Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily
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Mapping Special Occasions, and
Using Your Structural Maps
- p. 4 of 5

Harvest the value from your map

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council


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The Web address of this 5-page article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/map.htm

        This page continues the outline of how to draw your structural maps. After drawing adults and kids, the co-parenting responsibility line, and communication symbols...

2)  Add Communication Symbols ...

        Once you’ve placed each resident in their main emotional position in your home’s structure, focus on whether each regular resident can communicate effectively or not in this (non-visitation) emotional co-parenting-home's structure. Guidelines: Think first about the adult couples (hopefully) above the co-parenting line: does each adult usually feel:

  • safe enough to say clearly and honestly what they currently feel, and need or want?

  • respectfully listened to (vs. agreed with)?

  • If these both are true, are these people able to discuss and really resolve mutual conflicts often enough (in your opinion)?

        If they - or any two people on your diagram - can meet these three conditions, it’s likely that they have generally effective ("open") verbal communications. If they often don’t meet these three conditions, draw a vertical line between them to symbolize a communications block. Use color for emphasis. If you're unsure, use "?"

        If you feel a major trait of your home is that co-parents and kids can’t meet these three conditions regularly (now), make the main horizontal co-parenting line solid. Who’s responsible for removing any verbal communication blocks in your home? See co-parent Project 4 for help.

        By the way, ponder whether you feel prayer or meditation is significant communication with important spiritual and absent members of your home. Also consider phone, e-mail, and written-letter patterns of communication - and their absences. They all count!

3) Add Coalitions and Antagonisms

        Now you have members of your home located, and family verbal communication factors symbolized. A final aspect of your home’s emotional structure to map are any specially intense emotional polarizations between certain members. These can be unusually strong bonds between adults and/or kids, like (Ann+Ed). Note such regular alliances by circling the partners, using "+", or another clear notation.

        Sadly, dislikes, distrusts, rejections, indifferences, and antagonisms (barriers) are common in and between average stepfamily homes. Be honest about acknowledging any such relationships regularly affecting your home’s basic emotional climate now (map what is, so you can problem-solve!). Use "lightning" lines ( www ), slashes ( // ), "x"s, or any other symbols to show conflicted members - e.g. Al>>||<<Jill. Needless to say, such relationships rarely feature effective verbal communications…


4) Add Home Boundaries

        As a final option, ask yourself "what’s the unspoken rule that currently governs this home: are new people, customs, and ideas usually welcome here? Do the adults’ invite friends and relatives to visit fairly often? Are the kids’ friends consistently welcome, and do they feel comfortable visiting this home? Are the people in this home usually interested in the world, and in different customs, beliefs, and new ideas? Are our adults selectively open with some trusted people in sharing important aspects of our family and household life?

        If you feel most of these are true, then the emotional and social "boundaries" of this home are open. Draw a dashed square or circle around everyone in the home to symbolize this. This implies that someone in the home sets these open boundaries (limits). Who?

        If there were no boundaries, all kinds of other kids and adults would be free to enter the home, use the resources there, and leave when they wanted. Strangers, old lovers, remote kin, would come and go without comment. There would be no sense of privacy. If the adults in this house freely told acquaintances or strangers intimate details of their relationships and home life - and encouraged the kids to do the same - the home would have no "container" - no "us-ness". Such homes are often very low nurturance (dysfunctional).

        The alternate condition is, the adults silently or openly decree that new people, ideas, and beliefs are not to be trusted, and aren’t welcome to cross the threshold. Kids are told rigidly who they can invite in or be with. It’s clear that "people who act and believe differently (than we do) are wrong, untrustworthy, or bad."

        Such distrusting adults often rigidly enforce the rule "Our family’s affairs are nobody else’s business - we don’t talk about ourselves with others!" Not freely describing yourselves as one of a set of linked stepfamily homes is a form of this. Such homes may be said to have closed emotional and social boundaries. If your home often seems to be like that, draw a solid circle or rectangle around it.

        When adults feel an unusually high need for personal and household privacy, the prevailing emotional climate inside their home is often tension, anxiety, guilt, distrust, and repressed anger. Over time, this infuses the personalities and attitudes of any resident minor kids.

        Where post-divorce distrusts and wounds haven’t really healed in and between ex mates, the adults often unconsciously erect rigid emotional boundaries between their homes. Their kids often feel caught in the middle. Insecure stepparents can promote similar distrusts and boundaries - and/or can feel increasingly conflicted and stressed because of them.

5) Final check

        Look at the symbols and relationships you’ve created to show your home’s (non-visitation) emotional structure. Stand in the imaginary shoes of each of your regular residents, one at a time. Would they agree that they and the other members seem to fit where you’ve mapped them? If you’re unsure, sketch some other combinations, and see how they feel. Come back in an hour or several days, and scan again. Evolve your best fit. Avoid trying to be perfect! When you're satisfied enough...

