my base."

Danielle: "The commitment and the care were there. Seth's home was with me. Love was something that developed very slowly, to the point when suddenly I knew that I loved Seth a lot, and still do."

Joanna, 43, is a nurse and Richard, 41, a solicitor. They have lived together for 16 months, they say, as though counting the days. They left their marriages a year before that and at first rented a house together. Within a few months, however, Joanna's husband agreed to let her come back to the family home and resume care of the children. He moved out, and has now bought his own house. Joanna has three children aged 15, 17 and 21. Richard's only child, Mary, is seven. All names are pseudonyms.

Richard: "Sometimes my daughter says 'Who do you love more?' and I say, 'I love you both very much but differently.' In fact, I do feel that my relationship with Jo has to be the priority, but Mary gets upset when we show each other affection and craves time with me on my own.

"I didn't give a lot of thought to her children in the early days; I was too caught up with how I felt about Jo. When I first moved in with her, I wasn't at all used to teenagers and was quite unprepared. Individually, I do actually quite like them, which surprises me, but together they're a bit overpowering. I've tried to fit into their routines, so for me life has turned upside down, whereas little has changed for them and sometimes I feel miffed about that. I resent the fact that they take a good deal and don't give much in return. The older ones treat the house like a hotel and expect Jo to have everything laid out for them. She feels very protective about her children and torn in two. A bit of me feels I'm failing as a man because I'm not in charge. I feel I've lost my role by being in her house with her children.

"We do touch each other much more in front of the children but it's still awkward sometimes. Her younger son asked the other day why we go to bed so early. We just don't have the freedom to go to bed whenever we want and I often think it would be nice at weekends to have them off, out of the house, for three hours. But contact with their dad is always completely unpredictable and we can never rely on time alone, without them. I could cope more easily if I knew they were going to be away, even for a few hours."

Joanna: "The big issue for us is that there are very few times when Rick and I are alone together and we feel a huge pressure. Children don't want to know about your romantic or sexual relationship. We used to wonder how early we could go to bed without the children thinking we were making love ... which of course we are. They have no conception of how much we value time on our own, so they'll say. 'I'm just going out and I may pop back' but you can't say 'When?' let alone 'Don't bother!' So we have no periods of predictable solitude. I remember Rick saying once, 'It's as though your children deliberately go in rotation to their dad so there's always one of them here!' My ex-husband's very uncooperative and still won't accept any responsibility for the ending of the marriage, so he'll only see the children when it suits him.

"Sometimes I resent his daughter Mary's priority with Rick. We'll manage to get rid of all my children and then she's here for a whole weekend, and he'll naturally focus on her.

"My family has rejected me. Perfect wives and mothers aren't supposed to do things like this. I took a lot of stick from my family and friends for 'abandoning' my children, and I was devastated by that. I never abandoned them - I came back every day to look after them. Rick never came in for any of that: it's OK for men to leave.

"Without children, there would be so many fewer complications ... like having to continue a parenting relationship with somebody who has caused you a tremendous amount of pain. I would be quite happy not to have any contact with my ex-husband but we have to find a way of working together for the sake of the children. But they did agree to go to mediation, which was great and gave them a chance to vent things that they couldn't say to either of their parents. I couldn't talk to them - it was too painful - but the mediator could, and then shared with us the things they wanted shared."

Richard: "It's all been a lot tougher than I realised. I went into this very naively, not having a clue how hard it would be. It would be easier without children, or without contact. I can now understand why some parents want to break off contact altogether. It brings all the issues and feelings to the surface time after time when in many ways it would be easier to sweep them all under the carpet. Contact with the children is used as a weapon by the ex-partner and things like Christmas and birthdays highlight the problems. All that sadness, all that guilt, the huge amounts of loss. Will we ever be one big happy family? I'm not sure. Not for a long time."

Joanna: "It has been the most painful and difficult time I have ever experienced, but in the end I believe relationships are about commitment and trust, and that's what Rick and I have got now and what I never had before and that's good. Two years on, I'm glad to be where we are now. I think we're really coming through, but there were lots of times when I wished I could go back."

The Stepfamily Association, which counsels stepfamilies with difficulties, can be contacted at Chapel House, 18 Hatton Place, London EC1N 8JH.