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August 12, 2015
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This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles on howtoevolve a
high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce
notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both
biological parents, or any of the
three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home
video previews what you'll read in this article. The preview mentions eight
lessons ii this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven:
This article exists because most people
seeking to learn about stepfamilies
don't know how to tell accurate information and practical advice from
inaccurate, impractical, and harmful counsel. Based on
professional stepfamily research and clinical experience with over 1,000
average stepfamily adults,this article offers...
guidelines for choosing
qualified sources of
stepfamily information, and...
examples of common
misinformation and impractical or harmful advice.
Average multi-home stepfamilies are
far more complex and stressful than typical intact
bio(logical) families. Sociologists estimate that over half of typical
American stepfamily unions eventually fail legally or psychologically. Typical
co-parents and their relatives and lay and professional supporters have a
high need for accurate information about how to form and maintain a stable,
In this context, "accurate" information is any that helps step
adults fill their and their kids' many needs. Impractical, superficial,
misleading, incomplete, and toxic information and advice hinders adults from
filling their and their kids' needs - or amplifies them.
families and stepfamilies professionally for
During those years I've had thousands of hours of direct clinical contact
with over 1,000 typical American stepfamily adults and some of their minor
and grown kids.
From this, I observe that perhaps
90% or more of printed,
online, and verbal stepfamily "advice" is impractical,
superficial, misleading, incomplete, and/or apt to create
Typical co-parents and most human-service professionals
don't know how to judge stepfamily information or how to select an effective stepfamily coach, mentor, or
Problem With Stepfamily Research
Common sense suggests the most credible information and advice are from
formal "stepfamily research." For my Master's degree (MSW) thesis, I spent
two years analyzing scores of books, journals, and formal stepfamily
research studies in accredited professional journals like The Journal of
Marital and Family Therapy (JMFT) and Family Relations. These included
studies of studies, which summarized formal research trends and findings.
What I learned from this (and since then) is:
There are over 100 variables
that affect biofamily
structure and dynamics
- for example, adults' ages; prior marital and
parenting history; race; ethnic background; education and income levels;
number, gender, and ages of living children; geographic location; urban
vs. rural environments; religious preference/s, family cohesion (bonding
and loyalty), problem-solving styles, and years married or cohabiting.
systems have many more
people, relationships, roles, and
variables than intact biofamily systems. This makes designing
replicatable stepfamily research inherently difficult. And...
Classic research design is
based on previously-validated criteria. This means that newly-emerging
(unproven) criteria get less weight in designing family research and
in evaluating the findings.
For example, most psychological and psychiatric research prior to the
1950s did not factor in the major influence of a "disturbed person's"
childhood or current family dynamics in making "mental health" diagnoses
and treatment prescriptions. Now researchers and clinicians who reject
family-systems and communication theories are in the minority.
Another example: until the 1980s, mental-health workers were taught to
assess and treat
addictions and "mental illness" separately. The explosion of public and clinical
awareness of adult children of alcoholics (ACoA)
since the 1980s has begun shifting that premise - and related family
research - toward seeing these conditions as interrelated symptoms of family dysfunction.
point:most stepfamily research
to date has not considered the interaction and impact of five key stressors:
psychological wounds that occur in average adults from growing up in a
low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") childhood;
the effects of incomplete
grief in typical dysfunctional-family members;
These three factors combine to promote most couples making...
unwise commitment and
And when they encounter inevitable personal and stepfamily problems, average
find little effective help
locally or in the media on these four hazards and what to do about them;
my judgment as a veteran engineer, stepfamily researcher, educator, and
therapist, the above ideas imply
that all stepfamily
research to date should be questioned and reevaluated. Without
in-depth learning about how these five stressors affect each other and
typical stepfamilies, most lay and professional "experts" will disagree.
Bottom line: while "stepfamily research" is probably more
credible than personal opinions, it does not necessarily
provide accurate, practical guidance for typical stepfamilies
and their supporters.
Who Should You Believe?
Stepfamily adults and supporters need reliable, useful information
and advice. They usually lack the experience and training to discern
practical advice from superficial, impractical, or inaccurate counsel. What
are they (you) to do? I suggest the following guidelines.
