STEPFAMILIES IN THERAPY: INSIGHTS FROM SAA MEMBERS
By Lyn Rhoden *
One of the ways stepfamily members endeavor to confront and resolve problems inherent in the process of becoming a stepfamily is through participation in therapy. Families from the Stepfamily Association of America were invited to participate in a study seeking to identify the particular aspects of therapy which are helpful to stepfamilies. In their responses, 292 stepfamilies who had participated in therapy shared information regarding their experiences. We were especially interested in learning about their concerns at the beginning of therapy and about the aspects of the therapy experience they found to be helpful and not helpful.
Those who participated in this study are best described as white, college educated, middle income (65.8% reported a family income over $59,999), and in their early 40's. Most respondents were women (86%) in either stepmother families or combined stepfather and stepmother families. About 50% had seen a female therapist and another 10% had worked with both a male and a female therapist. Therapy had been initiated either during the first year of the marriage or prior to the marriage. Many reported that three or more family members had participated in therapy.
Stepfamily Concerns Brought to Therapy
At the time they began therapy, spouses were asked to identify their concerns from a list of 26 specific issues representing 9 general areas. Of primary concern were feelings of anxiety and depression regarding how the stepfamily was functioning. Many stepfamilies seemed to seek therapy at a time of extreme emotional stress and tension, looking for help to deal with an accumulation of problems. Parenting and stepparenting issues also were concerns at the initiation of therapy. Specifically, these issues included a lack of clarity regarding family roles, particularly undefined rights and responsibilities of stepparents regarding disciplining stepchildren. Biological parents also reported that conflicting loyalties between their new spouse and their own children increased confusion around stepfamily roles.
Whereas stepfamily functioning and parenting/stepparenting issues were general themes of concern to spouses at the beginning of therapy, two other issues surfaced as especially problematic. Behavioral and academic problems of children and stepchildren, and the behavior of a former spouse also were reported to be of concern. These problems indicate that spouses are sensitive to the possible effects of stepfamily life on children. In addition, the absence of well-defined boundaries in binuclear households (where a child's residency and care are shared) and unresolved issues around the prior marriage and divorce may contribute to problematic relationships between former spouses.
Helpful and Not Helpful Aspects of Therapy
When asked, many respondents indicated that the emotional support they received was the most helpful aspect of the therapy experience. Emotional support reportedly facilitated the clarification of issues and increased their insight and understanding of both themselves and other family members. Many respondents also noted that the emotional support received in therapy helped them to feel less isolated and alone in their struggle to become a stepfamily. Many spouses also reported that therapy was helpful because it provided a safe and structured environment where family members could express their feelings and be heard by others. Because of these experiences, therapy may enable a stepfamily to begin thinking of itself in new, more positive, and more hopeful terms. When respondents reported that something about therapy was not helpful, this report most frequently included the therapist's lack of training and skill in stepfamily issues. Adequate understanding of stepfamily life will make it more likely that a therapist can assist families in developing realistic expectations and goals as they work through issues and concerns in a therapeutic environment.
The responses of SAA families suggest that a therapist who is knowledgeable and skilled in issues common to stepfamilies, and respectful of the uniqueness of the stepfamily, can foster family integration. John and Emily Visher, the co-founders of SAA, have long advocated the need for therapists to be trained in stepfamily dynamics. The findings from this study lend empirical support to their conviction that well-trained therapists are better able to normalize the experiences and validate the feelings of stepfamily members than those therapists lacking this special knowledge. In many of their final comments, respondents reiterated the importance of therapists having education and experience in dealing with stepfamily issues. Also important was the value of the therapy experience itself.
Perhaps the general feelings of our respondents can best be described in their own words: "Therapy helped me understand what I could do and what I couldn't do and when I was just trying too hard." "It taught me to take charge and make things happen." "Therapy is hard work, (it) taught me that the best decisions are often the hardest, but also the most rewarding." "I give our therapist tremendous credit for helping us to resolve issues, learn needed skills for the future, and help our marriage and family succeed."
* Lyn Rhoden is a doctoral student in human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Published in the quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Spring 1994.