Structural Maps, continued...

3) Typical Low-Nurturance Two-home Separated or Divorced Biofamily Structure

BM >>>
- - - - - -   
C ... C    

arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)


BioMom has legal and physical custody, and controls her home (is above the line). Arrows show regular child visitation with their absent BioFather, who is in charge of his home when the kids come to stay; but communications with his kids are blocked (solid line). Ongoing two-way hostility and poor communications between bioparents, with the kids caught in the middle.

        There are many variations of this two-home nuclear biofamily, considering who’s in charge in each home; the numbers, ages, and "parentification" of older kids (i.e. being above the parental responsibility line); the availability and involvement of nurturing kin; and how the "sending" home restructures if some of the kids go visit, but some stay. The custodial bioparent is often overwhelmed, and may "promote" an older child above the line to co-control the home. Or they may hire day-care or live-in help (who should be included in the structural map).

        If you divorced, what did (or does) your two-home family structure look like? Did (does) it have several structures? Who was in charge of each home when the kids were there?

 High-nurturance Stepfamily Structures

        There are almost 100 types of multi-home nuclear-stepfamily structure, from combinations of child custody, prior unions and child conceptions, "ours" children, and prior deaths and divorces. Most of these structures fall into three types: two, three, or four-home stepfamily systems. A few structures are one-home, where a widowed bioparent remarries a non-parent or another widow/er.

        The homes comprising all four stepfamily types follow the same basic principals for a functional two-parent biofamily (baseline 1 above). Recall that most individual co-parenting homes have two or more alternating structures: (a) minor kids at home, and (b) some or all minor kids visiting their other co-parent/s. In a given stepfamily home, one structure may have a higher nurturance level than the other.

Baseline 2 - High-nurturance new and mature
  two-home stepfamily structures

        When bioparents and stepparents first live together, normally the stepparent does not have as much co-parenting authority or responsibility as the bioparent. This is true whether there are minor stepkids resident or not. The stepparent and custodial bioparent are, ideally, co-equal partners in the non-parenting areas of their lives. Both these co-parents are still consistently "above the line" - i.e. no minor child nor any non-resident makes the major decisions in their home. Communications in and between both related stepfamily homes are open enough here.

        After enough time, the resident stepparent earns (vs. demands) equal co-parenting authority and responsibility, as granted by the other members of both homes (map B below). These two traits don't come with a marriage certificate! Co-parents who try to rush or force stepparent authority usually promote personal, marital, and stepfamily stress and conflict. 

        How much time does it take stepparents to earn co-equality? My experience is that it can take two or more years after cohabiting, depending on many variables. In significantly low-nurturance multi-home stepfamilies, true co-equal co-parenting never evolves.

       - - -
   - - - - -
   C ... C  arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)

- - - -

  SP  BP1
 - - - - - - -    
  C ... C  arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)

- - - - -

A) High nurturance new-stepfamily two-home structure: clear, open household boundaries, and clear communications.

B) High nurturance mature two-home co-parenting structure: open family boundaries, and clear  communications.

Baseline 3 - A high nurturance, mature, two-home,
stepfamily, before and during child visitation

        All communications are open in and between both homes; Co-parents are in charge (above the line) in each home. The divorced BioFather is not cohabiting or dating. The StepFather has no biokids, and has earned equal co-parenting authority with BioMom. He has earned the respect and co-operation of his three stepkids over some years.

        All members have adequately mourned their key losses from (a) the bioparents’ divorce and family reorganizing, and from (b) BioMom’s remarriage. All three adults can (usually) talk openly and respectfully, and can compromise well-enough together on co-parenting decisions. There are no enmeshments, rejections, addictions, or living or dead controlling relatives. Each home has clear firmly-flexible boundaries.

