Reflections on Therapy with Stepfamilies

We are excited to have Dr. Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamilies, present “Meeting the (Big) Challenges of ‘Blended Families’: What Couple, Family, and Individual Therapists Need to Know” at the MAMFT Annual Conference on April 6 at the Wellesley College Club. I (Jeremiah Gibson) had the honor of interviewing Dr. Papernow about her professional journey and wisdom from working with stepfamilies. I was blown away by her warmth, engagement, and brilliance. We are in for a treat at the Annual Conference. Here’s our interview:

JG: You have written one of the go-to books about stepfamilies in Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamilies. How did you become interested in working with stepfamilies?

PP: I started when I was in one—I married a man with two kids, 5 and 9. I was writing my dissertation at the time, so I interviewed stepparents about stages in development in their stepfamilies. I finished my dissertation in 1980. It was the easiest lit review ever because, at that time, there was nothing published! And then I got hooked. I’ve been doing it ever since—four decades now!

JG: What language should we use–stepfamilies, or blended families?

PP: “Stepfamily” is the term used by researchers. “Blended family” is the popular language, so I never correct anybody, but that language of “blending” sets you up for “you’re all going to be one.” It captures the fantasy—“We’re going to take blueberries and strawberries and make a nice smoothie”—but not the reality. Stepfamilies are actually a lot more like bringing together a group of Japanese and a group of Italians and saying, “Let’s make a family.” There are going to be lots of unexpected differences. It’s going to take time, a lot of it, to learn how to live together. And you can’t solve the problem by making everyone eat pasta with chopsticks!

JG: Your first book, Becoming a Stepfamily, describes a developmental model for how stepfamilies change over time. How does this developmental stage cycle correlate or differ from other family development models (such as the family life cycle, developed by Monica McGoldrick)?

PP: Stepfamily development runs parallel to, and sometimes conflicts with, other developmental tracks. For instance, the adult couple may be trying to bring everyone together to form a “we” at the same time that an adolescent is wanting more differentiation. Grandparents may be moving into “generativity” at the same time that their adult child’s divorce cuts them off from their grandchildren.

Because stepfamilies so take time to come together, it’s helpful to have a picture of how things might unfold over time, and what’s realistic when. Still, most stepfamily development isn’t linear—now I think that “stations” may be a better word than stages.

JG: Becoming a Stepfamily was published in 1993. What changes to stepfamilies have you noticed in the last 25 years?

PP: What has changed is there is now a ton of increasingly sophisticated research. Four decades of research and clinical practice now tell us a lot about what works in a stepfamily and how differs from what works in a first time family. However, what has not changed is that very few therapists get any training in stepfamily dynamics. Only two clinical books have been written in the last few decades—mine and Scott Browning’s. Since 42% of American adults have a close step-relationship, and stepfamilies are so different from first-time families, that’s a big problem!

For instance, clinicians working in a first-time family model will often say, just concentrate on your couple relationship. If the couple is close, the kids will be fine. That’s somewhat true in a first-time family. However, in a stepfamily, if a couple is really close, child wellbeing goes down. We think that’s because the parent-child relationship suffers. In a stepfamily, it is very important to take care of both the couple relationship and the parent-child relationship. (Carving out one-to-one time in each subsystem help a lot.)

JG: What systemic models have been most influential in informing your work? (i.e. strategic, structural, Bowenian, etc.) How have you incorporated them?

PP: I am an integrator. I work in a three-level model of intervention: Psychoeducational, Interpersonal, and Intrapsychic. Psychoeducation is the first level—I started my work in this field in community mental health center where I trained trainers to do psychoeducation (parenting a toddler, handling stress, etc.). On the second, interpersonal level, my original couple and family training is in Gestalt therapy—which taught me a lot about tracking the quality of contact from moment to moment. I now integrate Sue Johnson’s EFT work—shaping interactions that enable couples to reach for each other. I also draw from Gottman’s research about skills and habits that make for nourishing relationships. On the third, intrapsychic level, I have a lot of trauma training, including EMDR. I now work primarily in the IFS (Internal Family Systems) model, mixed in with some AEDP (Diana Fosha) and neurobiology.

JG: Many of our therapists work with couples. What are the most three most common couple dynamics that you’ve noticed with stepfamilies?

PP: Stepfamily challenges make lots of attachment breaks in stepcouples. The stepcouple may be in love, but the established deep attachments in a stepfamily are in parent-child relationships, as are the agreements about “what’s a mess,” “what’s a loud noise,” etc. They’re not between the new couple, or between stepparents and stepchildren. Kids need their parents, not their stepparents. Kids want to tell their stories to their parent, not their stepparent.

So one major dynamic is that stepparents are constantly stuck in an “outsider” position where they are left out, feel invisible or rejected. Parents are stuck in an “insider” position—they’re connected to everyone but they often feel torn and anxious– parents turn to their children, and their partners feel ignored. They turn to their partners and their children feel abandoned.

Another major dynamic is that parents and stepparents often have very different feelings about kids. Parents have a heart connection to their kids. Stepparents don’t. Stepparents everywhere seem to want more limits and boundaries with their stepkids. Parents want more love and acceptance for their kids. The goal is not to get on the same page—that is often unrealistic in a stepfamily. It’s to learn about and empathize with each other’s very different experience. One key piece of research, by the way–until or unless stepparents have a trusting relationship with stepkids, parent needs to retain the disciplinary role.

Successful stepcouples and struggling stepcouples face the same challenges. However, successful stepcouples have better interpersonal skills. They handle these constant breaks in connection with more care and kindness and curiosity, rather than blame and withdrawal.

