Toward effective service to individuals, divorcing families, and stepfamilies

Conducting a Successful First Contact - page 4 of 6

Key Intake Questions for Courting Stepfamily Clients

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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        This Web page continues a six-page article on first clinical contacts with typical divorced- family and stepfamily clients. Initial contacts differ from those with other client types in a number of ways. The first page outlines 11 premises about first meetings, and contrasts three types of initial interview.

        The second page outlines 19 intake questions relevant to all five client-types. Question numbering here continues from that page. This article suggests seven more questions specially suited to typical pre-legal (courting) stepfamily clients. "Client" here means all adults and kids living regularly in each  rela-ted co-parent's home.  


      Co-parents who court after divorcing or mate-death have a special set of needs. Most don't seem to know what they are. That opinion comes from my ...

  • co-leading an interactive remarriage preparation  workshop with over 35 groups of engaged couples since 1988, 

  • taking well over 1,000 phone calls for stepfamily information from re/courting and neo- stepparents since 1981, and ...

  • thousands of hours consulting clinically with scores of divorced and widowed co-parents who were dating another partner.

        Thus my "research sample" for designing the questions below is a mix of hundreds of 25 to 60 year-old, clinical and non-clinical, mostly middle-class Anglo, adults in a pre-re/wedding courtship relationship. Over two-thirds had custodial or non-custodial kids from prior unions. A few were homosexual couples considering mutual commitments and co-habiting, where one partner was a divorced parent.

        From this experience and related studies, I believe the following to be true of such typical American post-divorce and mate-death couples ...

  • they don't know what they don't know about typical stepfamily basicsrealities, and risks, so most don't know what to ask. Most are either ambivalent about, or don't want to identify as an emotional (pre-legal) stepfamily ["No, we're just a regular (bio)family!"];

  • Conservatively, over 75% of typical courting co-parents are often controlled by a protective false self. They don't know this about themselves or their partner, and they don't want to know; and ...

  • Most of these men and women are in a delicious distorted mind-state (romantic love), flavored by hope, optimism, idealism, lust, relief, excitement, tolerance, politeness, and anxiety. These client co-parents are often trying to reduce or end some conflicts with ex mates, the court system, or occasionally relatives. Most are legally divorced. Some Catholics are still negotiating the trying process of church annulment; and ...

  • Few courting co-parents have known each other longer than several years. This means that _ the couple has few common "old" friends, and that _ potential stepparents and stepkids don't know each other very well. Contacts between them have been Disneylandish, where everyone's on their best behavior. Exceptions occur when the other divorced bioparent/s, and/or a minor (or grown) child, hasn't grieved their family separation losses well, and isn't ready to relate to the new co-parent; and ..

  • One result of the these factors is that many of these couples say (proudly) "We rarely disagree," or "We never fight!" and "We just talk about everything together!" Implication: so far, their combined needinesses and romance-distortions have blocked learning _ whether their styles of conflict-resolution are compatible, and _ who's going to have to flex on what, to accommodate their inevitable style-differences. Finally ...

  • I've never met a courting pre-re/marriage couple who has ever seriously _ reviewed the theme of pre-re/marriage Project 7, or _ knowledgably evaluated "Am I (and any dependent kids) re/ marrying the right people (plural), for the right reasons, at the right time?" Virtually none of the hundreds of courting and remarried couples I've worked with had any idea of the long-term relevance of these courtship questions, or how to answer them objectively. 

        With this brief perspective, what are key intake questions to ask average courting stepfamily couples? Because the number of stepfamily members, relationships, and concurrent stressors are usually much higher than courting first-marriage couples, there are more relevant intake questions to choose among.

        After first assessing whether any crisis interventions are needed, key intake topics to explore with these clients beyond these basic ones are:

  • What degree of protective _ denial and _ unawareness (lack of information) does this courting couple seem to be in now - low, medium, or high?

  • Which service would best suit this client family's composite (guesstimated) needs first: education (e.g. on splitting, communication, grieving, and stepfamily basics); counseling, or therapy?

  • What's the apparent nurturance level of this pre-legal stepfamily - low to high? and ...

  • Should this couple re/marry? Restated: "How likely is it that this couple and all their kids and related co-parents can master their version of the five stepfamily stressors, and avoid ultimate  emotional and/or legal re/divorce?

