Becoming A Step family: Patterns Of Development In Remarried Families
By Patricia L. Papernow
A number of factors combine to create four common patterns of stepfamily development. Names are derived from the stage of the Stepfamily Cycle where the family begins its life together, and describe the dominant style of dealing with step issues.
The Aware Family begins its life together with realistic expectations about remarried life. Step issues are met with interest and empathy rather than blame or denial. Members are likely to respond to new problems and unexpected differences with "Tell me more," rather than "What's wrong with you?" (Or with me). These are the faster families that complete the entire Stepfamily Cycle in about four years. In the Immersed Family the biological parent-child unit remains so primary that step issues cannot be addressed. The special needs of stepparents are especially likely to be minimized and unvoiced. Successful Immersed Families eventually move on, often initially through the efforts of a fed up stepparent. Less successful Immersed Families function with a chronically depressed or withdrawn outsider stepparent. The Mobilized Family begins with two vocal adults (or two evenly matched adult-child units) who immediately square off on a host of step issues. If the confrontation style is constructive, fighting increases mutual understand ("I feel awful when your sons don't even say hello to me."). When the fighting is destructive and blaming ("Only slobs like your sons would be so uncivilized"), Mobilized Families remain stuck in chronic conflict or may quickly blow apart.
The adult couple in the Action Family deal with the uncertainties and conflicts of early stepfamily life by immediately forming a tight unit and instituting a slate of new rules and rituals. Often the intimacy needs of the new couple supersede (rather than being balanced with) parent-child relationships. Consequently, children are particularly at risk in the Action Family and often provide the point of entry into the mental health system. Successful Action Families eventually slow down and return to complete unfinished tasks of getting to know each other and providing sufficient security and stability for children.
Although each of these stepfamily types will come to Resolution by a different path, all have the potential to complete the Stepfamily Cycle and to create a satisfying, workable remarried family life. The Wentworths, an Action Family, demonstrate this point. The Wentworths show us how the fantasy of an immediately "blended" stepfamily, intensified by the absence of a non-custodial parent, blocks forward progress. They illustrate the power of a primarily educational intervention in a developmentally stalled stepfamily with few complicating psychodynamic issues. Most sobering, this case reminds how easily stepfamily dynamics can escape attention.
Arlene Goldfarb, 33, and her second husband, Michael Wentworth, 34, were clients of a supervisee who worked in a local clinic. Arlene's first husband had died suddenly when her son, Jonah, was 2, and her daughter, Leah, was 6. After dating very little, Arlene ran into Michael at a high school reunion. When they married a year later, Arlene changed her name to Wentworth, and Michael adopted Arlene's children, "so the children wouldn't have a different last name, and we would really be a family." When Arlene and Michael came for help toward the end of their first year of marriage, Jonah was 9 and Leah had just turned 13 years old. Like many Action Families, the Wentworths came in around a child-centered problem. Leah's grades were falling. Her teachers were noting that her behavior in class was increasingly aggressive, and her mother added, she had become "downright insolent" with Michael.
Leah's teachers, her school guidance counselor, the school social worker, and my supervisee had attributed Leah's difficulties to the fact that the family had recently moved requiring that Leah shift from an open classroom in a small rural school to a much more structured one in a very large urban school. She had concentrated on helping Arlene and Michael to help Leah's teachers and guidance counselor understand this change. This seemed reasonably astute. So much so that I didn't learn that Michael was Leah's stepfather until well into our second session. I asked the supervisee for an example of Leah ‘talking back" to Michael. ‘You're not my father," she had quoted Leah saying. "I just didn't think it was important," said the embarrassed supervisee to the stunned and chagrined stepfamily expert.
In fact, Arlene and her children had been a single-parent family for five years before she met Michael. Like many single mothers and their daughters, Arlene and Leah had been very close. Then Arlene had suddenly fallen "head over heels" with Michael. The gain for Arlene was a terrible loss for Leah. This information placed Leah's dilemma in a very different context. With this understanding, the supervisee was now able to provide Leah with a much more empathic ear, and her story came tumbling out. With the new marriage had come not only a stranger in the house and a new last name, but a host of foreign, stricter rules. Then the family had moved. Within a short period of time Leah had lost her name, her close connection with her mother, her friends, her old neighborhood, a home she had lived in since birth, and her school. The move forced her to cope with a much larger school in a foreign urban environment without close friends, without her close relationship with her mother, with a stranger she was supposed to call "Dad" in a home with no familiar routine to retreat to. Most confusing, the pressure to treat Michael as a daddy left Leah feeling she must abandon her real father.
"It's no wonder you're having a hard time," the supervisee could now say. For Leah, naming and understanding what had happened provided tremendous relief. Her mourning process which had been blocked by the adults' fantasies of a "reconstituted family" could now begin. Typical of the differences researchers are finding between boys and girls in the shift from single-parent family to stepfamily, Jonah, now at the end of two years with Michael, had begun to settle down, and actually enjoyed having a man with whom to do "boy things." Although he didn't like the new rules either, he had not been as heartbroken. After an initial dip, his grades had actually gone up a bit. We surmised that his mother's remarriage was less of a loss and more of a gain for Jonah.
Arlene and Michael needed help to face these facts. The supervisee was instructed to proceed in the assumption that Arlene and Michael were missing some crucial information about stepfamilies and that taking in this information would involve a loss they would find painful. She was instructed to say something like, "You two are really working hard, and it's obvious you're really trying to do the best possible by these kids." She was then to move gently to, "Did you know that you have some special challenges with this kind of family?" Predictably, Arlene responded with, "What kind of family?" "Well, for starters, you (looking at Arlene) have been with these children a lot longer than you (Michael) have. That makes your relationships with them very different." "Oh, Michael really loves the kids," said Arlene. "I can sure see that," said the supervisee, who had been instructed to empathically join with Arlene and Michael each time they pushed her away.
