Dr. Ruth Morehouse
From a Woman's Point of View
Remarriage, Step-Parenting and Blended Families
Dr. Ruth Morehouse
Marrying someone with children is an exciting opportunity for a fresh start in life, but often fraught with difficulties. When both partners have children this is even more true. Along with new relationships, there are conflicting loyalties, integrity struggles over differing values, and new lines of authority, power and control. All these accentuate whatever emotional fusion pre-exists between parents and children, and reorganizing and reconstituting families can be challenging.
Differentiation-based Crucible Therapy®, with it’s the 4 Points of Balance™, provides an powerful framework for navigating the issues that come up in blended families. Applying the Crucible 4 Points of Balance to remarriage and step parenting issues offers anxious parents a clear and effective roadmap that works with the whole range of marriage and family issues.
"Blended" families comes in various combination of “yours, mine and ours.” Thirty years of experience with blended families has shown me that loads of normal differentiation issues invariably get triggered. Handling this effectively often takes far more time and much greater effort than new couples anticipate. I have also witnessed incredible experiences of bonding, collaboration, and mutual empowerment between family members working through these issues.
A Blended Family In Crisis
Donna and Steve were a typical example. They were having difficulty co-parenting Donna’s 12 year old son, Josh, from a previous marriage. Prior to them marrying, Donna and Steve had a long distance relationship for a couple of years after Donna divorced her first husband. Josh and Steve got along pretty well during Steve’s periodic weekend visits and during several vacations together. All that changed when Donna and Steve actually got married, and Steve moved into Donna and Josh’s home.
Josh became emotionally threatened by Steve when he was living with them full time. Josh and Steve were sharing--and seemingly competing--for Donna’s attention on a daily basis. Josh became clingy and rebellious, and Steve was shocked and dismayed by Donna’s accommodations to Josh’s insecurity. Steve believed Donna needed to be stricter with Josh. He tried to help by given Donna frequent pointers on how to manage her son.
Donna took Steve’s comments very personally. Her reflected sense of self needed compliments and approval from Steve. In turn, Steve needed to be acknowledged as “the man of the house.” Donna bristled at any hint that she was lacking as a mother, and Steve was indeed telling her she was overly indulgent, lax in discipline, and babying Josh. She dealt with her defensiveness by trying to prove Steve didn’t really understand children’s developmental processes. Who was he to tell her anything, when he never had a child and she had raised Josh as a single parent. Steve got embarrassed and reactive to Donna’s efforts to put him in his place. He was the boss at work and people looked to him for advice. Donna’s disdain for his opinions rocked Steve’s reflected sense of self, and he became more critical of her in return.
Josh was surprised by his own initial reaction when Steve moved in. He hadn't counted on Steve acting like he could make rules for Josh, just like his mom. Suddenly, Steve went from “buddy” to “authority figure,” and Josh didn't like it. His mom was a lot less available to him now that she and Steve wanted time alone. He enjoyed being able to tell Steve, “You’re not my father!” because that seemed to stop him dead in his tracks. It became like a contest to defy Steve’s authority, but things quickly became belligerent and cold between them. He liked Donna standing up for him, and manipulating the situation to get her indulgence sweetened the deal.
Between Donna, Steve and Josh, each over-reaction from one of them triggered an over-response from the other two. Tension within the family escalated and their initial cozy relationships prior to the wedding evaporated. Within 6 months Donna and Steve wondered if they were going to make it. They started to bicker over seemingly petty things. Steve began to feel isolated and started spending more time away from home.
Josh became anxious as it increasingly looked like his new family was falling apart. Although on the surface he blamed everything on Steve, Josh started to think he was a bad kid, and if he wasn't there Steve and his mother would have a great marriage. He started being defiant at school and got in trouble with the police for petty vandalism. This brought things to a head. Donna and Steve recognized they needed help with their problems before things spun further out of control. That’s when they came for therapy.
4 Points of Balance
Donna and Steve learned about the Crucible 4 Points of Balance and applied them to their marriage and family. Each acknowledged having a hard time holding on to themselves if the other did not approve of their behavior or ideas. So they both developed the First Point of Balance: Holding onto yourself in close proximity to someone who pressures you to conform. They worked on being secure enough in their own values and opinions to allow room for another point of view.
Donna developed more ability to soothe her own emotions and keep her anxiety under control (Second Point of Balance: Quiet Mind and Calm Heart). She resumed attending yoga classes and took more time out by herself to reflect on daily developments in the family. When things got difficult with Steve, she also took a moment to focus on what she was saying and doing when she was hurt or angry.
Steve had to manage his anger and reactivity when he was not automatically given status as the wise one or leader in the family. He had to stop trying to control Josh and earn his respect by controlling himself. (Third Point of Balance, Grounded Responding). As he and Donna became more grounded, they paid attention to big issues that demanded attention—like Josh’s delinquent behavior-- and overlooked little negative comment Josh made as token resistance. Keeping their major goals foremost of their minds (First Point of Balance) helped them limit their reactivity and develop more patience.
Through therapy, Steve and Donna implemented a course of action that lead to improvements in their marriage, and in their respective relationships with Josh. Although there was initial improvement soon after beginning treatment, it takes time and protracted effort to establish a solid sense of family. And that meant going through a period of Josh testing their resolve. Donna and Steve stayed on track long enough to demonstrate they were not going to be impacted by Josh’s effort to split them (Fourth Point of Balance: Meaningful Endurance). This actually helped reduce Josh’s anxiety and helped him settle down. The mounting belligerence in the house declined, and he began playing some sports with Steve. Steve was supportive when Josh wanted alone time with his mother. Donna and Steve were able to handle his privileges and responsibilities in an appropriate manner. By their first anniversary, Donna, Steve and Josh were well into turning things around. Donna and Steve were proud of the work they had done on their marriage and were collaborating to help Josh through adolescence.
Not all step parenting and blended family issues require therapy. Applying the Four Points of Balance to yourself and working them with a partner often improves things significantly. But if your blended family is spiraling out of control, or you’re ready to deal with long-standing problems, get help from a qualified therapist trained in marriage and family therapy. Couples and families from around the world fly in for our Intensive Therapy Program. Contact us if we can be of help.
Starting a new marriage and family at the same time presents challenges, demands, and opportunities that can feel overwhelming. Mastering yourself in the midst of this requires the Four Points of Balance. Fortunately, the benefits and rewards of going through this family crucible are something we human beings value.