Toward effective service to persons, couples, and low-nurturance families

Overview: Effective Clinical Work with
 Courting-stepfamily Clients
- p. 1 of 2

Key assessment, intervention, and clinician variables

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


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        This is one of a series of articles for human-service professionals overviewing an experience-based clinical assessment-intervention model for six types of divorcing family and stepfamily clients. The types correspond to phases of the normal stepfamily developmental cycle.

        This article outlines key elements of effective systemic work with the second type: courting (pre-commitment) stepfamilies. Related articles provide more detail on key assessment and intervention topics. This series of non-profit articles is richly interlinked with informational popups (not ads) and other articles, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker.

        Pause and reflect: why are you reading this - what do you need?

        This two-page overview covers...

Links in each section leads to more detail.

Background Reading

        Read these first to get the most from this article:

  • The introduction to this clinical series,

  • Scan the series index and this glossary; and read...

  • These key premises that underlie these articles for professionals, and...

  • Read this overview of the clinical model on which this article and series is based; and...

  • This overview of the three levels of typical systemic "problems;"

  • Clinical requisites for working effectively with these complex multi-problem client families. A primary requisite is that your true Self (capital "S") be steadily guiding your personality as you read and reflect. Is it?

  • Common needs that courting partners seek to fill via their relationship;

  • Overviews of five common stepfamily hazards, and 12 Projects that co-parents can work at together to protect themselves and their kids from the hazards.

  • This introduction to effective clinical assessment of multi-problem, low-nurturance family systems, and read...

  • These three steps anyone can take to effectively break the prevalent [wounds + unawareness] cycle and prevent (re)divorce.

        If you know a courting stepfamily, keep them in mind as you read this. One way of learning from this article is to reflect as you read on (a) how each premise here compares with what you now believe, and (b) what it would mean to you and your co-workers if you shifted your beliefs?.


        This article proposes that a typical "courting stepfamily" is a normal multi-home human system which includes...

  • One or more co-parent-couples who are dating "seriously" after one or more divorces or prior-mate deaths. The couple may or may not be cohabiting and/or formally engaged; and...

  • One or more dead or living, minor or grown biological, adopted, or foster children from one or more prior relationships; and...

  • All related active and passive adult nurturers of each child, including each former ("ex") mate and their biological and legal relatives and any new partners and stepkids,

       Effective clinical service means "helping courting co-parent couples and their supporters (a) learn factual stepfamily basics, (b) motivating partners to assess themselves and each other honestly for five possible hazards, and to (c) thoughtfully make three wise commitment decisions to avoid probable psychological or legal re/divorce.

 Perspective on These Clients

        In some ways, courting-stepfamily clients are the same as all family systems. They may also be unique structurally and dynamically in over 60 ways. Study this overview of how typical stepfamilies develop compared to average intact ("traditional") biofamilies. Then consider how likely it is that typical courting co-parents and their suppor-ters don't know (a) most of what you learned, and (b) what that can mean to them and their kids if they co-commit.

        Typical needy, love-entranced courting partners read little or nothing about managing a stepfamily, and assume their life experience and love are enough to guide them safely. Result: in millennium America, it's estimated that over half ultimately re/divorce psychologically or legally within 7 to 10 years of their commitment vows.

        Couples who do seek professional counsel to prepare for re/marriage involving prior kids are usually less psychologically wounded than those who don't. Typically, they want...

  • accurate information and practical suggestions about stepfamily life ("What do we need to know?") , and/or...

  • help in solving some current (surface) relationship problems, like...

    • post-divorce conflicts with kids and/or with a "difficult" ex mate or relative,

    • budding stress between prospective stepparents and stepkids and/or stepsiblings, and/or...

    • confusion about appropriate stepfamily roles, norms, names, and membership.

        All stepfamily co-parents and their kids and supporters need accurate education. Clinicians need to constructively emphasize the real risk of eventual re/divorce, and the couple's need to work patiently together on seven Lessons before committing to form or join a stepfamily. Few suitors want to hear or believe that the five re/marital hazards and high risk of re/divorce applies to them and their kids. 