        Before examining each of these questions, note that ideally, intake with courting co-parents is best done with both partners. High stepfamily complexity, plus the high odds of co-parent perception-distor-tions, raises the probability that interviewing one only partner will yield skewed and incomplete intake in-formation. As usual, the chance to experience a couple interacting adds rich information to verbal intake exchanges.

1)  "Assess What?" About Courting Co-parents and their Kids (Pre-legal Stepfamilies) 

        Clergy and pre-re/marriage counselors have a priceless chance to assess co-parent couples and their kids and ex mates before they re/wed. The main assessment question is "Is this couple effectively evaluating whether they should co-commit and form a stepfamily?" If the answer is "No" or "Probably not," then the next question is "Why - what's in the way?" Toward both goals, regardless of the person's or couple's presenting request or problem, assess:

      _ A)  Does each mate genuinely (vs. intellectually) acknowledge now that they're considering forming a stepfamily (or equivalent term)? If "No", "I'm not sure", or "I don't think it matters" - they and any minor kids are at major risk of eventual re/divorce. See Lesson 7.

      _ B)  If "Yes, I do" - does each partner clearly _ understand and _ accept that each of their kids' living and dead other parent/s and key relatives will be emotionally-important members of their potential nuclear stepfamily - even if they don't want to be? If "No", _ the odds for combinations of psychological wounds, ineffective communications, blocked grief, and role conflicts, rise steeply, and therefore _ so do the chances for one to three wrong re/marriage choices. See Project 7

      _ C)  Does each partner _ know and _ accept their version of these stepfamily basics? If not, are they motivated to learn them? If "No", the couple will very likely underestimate their risks and many complex adjustment tasks, and provide inadequate guidance to their minor dependent kids with their unique adjustment tasks. Both factors, combined with these, powerfully promote eventual re/divorce.

       _ D) Does each courting co-parent really accept that every re/married bioparent must choose - over  and over again - between "who honestly comes first with me - my mate and re/marriage, or my kids?" If one or both adults minimizes this, or says "So what?" - assertively advise them to rethink their marriage decision. If you don't feel this is particularly likely or important, check with any re/divorced parents you know. Option: read some representative posts on any Web stepparent "chat room."

        The most widely cited (surface) reason for stepfamily redivorce is a stepparent saying "I got tired of coming in fourth in my home, and I ran out of hope that my mate would change." Weary bioparents say "I got too tired of having to choose between my kids and my spouse". The rosy courtship vision that loyalty conflicts "won't happen to us" is a widespread, tragic delusion. Specially if vehement and defensive, it usually signals excessive co-parental neediness and psychological wounds. See Lesson 7 .

    _  E) Does _ each partner accept that these five hazards fully apply to them and any dependent kids, and that they're at real risk of eventual re/divorce? If "Yes," then _ are each of the partners genuinely motivated to learn, tailor, and study these safeguard Lessons before committing to re/marriage? If "No" or "I'm not sure" - RED LIGHT!

        Use education (e.g. copies* of selected site pages) and some version of the multi-part "three right choices" worksheets in Project 7 to help _ assess such couples, and _ help them learn enough to wisely decide if they (and their kid/s and other c-parents) should re/marry, when, and why. For motivation and credibility, you need to be pretty familiar with why each of the seven courtship projects is important, and how to do them.

  1) What degree of protective denial and benign ignorance is the courting couple in now?

        Here "denial" means one or both partners don't want to acknowledge ...

_ we're forming a complex, multi-home stepfamily, so ...

_ we are at high risk of unrealistic expectations, major stress, and eventual re/divorce because of ...

_ these five factors. 

    Further common denials sound like ...

_ "We've already evaluated the special 5-6 re/marital questions, and all is well"; 

_ "Our minor kids don't have any unusual stressors that we can't handle"; and ...

_ "(any co-parenting ex mates involved) are not co-equal adult members of our new family." 

There are often other related denials and delusions.

        This set of intake questions can be brief and revealing - specially if both courtship partners participate. Each of the links leads to an educational handout that can be a post-intake intervention.

[  ] 20) "Are you each comfortable with your identity as a pre-legal (courtship) stepfamily?" Alternative: "Are you both comfortable now using your new family role titles as 'stepparent' and 'stepchild(ren)'?"

