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This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles
on how to evolve a
The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce
notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both
bioparents, or any of the
three or more
related stepparents and bio-parents co-managing a multi-home nuclear
To gain perspective on what you're about to read, view this brief YouTube
video about forming a stepfamily:
As a veteran family-systems therapist,
I have specialized in working with stepfamilies since 1981.
stepfamily is unique,
they all exhibit basic themes. This example distills common elements of hundreds of complex
stepfamily stories that I've heard. The "McLean-Tilmon-Cohen" clan is one of almost 100 different
types of multi-home nuclear stepfamily, with five co-parents and
five minor kids living in four related homes. Their full story could easily
fill a book.
illustrates typical impacts of five
caused by the widespread [wounds + unawareness]
cycle. It also illustrates this typical
remarried couple’s reaction to early-phase
stepfamily education and therapy. The names here are fictitious, but the
people and their situation are real.
This example assumes you're familiar with...
the intro to this nonprofit Website and the
To help place the people in this
story, study this
partial family map.
For simplicity, all 12 grandparents, and dozens of the five minor kids’
other relatives are not shown. Neither is Ted McLean’s 35-year old
"girlfriend" Tanya, the
divorcing, custodial mom of four-year-old Melissa.
More complete stepfamily genograms (diagrams) look like
Patty McLean came into my office with her biological mom Sarah Tilmon on a Saturday
morning. The slender 13-year-old had never worked with a counselor
before, though she knew her mother had gone to several for "something."
Patty had recently asked her Mom to "talk to somebody" about "something" to
do with her live-in stepfather Jack. Sarah, a vivacious, overweight,
30-something brunette, had called for her own appointment many months
She came in then because of tensions in her one-year-old remarriage to a
wonderful divorced man with two non-custodial kids of his own.
struggling with a collage of personal, parental, and remarital
"problems." She had a high school education, and worked as a
Just before she brought Patty in, Sarah
told me matter-of-factly that she
had been sexually molested at 13. She had had no
professional help in coping with the massive inner
a low-nurturance childhood and this
trauma and had caused.
As Sarah sketched her stepfamily story, it appeared that she had again
chosen a strong-willed, take-charge partner like her first husband Ted,
though Jack was not
alcoholic as Ted
seemed to be. Eventually Jack came in with
Sarah to support her getting "parenting education." He was a
chiropractor with a successful suburban practice. Jack was compact, talkative, and opinionated – righteously, at times.
forceful man in his forties, he felt he had given "his all" to his
former wife Karen and his kids. He was still angry and "mystified"
about Karen’s divorcing him and claiming "irrationally" that he
was "impossible to live with." At one point,
this earnest stepdad
said matter-of-factly that his father had deserted him and his mother when
Jack was about six.
Sarah’s second husband was adamant that his (vs. "their") new family
not a "stepfamily."He felt that
"Labels aren’t unimportant, love is!" He was there to provide
love, protection, and strong Christian male guidance to Sarah and Patty,
while being a devoted absent father to his biokids Roger and Annie, and a
responsible health professional in the community. His heart was in the right
As I learned more about their stepfamily, it became clear that Jack
save Patty and her Mom from chaos, stress, and worry. As
with many of us
survivors of low-childhood nurturance, he seemed to see his wife and
stepdaughter (and most things) in rigid, black-and-white terms. He felt that
Sarah was lovable - and
incompetent at just about everything, specially co-parenting her daughter Patty.
Right after their wedding 18 months ago, as the new "head of
the household," Jack had moved into Sarah's home and enforced a rigid code of discipline with Patty.
He felt that Sarah "was too soft" on her early-teen daughter. Jack felt
genuine concern that Patty "was headed for (some unspecified) big trouble."
contemptuous that Patty’s biofather Ted had "weaseled out" of his parental
responsibilities, leaving Jack to "clean up their
mess." He had no wish to enlist Ted as a
co-parenting teammate, despising him for having
abandoned Patty – just as Jack’s father had left him long ago. He
rarely spoke to Ted or showed any real interest in his life. Both men
steadily avoided the discomfort of recognizing each other.
Sarah seemed to be overwhelmed with Jack’s righteous, rigid forcefulness.
She had begun explaining lamely to Patty that Jack "really meant
well" - which he did! Sarah’s timid attempts to get Jack to
compromise and "be softer, and make friends" with her daughter earned
condescending monologs on "correct parenting," "it’s for
her own good!", and on Sarah’s inadequacies as a mother and wife.