- - - - - -
C  C  C
- - - -
   SF BM
- - - - - - -


- - - - - -
C  C  C

Structure 1): kids home Structure 2): kids visiting

 Baseline 4 - A high-nurturance three-home,
  four co-parent, mature stepfamily structure

…with one "ours" child (O), and child visitations () between all three homes. The other structural  states (during visitations) of these three related homes aren't shown here. Neither ex mate (BF1 and BM2) is cohabiting, remarried, or dating seriously. All communications are open within and between homes, all four co-parents are in (usually) charge of their respective homes, and there are no resident, dependent, or controlling relatives. All three homes have clear, effective boundaries.

        All members have mourned their key divorce and remarriage losses enough, so they don’t need to exclude other stepfamily members. Note that BM1 is also a stepmom to C2, and BF2 has a stepdad role with C1. We’ll note them as DM1 and DF2 to symbolize their complex dual co-parenting roles.

- - - -

DM1  DF2
- - - - - - -
(C1) O C2

- - - -

High nurturance three-home, four co-parent, three-child nuclear-stepfamily structure

Baseline 5: A high-nurturance, mature, four-home, seven-co-parent  
stepfamily structure, with three minor kids.

        Both BF1 and BM2's ex-mates have remarried, one to a previously single man (SF) and one to a divorced biomother (DM3). Child visitations occur between all four homes, causing several structural states. Not all are shown. Communications are open within and between all four dwellings; no kids are above the line or co-parents below. 

        Adult/child boundaries are stable and mutually accepted. C1 lives with BM1 and SF. Child C2 lives with (dual-role) biomom DM2 and stepfather DF1, and C3 usually lives with her custodial BioFather BF3. There are no "ours" kids yet. No stepparent has adopted their stepchild. At times, all co-parents have "kid-free" week-ends, because of visitation combinations.

        There are no interfering or seriously dependent relatives, live-in helpers, or boarders in this four- home nuclear stepfamily. No one is seriously ill, debilitated, excluded, or withdrawn. There are no major ongoing hostilities, coalitions, enmeshments, or alliances among any of these 10 related stepfamily members. If you're thinking this is unusual, you're right: this is an ideal example. 


SF   BM1
- - - - - -

- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -


- - -

A high-nurturance four-home, seven co-parent,
three-child nuclear-stepfamily structure.


- - - - - -

- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -
C2  C3

- - -

        The sample structural maps above give you an idea of how the several types of multi-home stepfamily look before and during visitations. They are our baselines, in that there are no major dysfunctional structural elements present. These are the household and family structures that typical aware co-parents grow over time.

In my 36-year clinical experience, few stepfamilies match these ideals. They look more like some of these examples.

  Typical Low-Nurturance ("Dysfunctional") Stepfamily Structures

        Mapping a multi-home stepfamily’s structures is like using Lego-brand blocks. Many elements can be combined to portray a great variety of household and family relationships. All these dysfunctional-structure elements apply here, plus new elements occurring between related step-homes.

        Stepfamily structures shift over time because of  births or deaths; changes in custody, residence, employment, finances, or location; re/marriages, re/divorces, affairs, abortions or adoptions; adolescence; graduations and emancipations; addictions, physical or emotional disabilities; and lots more.

        Here are maps of some low-nurturance step-home (vs. whole stepfamily) emotional structures. Any look familiar? These are only a few of many possibilities:

SM //
        x x x (BF1

SF || (C1+BM1)
- - - - - - - - - -
C2... C3

- - - - -xxx
C1 C2    (C3

8) Emotionally-absent, non- communicative custodial BioFather, rejected / defied (frustrated) StepMother; Allied resident stepkids

9) BioMom + biochild C1 alliance, low-priority remarriage; StepFather feels shut out; no effective home boundaries.

10) Rigid StepFather "dictator," excluded stepchild C3, BioMom split in between; no adult problem- solving; Rigid household boundaries.

