Stepfamilies: What Works and What Doesn’t

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Last September, I travelled to Shreveport, Louisiana (the city of my birth) to attend my nephew’s wedding. Seated in a fast food restaurant thumbing through a USA Today newspaper, I became intrigued by an article about remarriage and stepfamilies. Because therapists must address stepfamily issues on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, I paid closer attention. Two new books surfaced in the article of which I was unaware. One book, The Remarriage Blueprint; How Remarried Couples and Their Families Succeed or Fail (2013) is authored by Maggie Scarf, a fellow at Yale University. Having addressed the subject of divorce and remarriage for several years—via several books–, Scarf explains how second (or, third) families do not often anticipate the unique challenges facing them. Their assumption, including the assumptions of some therapists, is that whatever works for first-time families will work for next-time families. Such is not corroborated by the research, nor the fact that remarried couples divorce at a higher rate than first-time couples – “often blindsided by the obstacles they face in combining families, bank accounts, and long-held habits and routines” (2014). The core of Scarf’s new book involves extensive interviews with stepfamily couples.

The USA Today article led me to Scarf’s new book, but my search did not stop there. While perusing her book, I soon noticed that Scarf referenced the research of another author extensively (also mentioned in the USA Today article): Patricia Papernow, Ed.D; a nationally recognized expert on stepfamilies, blended couples, and parenting after divorce. The book by Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamilies Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t (2013) became my purchase of choice; a book the likes of what psychologist Alan S. Gurman, PhD (University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, and Harvard University) calls “the best clinical book ever written on the topic. Period.” The deal was sealed for me. I read it quickly and began implementing its research with clients immediately.

Perhaps the heart of Papernow’s book/research involves the five major challenges that recoupling partners and stepfamilies face. These five challenges are as follows:

1. THE FIRST CHALLENGE: Parents are stuck insiders in a stepfamily. Stepparents are stuck outsiders. This is to say that the first and oft unanticipated challenge is the impact of insider/outsider forces, expressed in this brief exchange between partners: “When your kids are here, it’s like I don’t even exist.” (Sigh) “There you go again. How many times have I told you? Please. Don’t make me choose!” Obviously, one partner (the outsider stepparent) often feels left out—even rejected—when the partner’s children are present. The insider parent feels torn between his children (often exacerbated by guilt), and the partner s/he has fallen in love with. Since I referenced my Louisiana roots earlier, the insider parent is caught between what southerners call “a rock and a hard place.” And, in stepfamilies where both partners bring children, well, you can extrapolate from there.

2. THE SECOND CHALLENGE: Children struggle with losses, loyalty binds, and too much change. Papernow writes: “The new stepcouple relationship is a wonderful gift for the adults. However, for children, becoming a stepfamily can launch a cascade of loss and change. When things go well, warm, empathic, and moderately firm parenting supports children’s wellbeing. However, at a time when children need caring connection to make a difficult transition, parents are often unaware of their children’s feelings, confused by their behavior, and at a loss about how to respond.” “Loyalty binds” often explain a child’s “aloof”–even “acrimonious”–behavior toward an outsider stepparent; for example, the following comment by one child: “If I care for my stepmother, I have betrayed my mother.”

3. THE THIRD CHALLENGE: Stepfamily architecture polarizes the adults around parenting tasks. “Stepfamily architecture easily pulls stepparents toward a more authoritarian parenting style and pushes parents toward more permissiveness. Neither serves children’s needs. Stepcouples who meet this challenge collaborate to support the parent’s ‘authoritative’ (both loving and firm) parenting. Parents retain the disciplinary role while stepparents concentrate on getting to know their stepchildren. When things go poorly, stepcouples get caught in increasingly entrenched cycles of polarization as stepparents ever more desperately seek firmer boundaries and parents strive to protect children.” Papernow cites the parenting research of Diana Baumrind and her collegagues who identified the value of “authoritative” parenting (aka the “Leader/Guide parent) verses either “authoritarian” parenting (the “Boss” parent) or “permissive” parenting (the “Pal” parent). My clinical observations corroborate Papernow’s research. The stepparents I work with tend toward the “Boss” parent, while parents tend toward the “Pal” parent. Again, neither style serves children’s needs, and often serves to distance couples from each other.

4. THE FOURTH CHALLENGE: Stepfamilies must create a new family culture while navigating a sea of differences. “New stepfamilies encounter a multitude of differences over everything from whether Grape Nuts is a form of cardboard or a breakfast cereal, to the appropriate cost of a new pair of sneakers. Those who meet the challenge engage over differences with respect and curiosity while moving a step at a time toward a sense of “we-ness.” When this goes poorly, depleting struggles over “right” and “wrong” erode relationships. Some stepcouples rush forward too quickly, compounding the stress of children.” Toward the end of the book, Papernow addresses the question of how long it generally takes to create a new family culture. She writes: “In my experience, aware families (who meet their challenges most quickly and easily) move into action within about two years, and spend another couple of years solidifying, for a total of four or five years to mature stepfamilydom.” Other “patterns” (and she identifies six patterns total) often take longer. Obviously, rushing change is anathema to creating a new family culture.

5. THE FIFTH CHALLENGE: Ex-spouses, alive or dead (and their parents, sisters, and brothers) are an inextricable part of the family. Oh, if my office walls could talk, what they would tell about this fifth challenge.  Papernow concludes her five-challenge synopsis: “Living parents affect everything from how much a partner’s mood dips after a conversation with an ex, to whether a child’s graduation is a celebration or a nightmare. Parents who have died, or who have been destructive, may disappear from the scene, but they leave a hole in children’s hearts. When ex-spouses handle this well, children feel centered and safe in their relationships with all of the important people in their lives. When the adults handle this poorly, children are caught in adult tension and conflict, with devastating results.”

There you have it. The five major challenges that recoupling partners and stepfamilies face, according to the book that one expert calls “the best clinical book ever written on the topic. Period.” Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t (2013) is most certainly intended as a guide for therapists, but also for reading by a general audience. Each of the five challenges follows a similar structure: a general description of the challenge (including what the research says about that challenge), followed by “easy wrong turns” and case examples, then “key strategies” for meeting the challenge. The “strategies” section is further subdivided into three levels: education about what works and what doesn’t, interpersonal skills necessary to meet the challenge, and intrapersonal skills when/where there is resistance to the previous two levels.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO 

One Comment

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