Effective clinical interventions with new and troubled stepfamilies

Key Project-9 Interventions

Help stepfamily co-parents co-manage
an effective biofamily-merger plan
- p. 2 of 2

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this two-page article is http://sfhelp.org/pro/rx/merge.htm

Continued - this page outlines four more basic Project-9 (biofamily-merger) interventions with typical courting and committed stepfamily clients, using this clinical model. Recall that the & symbol indicates a printable handout from this site to explain and illustrate the concept.

Intervention 9-7)  Explain, illustrate, and discuss the concept of loyalty conflicts, and relate it to the clients' merger plan.

        Why? Adults and kids in new stepfamilies have pre-existing bonds and loyalties to their genetic relatives and (some) in-laws and key friends. They usually have had little or no time to get to know their new stepfamily members, and start to value and bond with them.

        Stepfamily structure and realities -  including the complex merger of three or more multi-generational biofamilies - guarantee that all adults and kids will have to repeatedly demonstrate who they're most loyal to - for many years.

        This reflexive ranking inexorably causes escalating mixes of hurt, resentments, anger, frustration, pretenses, denials ("I am not putting my kids before our marriage!", self-doubt, and often major guilts, because typical family members...

  • are unaware of significant false-self dominance and wounds and what they mean,

  • don't understand and/or genuinely accept stepfamily realities (Projects 3 and 4), and...

  • average adults and their lay and professional supporters don't know how to identify, validate, and resolve loyalty conflicts effectively.

The personal and systemic stress from these conflicts is usually amplified by psychological wounds + ignorance of effective communication skills + adults' inability to identify and resolve simultaneous, related values conflicts (intervention 9-6) and relationship triangles (9-8) as stepfamily teammates vs. competitors.

  • Watch for the clients to describe a loyalty conflict. (Don't expect them to use that term). If appropriate, (a) affirm that they - like most normal stepfamilies - have a potentially toxic, common  loyalty (or priority or inclusion) conflict, and (b) ask if the adult/s are open to learning about how to resolve them effectively.

  • When they are, explain and illustrate the concept, and some or most common traits of stepfamily loyalty conflicts &. Emphasize (a) their close ties to values conflicts (intervention 9-6) and relationship triangles (9-8 below), and (b) the inevitability of all three stressors happening frequently n and between family-members' homes as kids and adults merge their biofamilies over many years (Lesson 7).

  • Ask the clients their reaction to the concept, and whether they (a) think their stepfamily members are - or may be - significantly stressed by loyalty conflicts, and (b) if their adults have an effective strategy to resolve them yet.

  • Whatever they answer, ask each mate to describe what they feel their partner's current 4-5 top life priorities have been recently, as judged by their actions, not their words. Then ask the other partner to describe their own priorities, and compare what the mates perceive without judgment.

    • If both partners usually rank their wholistic health and integrity first, their primary relationship second, and all else third except in emergencies, affirm and congratulate them on what they're modeling for their minor kids and others. Continue with the interventions below.

    • If either partner ranks anything else above the mates' primary relationship (e.g. one or more kids' welfare), propose (a) their false selves may have made unwise commitment choices, and (b) this ranking weakens their primary relationship and romotes eventual psychological and legal re/divorce.

    • Emphasize that loyalty conflicts force co-parents and kids to demonstrate their real priorities, regardless of what they say.

    If clients dispute or discount this, assume protective false-selves control them, and consider confronting them with that and switching to Lesson-1 interventions. Options -

    • remind the adults of the five hazards they and their descendents probably face, and/or...

    • use the Serenity Prayer,  and...

    • "plant seeds" about accumulating stress from denied psychological wounds + ranking health and the committed relationship below kids' or others' welfare (a major values conflict).

  • Pass out and discuss a copy of this article (or equivalent), and invite client adults to tailor the ideas in it to help form a viable strategy for avoiding or resolving loyalty conflicts in their stepfamily. Compare and contrast the proposed solution with the way the adults have been reacting to these conflicts recently, and explore their normal outcomes (needs met / needs not met).

9-8)  Explain, illustrate, and discuss the concept of relationship triangles, and relate this to the merger plan.

        Why? The Persecutor - Victim - Rescuer (PVR) relationship triangle first identified by Dr. Steven Karpman is a universal dynamic in all human groups. It is inherently divisive and stressful because it polarizes the people whose subselves unconsciously take these roles into adversaries rather than teammates.