6)  Add Other Co-parents’ Homes

        Now, on the same page, repeat the same diagramming process you’ve just done, with all regular adult and child residents in the household of each of your co-parenting partners. Include the home of each living co-parent emotionally important to each of your minor bio and stepchildren - including bioparents you rarely hear from.

        These adults do help shape the emotional life and welfare of their biokids, so they affect the emotional climate in your home and re/marriage. Recall - you haven’t begun mapping your homes during child visitations yet…

        Do the same assessments and notations for special (spiritual, unborn, dead, absent, and professional) members; significant communications blocks; key relationship alliances, exclusions, and oppositions; and social and emotional boundaries. Take your time mapping each home: the more time you take, the more awareness you’ll harvest.

        When you’ve finished this set of diagrams, notice your thoughts, and how you feel. Write about these, without editing anything. See what happens.

  Special Variations

        You’ve finished your baseline multi-home structural maps now. The next step is to evolve other structural maps for some special conditions. These include:

        Typical intact (1-home) biofamilies don’t experience the first two of these. When average stepfamily homes experience any of these four, they usually undergo major structural (role and relationship) changes. Members typically feel extra stressed - or relieved, if they gain privacy and quiet.

        If the co-parents don’t all co-operate, communicate, and try to problem-solve together, these stressful shifts from the baseline emotional structures of their homes usually corrodes re/marriages and stunts stepfamily bonding, over time.

        Let’s look briefly at each of these four special situations …

1) Child Visitations

        When stepkids go to see or stay with their other bioparent, the emotional structure of both the sending and receiving homes change. The network of emotional roles, priorities, activities, and relationships within each household shift - either immediately, or as time goes on. Who’s "in charge" of each home ("above the line") may change a little or a lot.

        Resident kids may be "demoted" in importance - or pleased with new co-equal playmates. Stepparents may feel ignored and resentful, as their bioparent mate focuses on their visiting biokid/s (or dumps them on the stepparent!). Conflicts and chaos may erupt "endlessly" over child discipline styles, values, and preferences.

        Stepparents and stepsibs may feel "invaded" by visiting kids, while the visitors feel like strangers and invaders. Communication blocks, alliances, and rejections can bloom quickly, or with time. Insecurities can activate, so some members demote themselves in the household structure.

        Child and/or adult scapegoats may appear. Certain adults or kids may withdraw emotionally or physically - or be rejected. These all may be triggered, amplified, or healed by phone calls with people remaining in the sending home.

        Structural shifts in sending and receiving homes may differ between weekend visitations, week-long vacations together, and summer-long visitations. If any period of visitation time includes birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays, unique home restructurings may occur.

        Depending on how many related homes you have, how many dependent minor kids, and how their various visitation schedules overlap and interact, you may have one or several different structural scenarios to map here.

        Experiment, using the same symbols and conventions you used for your non-visitation diagrams. Try for attitudes of curiosity and wonder, vs. blame or defensiveness. Once again - these maps are meant to be learning tools, not weapons.

2)  Child-$upport Times

        Another stepfamily factor that can cause significant shifts in both sending and receiving homes’ emotional structures is money. The basic issue is whether (some) co-parents and kids are locally conflicted or not over the amount, timeliness, usage, attached conditions, and "fairness" of child support payments. If payments are late, or amounts disputed, co-parents can fight in and between homes, and minor kids can be used as spies, weapons, threat-bearers, or victims.

        Some stepfamilies have little or no conflict over these, while others without effective co-parental leadership and problem-solving are increasingly stressed. Bio and step relatives can get polarized and become involved. Such reactions may happen rhythmically every month, or just occasionally - e.g. when special expenses arise, insurance coverage changes, or new wills are made.

        Some stepfamily homes have both incoming and outgoing child support - at different times of the month, or the same. Other homes have only a one-way flow. Some co-parents have powerful, unfinished divorce-era stressors attached to child-support payments due and received, so the stress cycles (and restructurings) that arise are about more than just current responsibilities and amounts.

        One at a time, think of each child in your multi-home stepfamily for whom child-support is due and/or paid. Considering the variables above, experiment with different structural maps of both sending and receiving homes, starting with yours, when funds are due and received. What do you discover? Pay special attention to whether communication blocks appear within and/or between your homes, and whether certain family members withdraw, conflict, and/or shift positions above or below the co-parent-responsibility line.

        Try journaling about your thoughts and feelings, as you focus on these particular stepfamily restructurings. If you have few or no structural changes from child-support stressors - congratulations (or - you’re in major denial)!

3) Celebrations

        Other kinds of events that can cause major emotional step-home emotional restructurings are regular and special celebrations, and unique or cyclic relationship conflicts.

        National and ethnic holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, graduations, retirements, births and Christenings or Bar or Bas Mitzvahs, moving out of state, and the like are usually emotionally-charged extended-stepfamily events. The degree of emotional importance varies by family member, custom, and household.