From most to least credible,
1) advisors and authors with...
each of the five stressors above, and
the vital difference between surface and primary
have some years
of professional experience working clinically with a wide
Members of the nonprofit NSRC
(National Stepfamily Resource Center) Experts Council are highly-qualified
you can't find someone with these qualifications (which is likely), then
who (a) have an advanced human-service degree like these:
and family therapist (LMFT)
life educator (CFLE)
psychologist (MS, PsyD, PhD)
psychiatric social worker (LCSW, MSW, DSW, ACSW),
professional counselor (LPC)
and (b) who lack significant
clinical and/or personal stepfamily experience.
with training and expertise in general human-service fields like divorce
mediation, law enforcement, family-life education, family finances,
child-development, or family casework, but
who lack the criteria above and/or
training or experience in (a) stepfamily research, and (b) all these
without the criteria above who rely heavily on "Biblical or Christian
principles" and/or "stepfamily interviews" without formal study of
(a) stepfamily research, and (b) all
and be wary of heeding...
stepfamily couples" or veteran stepparents who use personal experience as
their authority ("If we can make it work, so can you!"); and...
...be very skeptical of...
advisors with no (a)
professional training or (b) no marital or parenting experience who (c) have
informally surveyed some number of stepfamily members (d) with or without
referring to formal stepfamily research - e.g. a journalist or
Overall: be cautious
about accepting stepfamily advice from anyone who (a) lacks
the credentials above, and who (b) implies or claims authority
and credibility from any of these...
promoting or keynoting
publishing materials about
family-related subjects, including stepfamilies, stepparenting,
stepkids, and divorce;
appearing on radio or TV talk
shows and/or in national print media;
being endorsed by Ph.D.
"experts." or who claim to have "studied stepfamily research" but who
lack the boxed criteria above;
having an unspecified
"advanced" (e.g. Ph.D.) degree, or being an ordained minister, pastor,
preacher, or rabbi;
have glowing endorsements
from laypeople or unqualified experts; ("Dr. Jones' book saved our
marriage!"); or be cautious about someone who...
manages a stepfamily-related
Web site, and/or moderate a stepfamily Internet chat room; and/or anyone
stepfamily-related newsletter written by them or others; or who...
includes advice from a
"stepfamily expert" in their Web site, materials, or program.
Though these qualifications sound impressive,
them are reliable indicators of an advisor's stepfamily
Pause, breathe, and reflect - what are you thinking and feeling now? Do the
opinions above feel credible and practical? Useful? If not - why not?
make these abstract ideas more real, consider these...
Examples of Impractical
and Harmful Advice
Three main causes of impractical stepfamily advice are the advisor's
that prevent people from following good advice.
To see this in action, read this true story
and return here.
By definition, impractical
advice is vague, over-general, and/or difficult or impossible to follow
- e.g. "You should appreciate what you have, and be happy." Who can argue
with this suggestion? Can you name someone who is able to do
it consistently by "will power"?
Even impractical self-help advice will help by increasing
self-awareness, within limits. However,
most authors, advisors, and advisees
don't know what they don't know about stepfamilies - which puts
uninformed co-parents and supporters at risk of wasted efforts, false hopes,
and increased stresses.
Typical self-help publications;
e-newsletters; tapes; and Web articles and discussion groups; are jammed
with well-meant, impractical advice like the examples below.
Needy people will feel "That's great advice!" and then find that "for
some reason" (a) they're unable to follow it, or (b) they try, and the
advice doesn't work (fill their primary needs.)
Have you ever been unable to keep sincere New Years resolutions? Ever tried
and failed to quit smoking, stop overspending, or keep off 15 unwanted
pounds? How do you explain that? I propose that happens when a person is
controlled by well meaning
''false selves.'' Lesson 1 in this site describes how
for such control and how to
Examples of Impractical Advice
These are taken verbatim from a well-regarded self-help book for stepfamily
mates. Typical wounded co-parents will agree with these ideas - and their false
selves and unawareness will prevent them from acting on them:
times to enhance rather than destroy your relationship
and as ... supportive as possible
there are some gender differences
a (conflict) settlement
come up with
an agreement that you both consider fair
air your angry
afraid to disagree
to disagree, or postpone a decision
personally and creatively
talks on facts
you must flush
out your immediate ... concerns
This advice is taken verbatim from a well-known stepfamily Web site:
hard fact that the (step)children are not yours and they never
styles must be sorted out by the couple.