        Most lay and many professional adults are unaware of these triangles or how to avoid or eliminate them. Implication - few kids enter adulthood with effective strategies to avoid or manage these triangles well in their relationships, and the problem is spreading in our culture.

        PVR triangles are always triggered by conflicts over values (9-6), family loyalties, (9-7), and other relationship problems that are common in average low-nurturance groups. If adults aren't aware of how to spot and dissolve them (our social norm), triangles compound the antagonism and intensity of other rela-tionship stressors by causing all three people give and get 1-up or 1-down R(espect) messages as they interact.

        It's common for several triangles to co-exist, further blocking effective problem-solving and teamwork until they're dissolved one at a time. Adult wounds and ignorance of effective-communication basics and skills (Lesson 2) further compound the stress among all three people and their family. For more perspective on triangles, see this.

  • Become thoroughly familiar with how values and loyalty conflicts and PVR triangles affect each other, and assess clients' knowledge of all three dynamics early in the work.

  • Watch for clients to describe a significant family relationship triangle, and decide if it's appropriate to refocus on teaching them how to recognize, discuss, and manage these pervasive systemic stressors. When it is...

  • Ask (a) if client adults are aware of these triangles, and (b) know what to do about them. (Expect "No," and normalize this to minimize unwarranted guilt and shame). Then explain and illustrate triangles, using the client's example. Ask if the concept makes sense, and if clients see why triangles would be divisive and stressful. Option - provide a copy of this & or an equivalent educational handout.

  • Ask clients (a) if they can name several other recent instances of stressful triangles in and between their related homes, and (b) to identify which members were in which of the three roles in each example. Note if several triangles existed at once, and whether members held different roles in each of them. ("Bill was in the Persecutor role in this triangle, and in the Victim role in that  one.")

  • Propose that normal adults and kids take on these roles unconsciously, and are unaware, not "bad," "dumb," or "wrong" for doing so. If clients don't agree, suspect false-selves are in control, and note that. Option - ask adult clients to recall how their childhood and perhaps first-marriage families reacted to these triangles.

  • Review the concept of current primary needs and the dig-down technique of identifying personal needs as appropriate, and describe how these relate to dissolving triangles

  • Help clients evolve words and phrases they can use to identify, discuss, and dissolve relationship triangles. Then role play using these in recent triangles, and note the outcomes. 

9-9)  Invite discussion of how client adults can teach these concepts to other family members - specially kids.

        Why?

 

9-10)  Ask clients to identify (a) where their multi-generational (extended) stepfamily is in their merger process, (b) whether there are any significant hindrances to their progress, and (c) explore options for effectively reducing such hindrances.

        Why?

 

Recap

        This two-page article is part of a series describing effective clinical interventions with typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients using this experience-based model. This related article provides basic perspective on effective interventions.

        This article outlines 10 basic interventions aiming to help informed client adults overcome barriers to evolving and implementing an effective biofamily-merger plan together. Any client crises need to be stabil-ized before using these interventions. Intervention selection builds on (a) clinicians having these requisites, and (b) their knowledgeable assessment of client awareness of stepfamily basics and common hazards, and how to merge their biofamilies successfully while balancing many other concurrent needs and tasks.

        Typical client adults will not have researched and discussed their complex biofamily-merger pro-cess, and/or will discount its stressful complexity. So clinicians need to proactively...

  • alert clients to this vital part of building and maintaining a successful stepfamily, and...

  • motivate and guide them toward wanting to evolve an effective, consensual merger plan, and...

  • help each other stay balanced as they do this, their other concurrent tasks and "regular life."

        Success with these Project-9 interventions requires (a) the clinician and client co-parents usually being guided by their true Selves, and clients (b) fully accepting their stepfamily identity and what it means - including their vulnerability to these five hazards, and (c) being steadily motivated to help each other learn and practice effective-communication basics and skills as mutually-respectful teammates.

        These Project-9 interventions are most effective when (a) combined with interventions 9-7 (loyalty conflicts) and 9-8 (resolving relationship triangles), and (b) refreshed often, as the clinical work progresses.

        Pause and reflect - do these interventions and the reasons for them make sense to you?  If so, is there anything in the way of your weaving them into your working with these clients? If not, (a) which of your subselves are judging these interventions, and (b) what do they feel are more effective alternatives?

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Updated April 30, 2013