Jack was completely
unaware that he was continuing a devastating pattern of
shaming which Sarah had experienced from both her
father and her first husband. I suspect this same attitude and
denial (and other
factors) had destroyed Jack’s first marriage.
It was clear to me that Sarah and Jack didn't know how to
Like many troubled couples, they were locked in a corrosive, lose-lose
values conflict over "good parenting."
Because Jack was rigid, unflinching, and "assertive" (i.e.
controlling and aggressive)
in his views, and Sarah felt poorly about herself as a person and
mother, she felt powerless, intimidated, shamed, guilty, and despairing. She
was getting increasingly angry with her husband, yet didn’t feel safe or
fully justified in expressing it.
Sarah was withdrawing emotionally and physically, which made Jack
"irritable" (i.e. hurt, uneasy, and angry).
shame-based man in major (protective) denial,
he made no apparent conscious connection
between Sarah’s emotional and physical withdrawal and his former wife’s decision to leave him.
Sarah brought Patty in to my office that Saturday because the girl was having trouble in
her new school. She had begun hinting to her Mom that she was thinking of
running away. This is a common clinical pattern:
an anxious bioparent or
concerned stepparent will initiate counseling to help a troubled child, rather than admitting and focusing on scary
I spent half an hour with Patty and her mother to invite the girl building
initial trust in me and our process. When I asked permission to meet
with Patty alone, both agreed. As soon as Sarah left the room, Patty’s
warm brown eyes filled with tears, and her mouth quivered. In escalating
gusts and sobs she told me some of her story.
We met alone several other
times, and a familiar heart-wrenching saga emerged. The early
teen felt hopeless,
overwhelmed by a set of tensions she could barely describe, let
alone cope with. She knew her mother loved her, but felt frustrated and
scornful that Sarah wouldn’t "stand up" to her domineering
stepfather and protect her from his endless lectures, rules,
criticisms, and groundings.
Part of Patty’s stepfamily pain was periodic. When her
stepsiblings Annie (13)
and Roger (11) came to visit every other weekend,
Patty always felt that Jack favored them
over her, despite his righteous, indignant denials. Annie would leave her clothes strewn around the house, and her
father never yelled at her the way he did at Patty. Jack was specially
supportive of Roger’s progress at school sports, while he alternated
between indifference to, and criticism of, Patty’s gymnastic efforts.
I asked if either of her bioparents had
explained why they divorced. She dropped her eyes and said
quietly "Well, sort of." Further gentle probing revealed that she
really wasn’t clear on why, and felt much confusion and conflict
about the stress her parent’s
divorce had brought into their lives.
said sadly that her "real" father
(Ted) really didn’t seem to
care much about her. She described several instances where he promised to attend school
parent-conferences and gymnastic meets, but never came. "He always has
excuses," she said, without emotion.
When I asked about her father’s
drinking, the slender girl looked away. "It scares me sometimes. Mom
won’t let him drive me anywhere now, because she’s scared we’ll have
an accident. That makes him real angry, because he doesn’t think he has a
problem." I asked "Do you?" Patty nodded silently, looking
Much of Patty’s story was about instances where she felt Jack was unfairly
and harshly critical "over nothing!" He often restricted her phone
calls with friends as punishment for her "bad" school grades (Bs
and Cs), cutting off her main source of human sympathy and support.
"He never listens to me," she grimaced. "When Mom tries to
argue, he just walks all over her. And she lets him!
Our life wasn’t all
that great before he came around, but I hate it now!"
I asked if there was any adult in her life who understood how she felt these
days. Patty’s long brown hair swung as she shook her head. Her only nearby
relative was her mother’s sister, who lived about 50 miles away. I asked
if there were things that got in the way of her talking honestly with her
She nodded, and again looked away. In her soft voice, the girl
eventually was able to tell me she thought her mother was miserable and
scared. "So I can’t tell her how
much I hate Jack in our life. She
has enough problems! You know, she’s already taking some pills for
depression. Then an angry part of Patty emerged: "Why did she
ever marry that dumb jerk, anyway? This is really her fault!" She began
to cry again.
Patty described sadness and frustration about her social life. "Jack
won’t let me have friends in my room. I don’t like to have them over
anyway at night, because he’s such a dork! And Mom is such a wimp!" I
asked how she got along with her stepsister and stepbrother. "Annie’s
all right, I guess. We can talk about some stuff, and we like the same
music. She feels her father’s too strict, too, but she never talks back to
him. Roger is so stuck up. He thinks he’s so great! He sucks up to Jack,
and he (Jack) just eats that up. It makes me sick!"