The norms and
forms of (child) discipline must be discussed and agreed to by
of loyalties ...are normal and must be dealt with.
issues with the intention of partnering to a mutual agreement,
not winning the argument.
(step)kid's negative behavior as a personal insult.
your stepchildren" Watch It! Under-disciplining your own
children" Watch It!
Go slow. Don't
come on too strong (as a stepparent).
clear job descriptions between the parent, stepparent and
Begin to get
information on how to best handle the prior spouse.
with your husband, the kids, and yourself.
Be a sounding
board for your partner as the two of you discuss the household
to go out alone, to dine alone. Don't talk about step(family
dynamics of step. Know when to attribute (blame) the step
situation and know when it is something that you as a couple
must sort out.
for conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within
the step relationship.
If one or both partners' true Selves are
disabled, partners will
find it hard or impossible to benefit from vague generalities like these.
Over time, that's apt to lower their self-esteem and confidence, raise their
guilt, and degrade their hope for effective problem-solving.
In this context, advice or misinformation is harmful if it
promotes these common
reduces family members'
in the eyes of a neutral, knowledgeable observer; and/or...
misleads other people
considering or in stepfamilies and/or their supporters.
"Significantly" is a subjective judgment.
Implication: to judge
whether advice is harmful, co-parents and supporters need to be familiar
with all these criteria - and few are.
my research since 1979, I have identified over 60
unrealistic, potentially harmful expectations ("myths") about
stepfamilies. Here's a sample, which are often found in
well-meaning self-help publications, Web sites, and professional counsel:
Remarried bioparents should
put their kids' needs
and stepparents should support and accept that.
Love and/or pious faith in a
loving God will conquer all (stepfamily problems).
The other divorced parent (ex
mate) is not a co-equal
of a new stepfamily.
Stepparents and stepkids,
stepsiblings, and co-grandparents should love each other like healthy biofamily
New stepfamilies will "settle
down" within a few months after re/wedding.
Bioparents shouldn't have to
choose between pleasing or supporting their new mate and their prior
Divorced parents are wiser
the second time around, and won't make the same mistakes.
Stepfamily marriage is
basically the same as first marriage.
Stepfamily courtship and/or
cohabiting is a reliable indicator of life after re/marriage.
Having an "ours" child will
reduce existing stepfamily conflicts and strengthen a fragile
A stepparent legally adopting
a stepchild will surely increase the bonds and loyalty among household
and stepfamily members.
Stepfamily holidays and
gatherings should feel pretty much like regular / normal / traditional
Typical co-parents and
supporters know all they need to know about bonding, losses, and healthy
Any licensed, veteran
human-service professional with advanced degrees can be trusted to give
practical, useful stepfamily, re/marital, and co-parenting advice.
Every one of these opinions is usually wrong.
There are many other common examples of toxic or harmful advice, but you get
The bottom line:
authorize yourself and your partner to (a) study this online
course, or at least learn stepfamily
basics; and to (b) critically evaluate the credentials of anyone
offering you stepfamily advice!
Two of the many challenges that adults in typical divorcing families and
stepfamilies face are to (a) discern who is qualified to advise them, and
(b) how to tell practical, useful advice from misguided, impractical or
Because typical adults don't know what they need to know, it's difficult for
them to discern whom to trust with what advice. This is critical, for one of
most such adults face is
Based on 36
years' stepfamily research and experience, this article offers perspective
and guidelines about (a) whom to trust as a qualified divorce, stepfamily,
or re/marital author or advisor, and (b) how to judge whether advice is
relevant and useful, impractical, or potentially harmful. The article
includes real examples of the latter.
Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what
you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what
you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's
answering these questions - your wise resident