Selected Articles


By Anne C. Bernstein, Ph.D.*

An essential aspect of therapy with stepfamilies is sorting out and working through conflicts by proxy, whereby family members take on others' emotional work. Typically, children are enlisted to carry their parents' pain, resentment, and guilt, and women to act upon men's unvoiced issues. Because children's misbehavior or pain are often the symptoms that bring families to therapy, clinicians are more attuned to look to the ways they may be caught up in adult conflicts, recognizing that is essential to relieve children of these emotional burdens by inviting adults to take care of the unfinished business in a past marriage or problems with a current partner.

Nancy, at sixteen, was doing poorly in school, spending hours staring into space at home, and generally downgrading herself and her appearance. Mother was remarried and had a six-year-old son with her current husband; both mother and daughter saw stepfather as part of the problem. Nancy isolated herself less when he was out of the house, which was rare because Carl was semi-retired on disability. Nancy felt Carl didn't like her, so she avoided him, fearing he'd shame her as "stupid." Initial interventions led to Carl assuming a backseat to his wife in setting limits for Nancy, which reduced tension considerably. Later, mother revealed that the marriage was not a good one. She had a hard time letting go, nor was she clear that she wanted to. She kept quiet about her marital discontents, silently agreeing with Nancy's complaints about Carl: daughter's isolation in the family mirrored mother's isolation in the marriage.

Although work with Nancy also included issues of peer pressure, self-esteem, and abandonment by her father, working with mother and stepfather to address marital problems was an essential part of helping Nancy to move beyond her self-destructive patterns. Nor is the detoured conflict between adults limited to current partnerships. The stress of being intermediaries in unresolved or incomplete emotional divorces can also bring stepchildren to therapy. Ten-year-old Susan was referred to me by her pediatrician for headaches that were making her miss school. Her parents had been divorced for more than seven years, but her kinetic family drawing depicted herself, her mother, Barbara, and her father, Eric, omitting her stepmother, Jane.

Susan frequently called Eric to intercede on her behalf in the arguments between mother and daughter, but she was loathe to tell Eric directly when she was angry at or hurt by him, complaining to her mother instead. When she was at Dad's house, she wanted his exclusive attention; on alternative weekends, her stepmother felt like the maid. Father wanted to please everyone and ended up with everyone angry at him. When Barbara shifted her approach to respond only minimally to Susan's symptoms, they diminished in frequency and severity and no longer interfered with school attendance.

We began to sort out more appropriate boundaries between the two households. Instead of giving herself permission to consult Eric as Susan's coparent about whether their daughter was old enough to walk to school, Barbara felt compelled to raise with him their daughter's complaints about events at his house. When mother told Susan that she couldn't do anything about things that happened at Dad's house, suggesting that Susan speak directly to Eric, the girl mustered the courage to talk with her father about her own needs, both in my office and at home.

The initial therapy, conducted in ones, twos, and threes, resolved Susan's somatic symptoms and began the process of disengagement in this incomplete divorce. In an individual therapy that resumed two years later to deal with her own depression, Barbara told me that the earlier sessions had been the first time that she had crossed the line to not wanting Eric back. From that time forward, they were able to collaborate as parents to make decisions together in their daughter's best interests. And as Barbara began to feel better about herself, she was able to have pleasant, casual contact with Jane as well.

Presented with any stepfamily dyad experiencing conflict, it is important to look at whether another twosome is avoiding conflict. Problems with stepchildren can be a diversion from marital issues, and stepparents can be a free-fire zone in families, detouring parent-child conflicts that may be scarier to deal with. One thirteen-year-old boy clearly stated that he enjoyed getting his stepmother worked up; it was obviously safer to provoke her than the father who was stricter, more loved, and more feared. Even as adults, stepchildren may focus on the stepparent as the cause of either childhood or continued unhappiness, diverting their gaze from their parent's complicity in this process.

Another area of stepfamily life in which conflicts may be waged by proxy requires redistributing the emotional division of labor between the sexes. Because of the different ways boys and girls are raised, females typically are more attentive and sensitive to what is happening in relationships than males: their emotional seismographs identify problems earlier and when the problems are more subtle, and their dissatisfaction with family relationships matters more in reckoning their general life satisfaction. Too often, the women in their lives are drafted or volunteer to act as proxies for husbands and fathers, allowing the men to emerge unscathed as feelings fly fast and furious, later complaining how irrational women are. Whether the two women in question are past and present wives or wife and daughter, a man who is slow to know his own feelings and unaccustomed to emotional expression may unwittingly orchestrate a real-life psychodrama in which his female kin play out his angers or fears.