Patty described at some length her anguish over really liking a boy at
school, and Jack and her mother telling her he "wasn’t her kind of
boy." "What do they know about it?" she declared angrily.
"It’s my life, isn’t it?" She hinted that she was sneaking out
to be with him, "no matter what they think!" I noted silently that
Patty’s big hoop earrings, tight clothes, and overdone makeup signaled
too fast" and her apparent desperation
to attract some male approval and closeness.
I worked with this stepfamily trio individually and together for perhaps 15
sessions before the adults quit. I suggested several times it would be
helpful for Jack, Sarah, and me to meet with the three other co-parents "to
strengthen communications and
teamwork," but both partners balked for
several (surface) reasons. By coincidence or Divine intervention, Jack’s
ex-wife Karen had enrolled herself and her second husband Rick Cohen in a
co-parenting class I gave.
Over seven weeks, I sensed that they were a reasonably stable, healthy
couple who had fully accepted their stepfamily identity and were mutually
eager to learn the basics. An important factor
in their home’s stability was that Rick and his ex wife Sheila had a
relatively co-operative relationship around raising their son
Nicholas (9). They seemed to have genuinely resolved most
major issues around
their separation and
divorce and his remarriage.
Karen and Rick Cohen were respectful of Jack and Sarah and genuinely
concerned for Patty. They were unsure about what they could do for
the young teen, whom they rarely saw. Karen had learned to be firm in
setting clear co-parenting limits with Jack, on visitation, support,
and holiday issues involving Annie and Roger.
She had talked
empathically with Sarah about "how difficult" (rigid, patriarchal, and critical) Jack can
be." Karen avoided criticizing or disparaging Jack in front of their kids,
camouflaging some strong
disagreements with his personal and parenting
values and methods.
I suspect that the Tilmons (i.e. Jack) stopped consulting me because
we were getting too close to confronting what was really causing the tensions in
their home. I think Sarah and Jack each sensed subliminally that they were
heading towards redivorce, but
wounds blocked their
shared wish to reverse course.
This struggling couple and their four co-parenting partners and five minor
kids formed a classic example of the best and the worst in a normal
nuclear stepfamily. The combined power of the
five remarital hazards was clearly eroding the Tilmon’s remarriage and
home but not the Cohen’s.
My guess was that Patty McLean’s biofather
Ted and his partner Tanya were
Grown Wounded Children
(GWCs) from low-nurturance childhoods. I
never spoke with them. Ted's reportedly increasing alcohol
demonstrated a classic (futile) attempt to self-medicate from relentlessly
[Wounds + Unawareness] Cycle at Work
How was this inherited
cycle and these related
affecting the Tilmon’s home and
relationships? The full description would take book. Here’s an overview...
Unseen Psychological Wounds
As with well over 80% of the ~1,000
and stepfamily co-parents I’ve worked with since 1981, Sarah, Jack, and
(apparently) Patty’s biofather Ted seemed to be dominated by mixes of
psychological wounds: a disabled
true Self, excessive
shame. guilts, fears; major
and sometimes difficulty feeling and bonding with
(caring about) others.
Jack would have been resentful,
defensive, and threatened to hear that I saw him as badly
"wounded." If I had been frank with him about my opinion, I
believe he’d have quit therapy sooner than he did. He would have gravely agreed
that Ted and Sarah "had major problems." Sarah acknowledged
(some of) her inner wounds, but was bewildered about what to
do about them. What wounds?
dominated by excessively shamed, guilty, and scared
(plural) and their
Guardian subselves. Her sexual
molestation at 13, lack of education and other early-nurturance
deprivations, and her
all combined to give parts of her personality the certainty that she was a
tainted, disgusting, stupid, inept, bad female person.
This had many
impacts on her remarriage and her parenting. One impact was that Sarah felt the only way she could merit love and support
from a man was through subservience and sexual cooperation. That fit fine for Jack, who needed a dependant, compliant,
desirable woman partner to "fix," so he could feel
"good" and avoid looking honestly at himself.
ruling subselves were torn between compulsively eating fats and sugars
("comfort foods") to temporarily
numb her ceaseless
inner pain, and enduring Jack’s (and her own) ridiculing her
extra 50 pounds and "looking like a pig." Her shame, fears, and
other wounds locked her into a verbally-abusive (shaming) marriage by
crippling any belief that she could earn enough to support her and Patty
without Jack’s income.