       The powerful new-romance traits of idealism, optimism, excitement, hope, and reality distortions characterize these type-3 client couples. Typical  partners are significantly- wounded survivors of low-nurturance childhoods, and aren't aware of being often dominated by a protective false self.

        Many courting couples will c/overtly resist accepting (a) their identity as a stepfamily, (b) who comprises it, and (c) their identity's implications. Because they don't know what they need to know, typical partners won't know what questions to ask. They will often discount or ignore relevant stepfamily realities and danger signs, and/or vow to study stepfamily information and never do so.

Key Clinical Targets

      Three main clinical goals should shape assessment and intervention strategies with average courting-stepfamily clients...

  • breaking protective discounts and denials of false-self wounds and stepfamily hazards,

  • motivating couples to want to make three informed courtship-commitment decisions, and...

  • providing appropriate verbal and printed education and referrals.

To accomplish this, clinicians and supervisors, consultants, and/or case managers need these requisites.  Then they need to make these...

Primary Assessments

        Clinicians need to learn several basic things about these client couples in order to help them achieve the goals above. This learning begins in the intake process, and continues across several clinical sessions:

  • Do all co-parents and key relatives and supporters fully accept (a) their stepfamily identity now, and (b) what that identity means?

  • Who comprises their multi-generation nuclear and extended stepfamilies, and do the partners fully agree on this?

  • (a) How wounded is each partner and each co-parenting ex mate (low - moderate - high), and (b) how aware is each of these adults of these wounds and what they mean?

  • How aware is each client co-parent of...

    • stepfamily basics and realities, including the five hazards they face, and these common related stressors;

    • effective communication and problem-solving skills, - specially with values and loyalty conflicts and associated relationship triangles;

    • healthy grieving basics and attitudes, including how and why to assess for incomplete or blocked grief in their family members;

    • typical child-development and family-adjustment needs, and family-nurturance requisites;

    • how to identify and reduce any significant co-parenting barriers between co-parenting ex mates and/or relatives,

    • each partner's (a) main relationship needs and (b) real (vs. ideal) priorities; and...

    • couple and stepfamily strengths.

The results of this multi-topic assessment will determine...

Intervention Options

        Effective interventions with courting co-parents and supporters aim to motivate them to (a) raise their family nurturance level, and (b) reduce the long-term risk of eventual re/divorce by honestly assessing whether they're committing to the right people, for the right reasons, at the right time.

        Restated: effective interventions will motivate client couples to commit to working patiently together on these self-improvement Lessons before exchanging vows.

        The keystone intervention with all these clients is to (a) inform them of psychological wounds and the wounds' personal and family consequences, and then to (b) motivate each co-parent to assess themselves, their partner, and other family co-parents and key supporters for significant wounds. The second most important assessment is each partner's current real (vs. "proper") priorities.

        If needy courting couples' don't realize (or admit) the stepfamily conflicts and stress that they're heading towards, initial clinical goals are...

        1)  Interest the couple in "custom education" or a "pre-re/marriage checkup.Custom means learn this unique family's needs and circumstances, and tailor educational information and suggestions to fit them. This intervention summarizes four key points, perhaps augmented with related handouts: (a) the five common remarital hazards, (b) the 7 self-improvement Lessons, (c) basic stepfamily facts, and (d) a sample stepfamily genogram.

        This core intervention should include some version of these points:

  • "One (or both) of you has one or more existing kids with a prior partner. By dating each other exclusively," you're considering whether to co-create a normal stepfamily together.

  • "Paradoxically, typical stepfamilies like yours are the same as intact biofamilies and different from them in over 60 ways. These differences always cause complex role and relationship stress-ors that most co-parents have little or no experience with - like loyalty, family membership, and biofamily-merger conflicts. Also, typical stepkids like yours can have over 50 concurrent develop-mental and adjustment needs they need informed adult help with.

