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By Scott Browning, Ph.D.*

As a family therapist and psychologist I recognize that certain family compositions and situations are fraught with treacherous emotions. Although there is no plan or pattern that all stepfamilies follow, regardless of how similar their situations may be, certain problems frequently match particular family types. To those families that match the profile, but not the described emotions, I offer my apologies for my presumption. For many therapists and stepfamilies, however, I believe that the details described will seem surprisingly familiar and the intervention helpful.

Some stepfamilies come to therapy with great intensity of emotion. A family type that often exhibits its turmoil is one in which a woman marries a widowed father with children between eight and eighteen. These families often come to therapy discussing one child's problem, or they may actually be brought in because the stepmother feels that "this family has to mourn its loss." The stepmother is often conflicted; she really does "feel" for the children's loss, and she is aware that the family's inability to mourn adds to her own isolation. Without having mourned the loss of their mother, and in the husband's case, his former wife, it is difficult for the family members to view the stepmother objectively. She is either consciously ignored or else her efforts are perceived as unhelpful. This frequent interpersonal dynamic should not be blamed on either party; such a situation often results when a new individual joins a family that has suffered a profound loss.

Although the therapist recognizes the inherent truth in the stepmother's statement that the family needs to mourn in order to heal, to join her completely in this mission is destined to cause some consternation. The importance of mourning such a loss is almost universally accepted. But the issue now is who is generating and insisting upon this mission, and how is this assignment responded to by the family? Hence, a reasonable concern and referral by the stepmother is rendered volatile because of what it represents.

How can the therapist not appear to be siding with the stepmother? Is it wrong to side with the stepmother, especially if she is correct? This commentary is not intended to question the importance of the stepmother's advice. In fact, much of good therapy takes the strong feelings of each person involved and finds a way to help people share these strong feelings with each other. This particular topic, however, has built-in traps. If the children and father in a stepmother family do not accept the premise that they need to mourn, the therapist needs to articulate the dilemma; as the stepmother becomes more adamant that the family must mourn, the family understands the truth of the message, but is unable to begin the process on demand. In fact, in this situation the process of mourning might be delayed.

It is with great compassion that I experience the stepfamily's feelings and concerns. In most cases no one is feeling good about the tremendous tension in the home. But since stepfamilies are frequently at a loss to explain the origin of their strong negative feelings, a system of attack and withdrawal becomes standard behavior. The therapist is suddenly embroiled in the predicament that is currently affecting the family. Advice from a concerned neighbor that father and children seek counseling might have been viewed as supportive and resulted in motivating the family to explore their feelings of loss, whereas the same advice from a stepmother is reacted to defensively. "If I mourn my mother's death, am I opening a place in my heart for my stepmother?"

This question, which can seem extremely benign, then is replaced with, "if I do find a spot for my stepmother in my heart, isn't that dishonoring my mom?' These concerns begin to lock the child(ren) into a pattern of resisting the process of mourning because it is no longer strictly in the service of honoring one's mother and moving on with life; instead, it now represents a betrayal. It is my opinion that dilemmas such as this demand that the therapist extricate himself or herself from the family's definition of therapist as mediator.

There is no happy medium in this situation. This issue represents a dichotomy, which by definition represents two mutually exclusive positions. Therefore, in order to assist the family, the therapist must fully explain the dilemma to the stepfamily. In explaining, use qualifiers to insure that at no time do you label their feelings without their agreement. Hold the stance that neither group or individual is acting to hurt the other, rather, each person is trapped in trying to move on, honor others, feel included, and be allowed to be an individual.

The therapists needs to be able to support each person in the search to resolve painful issues. Those concerns which affect the child(ren) and husband are quite different from those being felt by the stepmother. In commenting on these individual needs, you reinforce the importance of clarifying for each person that no action by the other will remove entirely the pain being felt by each individual. You may need to address these needs in subsystem sessions in order to allow the process to proceed without the contextual dynamic which produced the dilemma. In time the work toward integration of this family will become the priority, and the family members should be ready.

* Scott Browning, Ph.D. is on the faculty of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

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