She (her ruling subselves) felt trapped, inadequate, confused, depressed,
hurt, angry, and increasingly unhappy. This steadily hindered Patty from
trying to fill her complex teen-development and family-adjustment
Jack was clearly a
shame-based Grown Wounded Child
(GWC) too. Though a licensed, competent health-care provider, he
was in classic protective denial of his
psychological wounds and their major
him, Sarah, and all three stepfamily kids.
He had camouflaged his
chaos and pain by earning the public image of a successful,
competent chiropractor, and a devoted, non-custodial
Christian-patriarch biofather. Where Sarah's false selves used compulsive overeating
to distract from her relentless inner pain,
Jack's subselves used overwork, covert superiority, and religious dogmatism (vs.
healthy spirituality) to
distract from theirs.
Another psychological wound destroying Jack and Sarah’s second marriages was
reality distortions -
perceiving things that aren’t there (illusions), and not seeing things that
are there (denials and repressions). For example, when Jack told Sarah
"I love you," part of him meant it. Another subself meant "I
desire you sexually, and enjoy having you." A third subself meant
"I pity you. Because I’m a good Christian man, I will
patiently rescue and fix you, because you’re incompetent and
Like Sarah's (wounded) father,
Jack sent her consistent
mixed messages - a classic symptom of false-self control: "I’ll
gladly commit to you, and want to support and ‘love’ you;" and
"You’re stupid, inept, and hopeless and will never be able to stand
on your own, so do what I say, be grateful, and don't complain."
Another of Jack’s reality distortions (denials) was "I
have no need of or time for self-exploration." A third was
"We are not a stepfamily, so we (I) don’t need
support, or to re-examine our family
roles. I am (acting
like) a responsible (bio)father to Patty. I am not a
stepfather." Implication and expectation: "Patty better
treat me like a biodad, and Sarah better go along, or they
are wrong (bad). I know what's best for all of us
shame-based distortion Jack's
well-meaning false selves believed was "I had little to do with my
first divorce. Karen made a major mistake in leaving me, for which I’ll
generously forgive her, as Jesus would have."
The biggest distortion of all was "I am not majorly wounded
by my father's early abandonment
and my overwhelmed (badly wounded) mother’s
inability to fill my wholistic needs as a
young boy. I am OK enough!"
No he wasn’t.
Mixed messages are a classic symptom of being ruled by well-meaning false
selves. There were several "Jacks"
(subselves) controlling his thoughts and actions, well short of his being a "multiple
was Adult Jack- a genuinely thoughtful, patient, kind, decisive, and
often fun, grown man. Sarah married this subself, who was prominent during
Another "Jack" emerged after the wedding
music ended. Controlling Jackwas often arrogant, rigid,
closed, domineering, judgmental, and harsh with his wife and
stepdaughter Patty. This
Guardian subself was vigorously supported by
Righteous-Christian Jack. He supplied zealous black/white, moralistic
justifications for controlling Jack’s
actions at home.
Because he was following Biblical scripture (an early-childhood
must, rooted in terror of eternal damnation implanted before
second grade) Controlling Jack
was allied with Jesus and God, and was therefore implacable, unreachable, and inherently
experienced Jack as
unaware, very wounded, and dogmatically religious, pious, rigid,
moralistic, controlling, and
spiritual. I suspect if I had said that
(compassionately), his subselves would have politely
pitied, discounted, and dismissed me.
His chiropractic patients and staff saw
who was competent, courteous, warm, and trustworthy. Several other "Jacks" were
well hidden from most people: a
Scared Jack;lonely, lost, six year old
Shamed Jack. This powerful inner child
knew that he was worthless and unlovable because his Dad had left
him, and his mother had let him leave.
Good Momsubself responded instinctively to lonely
Jackand nurtured and comforted these needy subselves when the other
"Jacks" let her. Sarah's terrified, equally-lonely little
Girl responded powerfully to the strong, decisive,
protective part of her husband's personality:
These and other personality subselves, including
who maintained the man's reality distortions, comprised
false selves.The talented
leader of his other subselves - his
true Self (capital "S") - was seldom in charge with Sarah and Patty.Jack had no concept of this or the
impacts his false-selve's dominance had
on his adolescence and prior adult life.
Sarah's daily life and behavior were shaped by several prominent subselves:
Good Girl (People Pleaser),a well-suppressed adolescent
Numb-er, Catastrophizer, Inner
several others. As a veteran inner-family therapist, my compassionate
observation was that neither she nor
Jack knew much about having their wise true Self
manage their lives and
These mates automatically used "I" to refer to the several subselves which
dominated their personalities. Like most troubled, divorcing, and
stepfamily co-parents, they were
"crazy," "stupid," "mentally ill," or "bad."