[  ] 21) "What do you feel will be different for you and your kids by forming a stepfamily, instead of a traditional biofamily?" Alternative: "Are you aware yet of the ~60 common myths that couples like you have about stepfamily life, that can cause stressful, unrealistic expectations?"

[  ] 22) "Do you each accept that the kids' other bioparent/s - and any new partners and stepkids of theirs - will be full co-parenting members of your stepfamily even well after the youngest child is living independently?"; and ...

[  ] 23) "Are you aware of _ your minor kids' set of the four common groups of concurrent tasks, and _ each child's status with their set of tasks?"; and ...

[  ] 24) "Do you know the reasons behind the Stepfamily Association of America's estimate that ~60% of couples like you ultimately re/divorce?"

        Interviewees' responses to each of these verbal or written questions will suggest further assessment/ intervention questions, if time and circumstances permit. Their non-verbal reactions to each question and all together will guide a trained interviewer to conclude whether their respective true Selves or false selves are answering.

        The second special intake focus here is how motivated this couple is to learn both stepfamily basics, and this group of life skills that they'll need fluency in to co-manage their challenges succes-sfully, long term. Most courting couples are unaware of both the value of learning, and what to learn together. Representative intake questions:

[  ]  25) "What, if anything, have you two begun to study to help you master the complex stepfamily challenges you and your kids will face?" Alternative: "Given the many roles and responsibilities you're each juggling these days, are you making time to learn what you'll need to co-create a successful stepfamily?"

        If the interviewees show interest, the interviewer can offer selected educational handouts (e.g. printed copies* of any of these Web pages) to match their unique family structure and situation.

        Toward the end of the intake session with a pre-re/wedding couple or co-parent, the interviewer will have enough information to estimate ...  

  2) What's the nurturance level of this pre-legal nuclear stepfamily ?

        As with the other four client-types, this question is vital in determining what service-level to offer the stepfamily client. This question (to the interviewer) refines to ...

"How likely is it that each co-parent in this multi-home nuclear-family system (not just the courting couple) is ...

     _ consistently led by their true Selves, and...

     _ knowledgeable enough on relationship, parenting, and stepfamily information,

so s/he can steadily provide most of these high-nurturance factors to other stepfamily members?" (answer range: "very unlikely" to "very likely.")

        I can't think of one or two simple questions to ask the interviewee/s to start answering this complex question definitively. One reason is that few co-parents know what a family "nurturance level" is. Another is that courtship and false-self distortions will influence average idealistic or defensive interviewees to say and believe - "Our ability to nurture is high enough!" Third, most courting couples un/consciously exclude co-parenting ex mates from the scope of this question, and/or they distort the nurturing abilities and motivations of any such adults.

        So the interviewer will have to estimate the client nuclear-stepfamily's nurturance level from all the interviewees' intake responses. The estimate will depend on the interviewer's - and their employer's - definition of "family nurturance level" or equivalent, and what criteria s/he uses to evaluate interviewees against that definition. Current convention is to think and talk about personal, relationship, and family "dysfunction." That equates here semantically and conceptually to "low nurturance level."

        One simple-enough intake option here is to give the interviewee(s) a copy* of this "nurturance level" checklist, and summarize what it is. Then give them each a copy* of this group nurturance/ behavioral- traits worksheet, ask them to use it to assess their nuclear stepfamily members now, and then ask ...

[  ] 26) "Which group of these traits would you say best fits the adults and kids in your multi-home pre-re/wedding stepfamily?" This question presumes both the interviewer and attending client(s) are clear and agreed on their stepfamily identity (20 above), and _ who comprises  to the client's nuclear stepfam-ily (22 above).


  3) Which service would best suit this client stepfamily's needs first?

        This assessment-treatment paradigm proposes three levels of client-family clinical service: education; counseling, and therapy. Typical pre-re/wedding stepfamily clients need all three, but at intake time they usually _ don't know the differences between these services, _ don't objectively know what services they need, and therefore _ depend on the interviewer/provider to clarify both of these for them, and help them to select what they need first. The implicit value in asking this intake question is in promoting the co-parents' process awareness.

        So this third question is really for the interviewer to ask themselves at the end of the intake. The answer flows from the information and impressions gained so far. Options are to ...

_  summarize the three service-levels to the attending client/s, 

_ tell them your evaluation ("based on all you've taught me, I'd say the best short-term mix of these three  for your family would be ..."), and to ...