Nell and Ken were referred for marital issues after she pummeled him awake, so furious was she at feeling an outsider in her home. Remarried for several years, Ken got along fine with Nell's adult sons, while she had more trouble with his daughter, Darla, then a college student. Ken reported great anguish in feeling he can't make his daughter welcome in his home. For years Darla had made a point of letting Nell know she was not her friend, grunting in response to questions, refusing invitations to join them at the table, only to reenter noisily to prepare her own meal ten minutes later. Nell felt exploited when her resources were used and she was excluded.

But what compounded her hurt was how much she was also left out by Ken's style of responding to conflict with paralysis. Feeling mortified and helpless, he did nothing when Dana was rude or Nell distraught, leaving Nell feeling abandoned and enraged. We worked out ways for the couple to respond to Darla's provocations so that whether or not these were designed to divide them, as Nell suspected, Darla could not get between them. Ken had dismissed efforts to request change of Dana as doomed to failure, feeling that his directives would foment her rebellion. Asked whether he could instead frame a request for change as a consideration he would appreciate as a loving father, Ken shared a long history of difficulty in talking about his feelings. The son of a father who didn't appear to have any and a mother who appeared to use hers only to manipulate him, he was suspicious of feelings in general, and scared of his own "shadow feelings," discounting them whenever possible.

A few weeks into the therapy, Nell told her story of the difficult night that led them to seek help, recounting her experience of loneliness and abandonment. Recalling how scared he had been of her anger, needing to walk away in order not to respond in kind to the yelling and violence, Ken pictured Nell as a raging maniac, running down the street trying to kill him. I invited him to think of her as running after him to get him to see and hear and understand her. We talked about how when one member of a couple overreacts it can mean the other is underreacting, and Ken recognized himself in that formulation. His strategy, of keeping his fear a secret and trying to distract her, hadn't worked.

It was not easy for him, but Ken made an effort to talk to Nell and was pleased by her response. More confident that Ken loved her and was dedicated to working things out with her, Nell offered to wipe the slate clean and start over with Darla, surprising Ken with her flexibility. Instead of brooding about the possibilities for problems with Darla, Ken mustered the courage to discuss his worries directly with Nell, allowing them to negotiate plans for him both to help his daughter and protect their time together. Six weeks into therapy, Darla departed for school, after giving a gift she made a point of saying was for both of them and hugging her stepmother as the older woman left for work. At the next session, Ken announced that he had his own issues with Darla. Brokering between the two women had been an unpleasant but "safe( option. The distraction of stepmother-stepdaughter conflict had abated, and he was faced with having to look into himself.

This pattern of diverting a family's emotional tasks to its female members can occur across households in the remarriage chain, so that stepmother and mother can redirect their dissatisfactions with their present/past partner towards one another, and he can avoid responsibility for his own actions and desires by enlisting one or both as his agents. Mother may blame stepmother for father's unavailability to his children; stepmother may blame mother for turning her life upside down with capricious changes in plans. Each sees the other as controlling their once and future spouse, who neglects my needs and gives in to hers," rescuing him from having to come to terms with himself and assert on his own behalf.

Donna was fed up with Norm's difficulties in working out a divorce settlement years after leaving his wife and having a child with her. Guilty about having ended his marriage, he felt he had to placate his wife in order to maintain access to his daughters. Month after month would pass, with no progress, despite the best efforts of lawyers and mediators. Donna appreciated Norm as a loving father to his girls, but saw his lack of assertiveness with their mother as a sign that she and their son were pretty low on his list of priorities. When pressed, he would admit his own frustration with the process, but more often he left it to Donna to express that side of his inner conflict, defending himself by pointing to his wife's greater neediness.

When Donna would be angry at Jill for him, he would come to Jill's defense, confirming Donna's worst fears that he could not be a reliable ally. As he began to understand how the current triangle was a reenactment of an earlier relational quandary, when as a boy his loyalty to mother and grandmother were seen by each as at odds with another, he could come to terms with what he wanted and what his values compelled him to include in the process. As Norm began to more directly confront the unresolved emotional issues with his estranged wife, he could be generous without abandoning the interests of his new household. Seeing that his commitment to her was solid and that their future was important to him as well as to her, Donna was able to disengage from the emotional ups and down of particular negotiations, which began to move more expeditiously toward resolution.

* Anne C. Bernstein, Ph.D. is the author of Yours, Mine and Ours: How Families Change When Remarried Parents Have a Child Together (W.W. Norton & Co.), and was Chair of the Clinical Committee of the Stepfamily Association of America when this was published. She is a family therapist in private practice and on the faculty of The Wright Institute, Berkeley, CA.

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