Their combined wounds and unawareness were unintentionally creating a
low-nurturance environment which
promoted young Patty unconsciously developing her
own wounds - just as young Sarah, Jack, and Patty's father
done. This is how the lethal [wounds
passes down the generations in millions of dysfunctional families.
If you're skeptical or curious about personality subselves, read this
letter and try "talking"
to one of yours when you finish reading this. For perspective, about
site visitors responding to this
poll say "Yes, personality subselves are
real, without question."
addition to Jack and Sarah's psychological wounds, the second of five factors eroding this typical stepfamily
remarriage and home was...
This typical struggling remarried couple and Sarah's ex husband Ted lacked vital knowledge. As with
most troubled people, they didn’t know what they didn’t know
- so why should they seek to
Because Sarah and Jack were mature, veteran spouses and bioparents, they
understandably felt they knew enough to co-manage their complex new
stepfamily and remarriage - or at least Jack did. His insistence that they were
stepfamily, and Sarah’s self-doubts and
fears of conflict and abandonment, blocked them from wanting to learn
stepfamily basics and realities
and they were unaware of...
the lethal [wounds +
cycle they inherited, which was destroying their
relationship and damaging young Patty.
To discover the vital knowledge these adults lacked,
try "passing" these
after you finish this article.
I suspect that like most of their peers and relatives, no one had ever
encouraged or helped these six co-parents learn how to communicate
effectively. This doomed them to fight, argue, defer, and ignore conflicts, rather than
problem-solve effectively as teammates
with a common goal. That blocked
them from really resolving their mix of these ex-mate
barriers and common
conflicts were accumulating over time like garbage in the living room. Jack
and Sarah’s remarital bond, first forged from deep needs, hopes,
attractions, and dreams, was slowly dying a "death of a thousand cuts" from
their wounds + ignorance + compounding conflicts. One result was Sarah,
Jack, and Ted weren’t able to model or coach their kids on effective
communication – a major unintended
nurturance deprivation with life-long implications.
Along with their psychological wounds and unawarenesses,
another factor was
silently corroding the McLean-Tilmon stepfamily relationships...
3) Incomplete Grief
Healthy people form weak to strong emotional attachments
(bonds) with special living
places, freedoms, ideas, and objects
throughout their lives. Because of fate, aging, and forced choices, we all
must eventually adjust to most of these bonds breaking. Ideally, we accept these breaks
(losses) by grieving well.
Kids raised in high-nurturance
homes and families are encouraged
to help each other to mourn effectively over time.
Typical stepfamily members experience at least two or three
sets of major losses.
first losses may occur from unintended childhood neglect - e.g. the losses of growing up feeling lovable,
safe, competent, valued, and respected.
More losses occur from their
family reorganizing because of divorce, death, or adult desertion.
third group of major losses comes from remarriage and/or
cohabiting, and the complex multi-year
merger of their several biofamilies.
Most psychologically-wounded adults like Jack, Sarah, and
Ted have no stable inner and social
permissions to grieve their respective losses well. Sarah seemed to have never mourned the profound losses
from her childhood neglect and molestation. I believe Jack had
never grieved his searing losses of childhood safety and securities, and his identity as a
special son prized and loved by his father and protected by his mother.
My impression was that neither Ted, Sarah, Jack, nor Patty had been able to
mourn their complex sets of
physical losses from their
biofamily reorganizations into complex two-home
systems They were vaguely
aware that Jack and Sarah’s wedding and their living together as a "family"
caused each of them to break strong attachments to valued rituals,
privacies, relationships, prior identities, and some emotional securities.
As with most re/marrying partners, these needy adults focused on their welcome gains, like securities, companionship, social
normalcy, love, intimacy, and hope…
Patty McLean’s three wounded,
unaware co-parents were
repressing their subselves' intense anger and deep sadness
from their respective sets of broken bonds and betrayals. Their subselves'
terror of being overwhelmed by the intensity of these emotions caused major
protective denials - including denying
I believe Ted, Sarah, and Jack each
and carbohydrates (sugar),
prescription medications, and work, respectively] to help medicate (numb) their
repressed pain and distract their unhappy
suspect that Sarah’s
"depression" was really her being stuck in the sadness phase of deep
Defending against being overwhelmed by their own grief,
Sarah and Jack weren’t able to make
pro-grief home for Patty,
Roger, and Annie.