_ summarize options they have to get and use these three services. 

        Pre-re/wedding clients can do much of the education they need themselves - if they're motivated. One sign of an effective intake session is at the wrap-up, the attending clients' wanting to learn appropriate information, and the interviewer providing them with relevant handouts*, and/or pointing them at credible information sources (option: a resource handout* like this). 

        An inviting intake mistake is to give printed stepfamily information to interviewees without explaining why it's relevant, and assessing their motivation to read and discuss it. A related mistake is to flood them with too much information at once. Two helpful attitudes are ...

"Stepfamily-building is a complex, many-year process - like building a comfortable multi-story home  by hand. Patience is a major asset here!"  and ...

"The more you co-parents learn, the more you'll want to learn, for your kids and your relationship's sakes. Your initial goal is to learn what you need to learn, long term"

        A successful pre-re/wedding intake will raise (or affirm) the attending clients' motivation to learn in a positive way (building, expanding, and strengthening), vs. motivating them from anxiety and guilt. The latter - specially with psychologically-wounded attending clients - can discourage their controlling false selves from further exploration and growth. That raises their long-term odds of stepfamily stress and potential re/divorce.

  4) Should this couple (and their kids and related co-parents) re/marry?

        This is the ultimate question for all pre-re/marriage intake participants. It's specially relevant for clergy being consulted for re/wedding plans and/or pastoral issues. Experienced interviewers will form an initial "gut" answer to this question from the intake process, based on their knowledge of the five re/marriage stressors, and stepfamily basics, realities, and co-parent projects. Inexperienced and para professionals risk wrong (or no) answers based on inappropriate biofamily criteria. 

        If the interviewer does form a guesstimate, s/he has several options ...

  • If s/he feels major concerns or doubts about the client re/marrying - say so, directly, summarizing the key reasons; or ...

  • Hint at the doubts, to avoid _ discouraging or scaring the co-parent/s, and _ causing them (their false selves) to abort seeking further service; or ...

  • Detach emotionally, and say "It's their lives, and their decision;" or ...

  • Ask the interviewee/s some version of this ...

[  ]  27) "Most average-special re/marrying couples like you eventually re/divorce or live in misery, against all courtship dreams and desires. Before re/wedding, few would believe this - as you may not. Are you willing to honestly research the factors that can guide you to decide whether you may be such a couple ( ... for your and your kids' sakes)?"

        Option: before, during, or at the end of the intake interview, give each partner a copy* of this "16 danger signs" checklist. Whether "danger signs" are apparent or not, use the checklist-answering experience - and a copy of the 5 re/divorce factors - to motivate the courting co-parents to do the three longer pre-re/ marriage questionnaires

        If courtship partners are controlled by needy, protective false selves, these intake interventions will probably motivate them to do the seven pre-re/wedding projects. Thoroughly done by their true Selves, the first six projects empower typical couples to realistically assess high-risk stepfamily re/marriage via the Project 7 questionnaires.


        This Web page is part of the larger topic of effective clinical assessment of typical divorced-family and stepfamily clients. The page adds and explains eight special intake questions to these 19 basic questions for courting stepfamily co-parents. The premise behind these questions is that each of the five client-types has unique attributes that shape the criteria for effective intake (first contact) interviews. 

        Depending on the first-contact context (e.g. phone or in person, self-motivated, ambivalent, or "resistant" client), and the participants' attitudes and needs (motivations), most of these 27 intake questions can gain clinical information and raise clients' awareness and motivation.

        Critical elements of intake interviews with courting stepfamily (type 2) clients are ... 

  • _ the interviewer's definition of "who's the client - the co-parent couple, or everyone in their multi-home nuclear stepfamily?" (the latter is better); and ... 

  • _ whether the mutual client-provider goal is long-term re/divorce prevention, or a set of short-term problem-focused tasks; (the former is better) and ...

  • the interviewer's stepfamily _ knowledge and _ biases, if any. 

        Other first-contact Web pages outline special intake questions for divorcing biofamily (type 1) clients, and re/married stepfamily (types 3 - 5) clients.

        Continue by reviewing intake questions specifically for three kinds of re/married stepfamily clients, and/or mulling ideas on intake options and outcomes

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Updated September 30, 2015