     \\ (BF1 +++++++ BM1)
SM) - - - - -                - - - - -
C1 ... C1  arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)       
SM || BF1
C1 ...C1
\\ (BM1+BGM1)
SF ) - - - - - - - - - -      
C1... C3

11)   Custodial BioFather is enmeshed (emotionally- undivorced) with ex mate BM1 via phone and visits; ineffective SM-BF1 problem-solving; Isolated, discounted StepMom

12)  No effective co-parental problem solving; No boundaries; Distrust and hostility between SM and her stepchild/ren; Kids feel unheard by both adults, anxious, needy, and angry or depressed;

13)   BioMom + resident bio- GrandMother alliance: StepFather undermined, ignored, and withdrawn; Kids confused, anxious, rebellious. Grandma controls boundaries.

More typical low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") stepfamily structural-map elements...

- - x-x-x-x - -
C1 ... C1
DF1 || DM2
- - - - xxx - - -
1) - - - - -
C1 ..Carro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)

arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)

14) Favored Ours child (above the line because her/his needs over-shape this household's behavior); Resident half-siblings hurt and resentful, probably acting out;

15)   Dual-role Father’s kids reject Dual-role Mom's child C2 and he allows it. Resentful DM2 dislikes her stepkids; Blocked co-parental communications, major loyalty conflict;

16) Dysfunctional two-home system: StepFather angry over erratic child support; no problem solving; BioMom paralyzed, detached; Kids trapped in the middle;

SM BF1>>>|
xxxx - - -    
arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)

|<<< BM1
       - - -
arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)

DF1 DM2 ||
C1 C2 arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)

       || C2
     - - - - -
arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)  BF2

SF>> [BF2]+BM2
- - - - - - - - - - - -
C2 ... C2

17)   Two-home system; Emotionally unfinished divorce; kids in the middle, polarized, rejecting SM; SM resentful, feels unsupported and 1-down; BF1 denies they’re a stepfamily, and their major loyalty conflict;

18) The "C2" kids are in split custody. Biodad BF2 is emotionally disabled (below the line), so resident C2 runs their house; Blocked intra- and inter-home communications, so no effective listening or problem solving;

19)  BioMom BM2 hasn't mourned her first mate's death - and can’t help her kids do so; Her [dead husband] strongly affects the decisions in this home; Stepdad is increasingly  resentful. Neither co-parent knows of these 7 Lessons

20)  A full three-home, five co-parent, five child, two-structure
low-nurturance nuclear-stepfamily map:

- - - - - - - - - - Before visitations - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  During visitations - - - - - - - - -
Home 1

SF) - - - - -     
C1 C1     

Home 2

|<<DF1|| DM2>>|
- - - xxx- - -
2  C2

Home 3

|>>BF2 C2
     - - - - -


Home 1

(SFheart ltl.gif (940 bytes) BM1)
- - - - - - -


Home 2

- - - || - - - -       
[C1 C1] O1-2      

Home 3


  • BM1 and ex mate DF1 are hostile and distrusting (aren't emotionally divorced), and can't problem solve. Both C1 kids often feel caught in the middle. StepFather often feels ignored and powerless, and increasingly resentful;

  • Dual-role dad DF1 favors Ours-child O1-2 over resident stepchild C2; Dual-role mom DM2 and her child C2 are resentful; household communications are ineffective, so conflicts and distrusts are piling up;

  • Custodial biofather BF2 treats older biochild C2 as a confidant and buddy. DM2 and DF1 disapprove, and feel helpless.

  • All five kids often feel unsafe and confused; Co-parents are often critical and defensive; little three-home unity or teamwork.

  • Now "kid-free," SF and BM1 reconnect

  • Over-guilty DF1 focuses on his biokids C1 C1, who make demands;

  • DM2 and "ours" child O1-2 feel left out and hurt, but mom doesn't say so. Frequent adult arguing and blaming, instead of listening, asserting, and effective problem solving;

  • Dual-role mom DM2 and one stepchild C1 clash; Dual dad DF1 either withdraws or sides with his child, who feels powerful and anxious; DM2 and O1-2 draw together;

  • BF2 withdraws emotionally, leaving his C2 "buddy" to co-parent the visiting sibling; DM2 calls often to check up, instructing resident C2 on co-parenting the visiting sib, and criticizing biofather BF2; Older child feels responsible, powerful, and split. Younger child feels confused and anxious.