Jack couldn’t tolerate Patty’s or Sarah’s
anger – an essential
He sternly punished Patty for showing anger, and
Sarah's shamed, scared
false self couldn’t protect her
daughter. So Patty was
surviving (vs. thriving) by unconsciously developing
her own false
self, and her repressed anger was fermenting. Jack and Sarah seemed
oblivious to this.
Underneath Patty's buried rage was the deep sadness that had brought
to her eyes when we first met. My sense was that part of Patty’s
pain and sadness was for her wounded
parents. Some professionals feel that each current
generation bears the legacy of pain (specially excessive shame, guilts,
fears, and anger) of all their DNA ancestors until
break, (b) personal
inner healing begins, and (c) the
bequests of low-nurturance parenting and
wounding are intentionally
Incomplete grief seemed to be amplifying and adding to the stresses in the McLean and Tilmon homes. It had
probably done the same in their respective ancestors'
childhood families too. No one saw this.
Until Jack and
Sarah found the courage to acknowledge their psychological wounds, I believe they would never be able
to really bond as a couple or nuclear
Thatmeant Patty was being wounded
every day, despite both adults' best intentions. Without their
recovery, this also meant that she and her adults would probably
die prematurely, and that she will probably
reproduce this ancient toxic cycle with one or more
In contrast, Karen and Rick Cohen seemed to be helping each other and their
three kids to grieve well. They steadily
encouraged feeling and respectfully expressing their angers
and sadnesses, and talking honestly about their losses and what they meant. This was
freeing the adults and kids to risk forming new
stepfamily bonds over time. They blessed their little "ours"
daughter Sharon by providing her with a nurturing
Given their combined psychological wounds, unawarenesses,
and incomplete grief, how did Sarah and Jack choose each other in the first
place? Driven by normal
needs and romantic love, they had fallen into
the fourth epidemic marital trap...
36 years’ clinical
observation, I believe that significantly
co-parents like these six adults unconsciouslychoose wounded partners repeatedlyuntil they're well along in true (vs. pseudo)
wound-reduction. This may be
shame-based people are covertly
uncomfortable with partners who genuinely think well of themselves. Perhaps the latter sense the danger in
committing themselves and their kids to people ruled by a short-sighted
false self. Maybe both.
The current U.S. divorce epidemic suggests that most Americans are
Grown Wounded Children
(GWCs) in denial - so most potential new mates are also GWCs. Few of them
are in true recovery. I suspect
that Ted McLean’s divorced partner Tanya was ruled by unseen false
selves, and that the lethal [wounds + unawareness]
stressing their lives too.
After learning about psychological
wounds in our co-parenting class, Rick and Karen
Cohen had courageously identified themselves as "recovering GWCs."
They told the other students that they each had been in extensive personal
and joint therapy, "and were probably going back for more."
allowed them find the mental, psychological, and
help each other reduce their wounds and protect their
three fortunate kids from inheriting them. I didn't know whether Rick's ex wife was
wounded or recovering. Their
divorce suggests (vs. proves) that she was a GWC, which puts
their son Nicholas at some risk of inheriting the toxic [wounds +
Our primal courtship
ritual is about
filling complex sets of surface and underlyingprimary needs. Couples'
subselves seek to attain companionship, security, stimulation, sensuality, intimacies,
exchanging love, personal and social acceptance, and belonging. Some need to
conceive and raise children.
Long-term needs (stability, harmony, security,
healing, growth, mature
love) take a back seat to intense
short-term needs like legitimized sex;
help with needy kids; social "normalcy;" and ending to boredom,
aloneness, and the stressful dating game.
I suspected that Sarah’s
commitment to Jack was made primarily by her needy
inner children (plural), and their devoted
Guardian subselves. The most powerful of her inner kids
were Scared Sarah, Lonely Sarah,
Unlovable (shamed) Sarah, and
Fairy-tale Sarah. They
were each excited for various reasons by Jack’s (perceived) inner family.
Sensuous Sarah (probably an inner teen) delighted in Jack’s desiring her
and his enthusiastic lovemaking.
Good-Mom Sarah, the
struggling, responsible single parent, was relieved by, and pleased with, her
perception of Jack’s Good Dad subself nurturing his own kids.
Patterned after her Mother, Sarah’s
urged her constantly to "be nice!" and not confront or disappoint
Jack as they courted.