"The problem isn't that you don't love the kids enough. It's that there are some special things to know about stepfamilies that can make it much easier for you." "But Michael adopted the children," countered Arlene. "I know. You'd think that enables you to skip the fact that he's not their father," said the supervisee. "I'm betting that I'm saying something that hurts," beginning to empathize with Arlene and Michael's grief that Michael, for all his good intentions and Arlene's hopes of making her family whole again, began as a stranger to the children. The supervisee, who had now grasped her task fully, offered an apt metaphor. "It's sort of like you can swim upstream, or you can swim downstream. Downstream's a lot easier. Leah in her own way is telling you that you are trying to swim upstream and she can't do it. The good news I have for you is that there are some things we can do that will make life much better for you and for her."
Now Arlene and Michael were ready for information. The supervisee sent them to the local chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America, and gave them articles to read. She began to help Michael articulate, with some relief, the ways in which he did feel like an outsider and a stranger, and to help Arlene talk about feeling caught between her children and her husband. With the family's individual and couple work well under way, the supervisee brought Leah, Jonah, Michael and Arlene together to help them understand each other better through what I call a travelogue. Each family member in turn was asked to tell the story of the past three years: "It's as if you were all on the same journey. But really you were each in a different country. Beginning with Leah, whose voice had been most unheard thus far, the others were instructed to listen to each speaker as if he or she had been traveling in a foreign country. As Leah told her story of heartbreak, loss, and confusion, Arlene wept. Michael talked about how different his previous life had been living alone in an apartment in the city. Jonah, apparently out of pure curiosity, asked Michael to describe his apartment. What color were the rugs?" "That's irrelevant," Leah had said derisively. "White," Michael answered. Jonah began to laugh. ‘You really didn't know nothing about living with kids. Can you imagine a white rug in our house?"
Michael talked about his excitement at "becoming a father," his pain at how hard it had actually been to live with so many people and so much mess, and to be treated like an ogre. Arlene talked about how lonely she had been as a single parent, how wonderful it had been to meet Michael again (they had been high school sweethearts, which must have provided fuel for the fantasy of living "happily ever after"). Jonah talked about his first meeting with Michael. "He smelled like a man!" said Jonah. He went on to say that he was scared and didn't like the new rules, especially cleaning up his room, but that he and Michael play baseball and, "He taught me to hit. Mom can't even see a baseball, much less hit one!" As each person spoke, the supervisee coached them to acknowledge each other. "Can you tell Leah how you felt inside while you were listening to her?" "Can you tell Michael what you heard that's familiar and what's new to you?"
Now Arlene and Michael understood enough to be willing to reduce the number of new rules to two or three, enabling the adults to regain their effectiveness while the children regained some familiar routine. She gave the adults "scripts" like, "Yeah, you're right, I'm not your father, even though I adopted you. You had a daddy who will always be your dad. You and I will get to know each other slowly, and I hope we'll have a special relationship some day. Meanwhile, these are your mom's rules, and I'm in charge right now, so yes, you do have to wash the dishes tonight. No, you don't have to love me.
She suggested that both Leah and Jonah be allowed to invite some of their former friends for weekends. She encouraged Arlene to institute some reliable one-to-one time with Leah. Since Jonah was more ready for a relationship with Michael, she suggested that the two do some "boy things" alone together, leaving Leah some time alone with her mother. She helped Michael to design a slightly more distant stance with Leah, giving her positive verbal acknowledgment, but from a distance, and leaving the discipline to Arlene. Though Arlene was not pleased to become the disciplinarian again ("That's part of why I married him. I was tired of doing it all myself!"), she was coached to turn to Michael for advice and input ("What should I do about this?"). Michael was coached to provide Arlene support ("Terrific, keep it up. I think that's a good limit you set with her."), rather than to step in directly with Leah.
The supervisee helped Arlene to see that though she, as an adult, could move on from her first husband, he remained forever biologically and emotionally part of her children. They needed her to remember him for them. She coached Arlene to tell the children stories about their father, to tell them how he felt and what he said when they were conceived, when they were born. Leah, who was beginning to struggle with identity issues, was particularly responsive to this move. It is important to note that although Arlene and Michael came from different religious traditions, they actually had much more in common than Arlene and her first husband. He had been a rather shy person, without many aesthetic interests. Michael, like Arlene, was enthusiastic and outgoing. They both loved to dance (they had won the dance contest at the high school reunion), liked to cook together, and both said they felt "spiritually connected" despite religious differences. The supervisee encouraged Arlene and Michael to find time alone together in which they could cherish their new coupledom without asking children to participate. Couple time also provided uninterrupted adult intimacy for Michael and gave Arlene some relief from the childrearing burdens she had hoped to hand over to Michael.
The supervisee had now helped this family to move from premature Action back to Awareness. Leah's grades improved considerably. Although she remained somewhat distant from her stepfather, she regained her familiar disposition. Many stepfamilies are as earnest and well meaning as Arlene and Michael in their mistaken attempts to make a "real family" for themselves and their children. An infusion of sensitively offered realistic information, support for grief work, and some help understanding each other can enable stepfamilies like the Wentworths to regain their developmental momentum.
* Patricia L. Papernow is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of the recently published Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families.
Published in SAA's quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Winter 1993.