JG: You wrote a chapter in the recent book Techniques for the Couples Therapist on joining. How does joining in stepfamilies differ from other types of modalities?

PP: I use “joining” to help all couples slow way down and feel connected across their differences. In a stepfamily, though, there are so many differences and attachment breaks that happen over and over again, day in and day out. It’s so much easier to feel connected when you both feel the same way. So working with stepcouples, it’s especially important to be able to step in and shape an experience of connection and empathy. I use joining for that, over and over again.

JG: What should therapists know about kids in stepfamilies?

PP: Adults and kids often experience a stepfamily very differently. Kids come to a stepfamily through lots of loss and change. For the adults, a new love is a wonderful healing gift. For kids, when Mom or Dad turns away to a new love, it is often experienced as a yet another loss. Adults also often want to move much more quickly than works for kids.

What helps kids most in a major transition like becoming a stepfamily, is a parent who gets it. However, because adults are often in such a different place, we often help kids best by helping adults to understand how kids’ experience a stepfamily.

Therapists without training in stepfamily dynamics will often say a child is “splitting.” Usually that means that a child needs their parent, not their stepparent. Often it means that child needs more one-to-one time, and perhaps more of an empathic connection with their parent.

JG: You’re talking about not just stepfamilies with kids under 18, but older stepcouples with adult kids.

PP: You’re so right! Divorce rates have dropped and evened out in the U.S. Except for couples 50. That means we have older folks recoupling. The fantasy is that the kids are out of the house and won’t that make it easier! Older recouplers are often really surprised to find themselves facing the same challenges that younger stepfamilies do. For instance, it turns out that kids of all ages (including adult children) may have a hard time watching their parent turn away to a new partner.

JG: The morning plenary will be about five challenges that family therapists see when working with stepfamilies. What are self-of-the-therapist issues that commonly come up around stepfamily work, and how do you encourage therapists to work through them?

PP: Stepfamily dynamics can be overwhelming—it easily makes therapists feel inadequate, because the dynamics are so intense and often so complex! Having the right map helps a lot—knowing what’s normal in a stepfamily, being able to recognize the dynamics of each of those five challenges, and knowing what works and what doesn’t to meet each of them.

Caring therapists are also vulnerable to what I call “compassion traps.” The more a stepfamily is struggling, the more likely that each person will be able to tell only their own story of pain. It’s easy to buy into the story of the person in front of you and join in demonizing folks who aren’t in the room. Stepfamily work requires disciplining ourselves to hold the stories of all the players’ pain until our clients are ready to do that. Meanwhile, we need to empathize with the feelings, without buying into the demonizing story. “It is so painful to feel torn between your kids and your partner.” Not, “Obviously your wife is completely over-reacting.”

JG: How does your first session with a stepfamily work? What are you immediately assessing?

PP: I start right away making a genogram—who’s in the family, what kid spends what amount of time with which parent, what was the divorce like. I keep that visible in my folder and I fill it in over time.

If I’m working with a couple, I ask each person what would they would most like help with—generally, it’s around insider-outsider issues or parenting.

On the psychoeducational level, I’m going to listen for how much information the couple has about what’s normal in a stepfamily—do they have a good map or are they straining to use a first-time family model? On the interpersonal level, I’m going to be noticing whether they are able to reach for each other or not. I start on those first two levels.

If reactivity remains high, or low, despite good information and better skills, I start getting curious about what “old bruises” stepfamily challenges might be hitting.

When it’s a child referral, I want to know how fast did the family move in together? Has the stepparent moved prematurely into disciplinary role? How able is the parent to understand his or her children’s experience? Is the child in loyalty bind? How much one-on-one time is each child getting with his or her parent?

Every now and then, a couple just needs some good psychoeducation—a more accurate map and some good driving directions, and off they go. More commonly, struggling stepcouples need help on all three levels, for quite a while!

JG: How do you make decisions on when to work with the stepcouple as opposed to working with the larger stepfamily (or vice versa)?

Dr. Patricia Papernow

PP: In a stepfamily you almost always need to start by working in subsystems, not with the whole family. With stepfamilies, if you meet the attachment needs in one system, you’re abandoning the needs of another system. I say to my supervisees, “Think systemically–hold the stories of ALL the players in any conflict in your own heart and mind. But work in subsystems, particularly in the beginning.”

If I’m working with the whole family, I will work with the stepcouple subsystem, and the parent-child subsystem, and possibly with stepsibling and sibling subsystems. If ex-spouses are in conflict, I will try to work with the ex-spouse subsystem. When secure attachment and empathic connection has strengthened in parent-child and couple relationships, then you can start working with the whole family. I often leave the parent-stepchild until after those other relationships are working well, because those aren’t chosen relationships.

Jeremiah Gibson, LMFT

JG: What advice would you give to newer therapists about identifying a specialty practice with stepfamilies?

PP: Don’t rely on your first-time family model! Learn about what works, and doesn’t, in stepfamilies. Get a lot of good supervision from someone who knows a lot about stepfamilies! And don’t make stepfamilies your only practice. They’re intense. You’ll need a break!

Most important, no matter what population you’re working with, invest in your own internal work. You can’t take your clients where you haven’t gone. Keep learning. Find, or form, a peer supervision group that meets regularly.

Patricia Papernow, EdD, is an internationally recognized expert on stepfamilies. She is a psychologist in private practice in Hudson, MA, and Director of the Institute for Stepfamily Education.

Jeremiah Gibson, LMFT, is the President of the Massachusetts Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He sees couples and families at the South Shore Family Health Collaborative in Quincy.

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