"Self-doubting Sarah" appealed to Jack’s "White
Knight" subself, whose job was to (a) bolster Jack’s weak senses of
personal importance and male competence, and to (b) supply missing life-meaning by finding someone agreeing to be "rescued." Sarah and Patty were
perfect! Jack’s Abandoned Boy was thrilled that here at last might be a nurturing, loving Mom-person
(Sarah’s devoted Good
Mom subself). His (subselves') unconscious terror of growing old alone was
Young Shamed Jack needed relief from the endless guilt and shame of being divorced
and unmarried in his 40s. Lusty
Jack needed sexual conquest and
periodic release. Righteous, Moral
Jack needed their sexual behavior
to be religiously and socially acceptable.
Distracting Jack needed a
set of new responsibilities, complex relationships, and activities to help
avoid the great pain that young Abandoned Jack and
Enraged Jackseethed hidden in the internal shadows, kept at bay by the other subselves.
He forced his way out soon after the honeymoon ended. The inner din from all
("self talk") drowned out the still, small voice of
As with many co-parents, Jack and Sarah’s decision to remarry was probably a
chaotic, impulsive decision between two clamoring inner groups, each largely
dominated by needy inner children and their Guardians.
They remarried complementary
illusions, not real people.
Each had an inner
Magician subself who
validated their protective distortions and made them
reasonable and OK. Sarah and Jack’s courtship process was well-behaved,
fun, delighting the group of inner kids
in each adult. Neither of them were aware of this - or wanted to be.
Each courting partner showed their best "face" (most attractive subselves), to fill their false-self's
immediate needs. The calm, wise inner counsel of their
Manager subselves, specially of their wide-angle, long-visioned
true Selves, was
repeatedly discounted and ignored.
Their courtship decisions
were like two mini-vans of minor kids trying to decide
where to go on a Saturday while their adult caregivers were tied and gagged
in the back.
Externally the vans appeared
"normal." Internally, there were frequent gusts of rioting,
laughter, anxiety, and
conflict. To add to the drama, Patty and her biodad Ted also had
groups of needy, active subselves. They were often misunderstood,
distorted, or mute as Sarah and Jack's needy inner crews did their magical courtship-fantasy
All three other hazards combined to promote
Jack and Sarah's false selves
choosing the wrong
people (adults and kids)
to commit to, for the wrong
reasons, at the
time. One result they consulted me was because their
remarital needs were increasingly beyond denial.
Another was that Patty was surviving a low-nurturance home by developing her
Overarching these four invisible
relationship stressors, Jack, Sarah, and Patty were also hindered by…
5) No InformedStepfamily Support
Jack consulted with me to "support Sarah" as a good Christian husband
should, not to relieve his own well-denied discomforts. Because he didn’t
see himself as a
stepfather, he didn’t see any value in using me as a
stepfamilyspecialist compared with other
therapists closer to home.
Sarah felt that their problems had a
"stepfamily flavor" and had looked diligently for
"stepparenting" classes and clinicians near their home. She wanted
to be a "good" stepmother to Roger and Annie Tillman, and covertly hoped
that Jack would get interested in learning about stepfathering her needy
most of my hundreds of clients, students, and callers,
Sarah could find no credible
support in their Chicago suburb (population: ~ 85,000). That justified their driving 30 miles to see me and
busy weekday evenings.
information Sarah found in their library dealt (superficially, I’d guess)
with stepfamily weddings, stepmothering, and
stepfamily anecdotes. Jack had read nothing about stepfamilies,
and glanced superficially at the handouts that I gave them in our first
From what these typical
co-parents told me, the (unmarried) Christian
who sanctified their remarriage had no knowledge of the [wounds +
unawareness] cycle, these five hazards, or stepfamily
apparently had been unable to offer any informed suggestions or
cautions to this needy, wounded couple. Neither could
the couple's relatives or close friends. If others had offered
cautions, this love-struck couple (or at least Jack's false selves) would probably
have pooh-poohed them.
This lack of informed counsel left
Sarah and Jack with no idea of the stepfamily
and their kids would experience. Once
the problems began to surface, Sarah could find no informed local help. She
was "amazed" that she
couldn’t find a single support group or
program for remarried co-parents anywhere in
greater Chicago. "We can’t be the only remarried parents having
problems," she said in an early session. She was more right than she
Perspective - in my work as a stepfamily therapist and consultant since
1981, I have talked with the providers and facilitators of dozens of lay and
church-based support groups and programs for stepfamilies. Most of them were for "stepparents"
- specially "stepmothers." The theme I consistently heard
from the providers was "few people showed interest, despite our extensive ad campaign."