        There is much more to the dynamics in and between these three homes. This two-part map shows key structural and communication elements. Two of the bioparents pay lip-service to their identity as a stepfamily, but none of the five know what that means. Note that none of the over 50 relatives in the five co-parents' biofamilies (the extended stepfamily) are shown.

        Over time, these intra-home and inter-home dynamics shape everyone's expectations. Because there is little co-parental stepfamily knowledge, problem-solving, or teamwork, no stepfamily identity, unity and pride develops, and resentments and stresses accumulate.

        All five co-parents are unrecovering Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) - and don't know it. They have only hazy ideas of their kids many special needs, and their related caregiving roles. Because of all this, the kids (including "ours" child O1-2) are unconsciously developing false selves like the adults. Several are "acting out" in protest.

        The point here is - structural maps can provide stepfamily members and supporters a concise, clear way of showing key responsibility, relationship, and communication problems and strengths. That helps them agree on their goals and responsibilities, and enables measuring progress along the way.

Making Your Structural Map

       You've now seen samples of the many ways multi-home family structures can be diagrammed. These have illustrated a few of many possibilities.

        Recall that "co-parents" include all related stepparents and custodial and noncustodial bioparents. In a typical post-divorce nuclear stepfamily, there can be three or more co-parents telling various minor kids what to do, in two or three related homes - ours, your ex mate’s, and my ex mate’s. In stepfamilies following a bioparent's death, there can be two to four co-parents. In some homes, older siblings regularly share co-parenting responsibilities for younger kids.

        Time to try your wings! Suggestions...

Use an attitude of "doing this can help our re/marriage, home, kids, and stepfamily," rather than feeling anxious, defensiveness, or detached (indifferent). Catch the constructive spirit of these maps, and invent your own rules. You’re doing this to help and please yourselves - no one else!

Structural maps work best after your three or more co-parents have made major progress on Lessons 1 thru 7. If you use the maps with educators, counselors, clergy, or lawyers, it helps a lot if they have a working knowledge of at least Lesson 7.

Draw your full-stepfamily genogram first. Discuss it with your co-parenting partners, toward agreeing on "Who do we include in our multi-home stepfamily?" If you’re not yet clear on that, making useful structural maps will be hard or impossible. If you or any of your co-parenting partners need to deny or minimize that you are a multi-home stepfamily, don’t expect to get much help from any of these diagrams.

Stay focused. Bio, step, and other forms of family exist to (a) conceive and foster the healthy growth of dependent children; and (b) fill ongoing adult needs for love, nurturance, procreation, companionship, shelter, comfort, and security.

        Focus your no-visitation and during-visitation maps on understanding how your stepfamily homes’ emotional structure affects filling each members' key primary needs. That implies that you're clear on what they are...

Take your time! These diagrams can be complex, and can reveal insights and validations only if you concentrate thoughtfully on them. Build them slowly and deliberately, and they’ll pay off for you all!

Draw these structural maps by yourself, not with your co-parenting partner/s. You’ll discover more! Expect your maps to evolve through trial and discussion, rather than expecting to "get it right the first time." Keep a large eraser handy, and sketch lightly until you’ve thought, mulled, and discussed together, enough. False starts are great, here!

If you or a co-parenting partner feel reluctant to do this exercise, that’s a helpful learning by itself. It probably means that you and/or they have some anxiety, guilt, and/or shame about your present home or stepfamily that feel unsafe to confront right now.

Avoiding is a common coping skill we Grown Wounded Children (GWCs - adults from low-nurturance childhoods) develop early in life to manage our inner pain. Deferring a painful stepfamily awareness often means it’ll get worse, with time

Consider writing down any thoughts and feelings that surface as you (a) evolve your structural maps, and (b) compare and discuss them with other members. This can give you useful perspective if you map again in the future - a way of clearly affirming family growth and positive change - or lack of same...