        Typical new stepfamilies normally have many unclear and conflicting values and priorities - and poor communications - over "who’s to do what, when?" at these special times. Therefore, their household emotional structures commonly shift (perhaps chaotically), until "regular life" resumes.

        One of the most likely stepfamily stress-triggers at these times is if some members haven’t yet reached a stable consensus on "Who are we as a family?" (Lesson 7) Depending on the nature and impact of the celebration, sometimes the structural shifts (e.g. relationship rejections and exclusions) become permanent.

        It often takes four or more years of annual celebration and vacation cycles after re/marriage to begin to forge clear, stable expectations in and among all co-parenting homes about "Who’s to do what, when?" Our society provides no clear guidelines here for co-parents and relatives - and professionals - yet.

        Another factor that can increase the structural impact of celebrations is whether the celebrating kids and grownups have grieved prior family and personal losses well enough. If they haven’t, stepfamily celebrations tend to be more painful, stressful, and confusing. The more people who are blocked in their grief, the greater the stepfamily emotional polarizing.

4) Conflicts

        The other major class of events that trigger big emotional restructurings of related step-homes is one-time and recurring conflicts between co-parents, and/or stepparents and stepkids. Typical kinds of stepfamily conflicts that often cause big stepfamily relationship-shifts are:

Co-parental court battles over child visitation, custody, and/or financial support. Legal battles can also erupt over enforcing or changing prior parenting agreements between divorced bioparents. These legal agreements are often forged in times of intense upset and conflict, and usually don’t anticipate or fit multi-home stepfamily realities;

Stepchild adoptions (by stepparents), co-parents’ wills and estate plans, and disagreements over insurance-coverage responsibilities and amounts;

Unresolved emotional cutoffs (unhealed hurts and angers, and communication stoppages) among former in-laws or bio-kin; and …

Co-parental loyalty conflicts. These are intense, ongoing values disagreements between bioparents and stepparents living together over the primacy of their relationship. When a bioparent can’t find compromises, and can’t spontaneously put their re/marriage before their biokids most times, stepparents grow increasingly disillusioned and resentful, withdraw or confront, and may ultimately find a way to cause re/divorce, if their partner won’t change.

        Loyalty conflicts almost always exist with - or cause - stressful (persecutor - victim - rescuer) relationship triangles. If persistent or severe, specially if one or more of the people involved is dominated by a false self, these can become major re/divorce threats. 

        The keys to solving these predictable step-home and stepfamily restructuring triggers are co- par-ents’ motivation, knowledge and building effective problem-solving skills together.

        Think about recurring specific holidays that emotionally affect your home and whole stepfamily. Using the symbols and conventions above, sketch structural diagrams for all involved co-parental homes that fit each of these times. Then review the list of typical step-stressors above. List any "regular" stres-sors in your and/or other co-parents’ homes, and map your homes’ emotional structures when those con-flicts are at their peak (in your opinion).

        You've worked hard to build your maps! Now let's focus on …

  Using Your Structural Maps

        Once you’ve invested time and energy to evolve these maps of your stepfamily homes - what can you do with them? Some options:

        Ask at least your co-parenting partner/s to evolve their own sets of structural maps. Then compare and discuss them co-operatively, vs. judgmentally or defensively. You’re all on new ground here, so give yourselves permission to not be perfect family leaders right off the bat. Go for progress, not perfection!

        Consider explaining these mapping symbols and conventions to your older kids - or simplified versions to younger ones. Have them draw certain structural maps (like the "baseline" and "visitation" homes) - for exploration and creative learning. If your kids trust that you and other members won’t criticize or reject their renditions, their creativity and insight will teach you valuable information, and give you all food for helpful discussions.

        Show your structural maps to selected relatives - and/or any professionals (e.g. counselors) you’re using - to enhance their awareness of your stepfamily homes, relationships, and dynamics. Their constructive feedback can also add rich perspective (and some worthy reality checks) to your perception of your stepfamily’s structures. Like genograms, these structural maps are powerful visual teaching tools for people who aren’t used to "seeing" stepfamilies as complex multi-home, multi-parent systems.

        Consider adding some structural-mapping terms to the way you all discuss (and problem- solve) events in your home/s. For example, after mapping and discussion, some families start saying things like "S/He’s above (or below) the line," and "there’s a communication wall between Jack and Nita," as non-blaming ways of giving family feedback. If all members understand what enmeshment, alliances, and exclusions are (in family-structure context), you all have clearer language and more problem-solving tools together.

        Re-do these maps on your anniversaries without looking at the old diagrams. Then compare old and new versions to see what’s changed - and what more you want to change.

        If you’re ever in a support group for stepfamily co-parents, consider having everyone make genograms and structural maps. Then use them, and the mapping process, as rich discussion topics together.

        Pause, breathe, and recall why you used this worksheet. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or "someone else"?

Continue with some "thought provokers" about your stepfamily homes' several structures and strengths.


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Updated  September 29, 2015