I've had the
same experience in the scores of classes and seminars I've given around
greater Chicago, across the years. Probable reasons for this "lack of
widespread minimizing and denial of stepfamily
the pervasive myth that "stepfamilies are pretty much like "regular"
(bio)families, so we don't need education.",
people sense they'll realize
some uncomfortable things (like these five hazards), so they rationalize not getting education; and...
little informed media attention to
stepfamily stressors and re/divorce.
Patty, Sarah, and Jack and the others in their four-home,
nuclear stepfamily are real people. Their story does
not have a satisfying Brady-Bunch ending. The unique McLean-Tilmon-Cohen relationship tapestry is
most stepfamilies I’ve met. Their story is far different from co-parents
like Rick and Karen who follow a high-nurturance developmental path together.
When I last talked to Sarah, she was going to night school for tutoring in
life-skills like budgeting, vocabulary-building, and checkbook management.
She sounded more self-respectful and confident, and described being more
assertive with Jack. He didn’t like it. She said sadly that she didn’t want
to be married to him any more, and was working toward being able to
financially support herself and Patty. Countless millions of average
stepfamilies experience psychological divorce like the Tilmons.
Sarah said that
Patty did try to run away twice, involving the police. This enraged Jack
(i.e. his false selves), rather than alerting him. His rage widened the
disrespect, distrust, and distance between Jack and his wife and
stepdaughter. Despite my best efforts, neither co-parent in this true story
was ready to accept their own deep childhood wounds and their unawareness.
Their fiercely protective, short-sighted false selves blocked this.
This typical couple couldn’t accept
(yet) that five combined hazards were inexorably corroding their remarriage
and dreams, and wounding Patty and to a lesser extent, her stepsiblings
Annie and Roger. After unconsciously
making three unwise commitment
choices, Jack and Patty never
had a chance to bond and grow the high-nurturance stepfamily they both
Middle-age re/divorce trauma causes some psychologically-wounded
hit bottom (break old denials and accept their agonizing reality), and begin true
healing. Others fall into
depression (often incomplete grief) and weary, wary social isolation. Before
re/divorce, some GWCs start or escalate one or more
addictions to medicate their
agonizing inner pain.
wounded, needy co-parents compulsively repeat the toxic [wounds +
cycle. Their ruling false selves
earnestly vow "This time, I’ll get it right!"
Until in true (vs. pseudo) personal recovery and acquiring informedstepfamily education, I fear their and
their kids’ odds for long-term success, contentment, and health are low.
The themes you’ve glimpsed
in this McLean-Tilmon-Cohen tale are common to the high majority of the
~1,000 troubled and new-stepfamily couples I’ve met in classrooms,
phone calls, Web chat, and my consulting office. Though
the details always differ, some mix of these five re/maritalhazards is usually active. These usually cause
up to 11 common
co parents and supporters aren't aware
self-improvement course that can protect them and
their kids from passing on the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle and it's
If they are aware, they ignore or discount it.
Pause, breathe well, and notice how you feel and think now. Recall why you read this article. Has
anything changed for you? If you're considering creating or
joining a stepfamily, review these
16 danger signs while Sarah, Jack, and
Patty's story is still with you.
Then consider investing time and energy in this Break the Cycle!
self-improvement course with your partner. Your living and unborn kids depend on
you to do this for them!
article describes a real
family and marriage suffering from five stressors that result from
mates inheriting the lethal [wounds +
unseen psychological wounds from traumatic
unawareness of the seven topics in
this self-improvement course, plus...
incomplete grieving of major losses (broken
These combined to cause these typical needy mates to each...
commit to the wrong people, for the wrong
reasons, at the wrong time. This ensured the gradual erosion of their
relationship, and increasing the psychological wounds of the woman's
custodial teen daughter.
When these mates finally acknowledged their
marital and parenting problems, they had to drive 30 miles to get
informed remarital and stepfamily support. Similar couples can often find no such
support locally or in the media.
The article also
describes a related stepfamily couple who courageously admitted their wounds and unawareness, sought informed
help, and were
patiently forging a high-nurturance stepfamily for themselves and their
a veteran stepfamily therapist, I have seen many hundreds of versions of
this true story. Details differ, but these five stressors and the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle causing them are
always the same.
The moral of this example is -
love alone will not avoid a version of this tragic situation,
so study and apply these
guard your kids against inheriting the
lethal [wounds + unawareness]