  • Many researchers estimate that over half of American couples just like you ultimately re/divorce legally or psychologically. The impact of divorcing a second time on typical kids and adults is profound. Would you be interested in a few educational sessions to learn whether you're at risk of this and how to guard against it?

        If the answer nets out to "no," then offer selected educational handouts and stepfamily resources, and suggest meeting later. If the partners say "yes we're interested," then agree on one or more educational meetings for the couple.

        Better: invite all three or more related co-parents. If the other adults can't or won't attend, suggest the attending clients inform the other adults what they're doing and why, and offer them copies of handouts - as co-parenting teammates, not adversaries or critics.

      Intervention 2)  Alert partners to expect their custom education will probably evoke some confusion, anxieties, and disagreements. Affirm your intention to keep everyone focused on learning (a) key stepfamily realities and protections, and (b) effective problem resolution. Option: metaphorically describe the custom education as a "safari" into new stepfamily territory. 

        3)  Motivate the couple to adopt and keep (a) a long-range viewpoint (e.g. the next 20 years), and (b) the open mind and curiosity of a student. Emphasize that typical stepfamilies take over five years to merge and stabilize their three or more multi-generational biofamilies after co-commitment, and how different stepfamilies are from typical "traditional" biofamilies.

        Encourage courting couples to accept that despite prior experience and knowledge, (a) they have much to learn, and (b) self-education should be  a high ongoing, shared priority among all their stepfamily adults and kids.

        Motivational interventions may include... 

  • Overviewing the five stepfamily stressors ("the problem"), and the related 7 Lessons ("the solu-tion"). Ask the couple's reaction, emphasizing that their biofamily experience is often not a reliable guide deciding if these hazards apply to them or to solving unique stepfamily problems.

  • Before or during the first education meeting, ask the couple to review and discuss (a) these 16 courtship danger signs, and (b) this self-improvement marriage-evaluation course. Discuss their reactions - specially which factors brought up the most concern or "interest" (anxiety). Affirm and normalize their courtship idealism and stepfamily unawareness.

  • Invite the couple to review some version of these minor kids' typical developmental and family-adjustment needs. Expect partners to be startled and perhaps anxious or skeptical, irritated, and "resistant" (scared). Reassure them that once informed of these needs, co-parents and family supporters can patiently help each other and their kids fill these (and related adult) needs over a span of years

       Option - define (a) needs as normal emotional and physical discomforts, and (b) nur-turance as "filling someone's needs." Then propose that co-parent knowledge and efforts to identify and fill everyone's needs will determine the nurturance level of their homes and family. 

        As you teach these things, be alert for the bioparent feeling significant divorce-related guilt, and the potential stepparent/s feeling anxious and/or overwhelmed - e.g. "Now that you've reviewed these many topics, how do you (each) feel? Where do your minds go?"  Normalize any disbelief, guilt, and anxiety as healthy reactions. If you sense significant unresolved guilt, see this for intervention options.

        Other ways of motivating co-parent clients towards ongoing self-education, greater stepfamily awareness, and making wise co-commitment decisions are...

  • Ask each partner to review a copy of this quiz of life skills and knowledge needed for long-term relationship and stepfamily success. Then discuss and relate their reactions to the purpose of the custom-education meetings; and/or...

  • Ask partners to review this summary of ~ 30 typical stepfamily-adjustment tasks that they'll need to patiently help their family members with; and/or...

  • Review these 16 things that their stepfamily members will have to patiently merge and stabilize over several years, noting that this process causes many confusions and conflicts;

  • Review these primary problems typical stepfamily members encounter, and ask if couples are confident of how to handle their version of the problems effectively; and...

  • Invite each co-parent to read this example of a real multi-home stepfamily. Note that while the details are different, the stressors are probably the same ones the client couple and their relatives will encounter - like loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles.

        After building the clients' interest in long-term stepfamily self-education, the intervention focus shifts to selectively providing, discussing, and implementing needed knowledge. 

Continue this overview of using this clinical model with typical courting stepfamily (type 2) co-parents. Do you need a stretch break first?

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Updated September 30, 2015