Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

An Example of the [Wounds +
Unawareness] Cycle
 Affecting a Real Stepfamily

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/example.htm

Updated  12-20-2014

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will jump to an answer on this page or open an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.   

      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve 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 bioparents, or any of the three or more related stepparents and bio-parents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily. 

      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. Though every 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 structural 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. 

      This sketch illustrates typical impacts of five hazards 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 premises underlying it    

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6, 

  • stepfamily Q&A and common problems; and...

  • three stepfamily developmental paths

colorbutton.gif Sarah, Jack, and Patty’s Story

      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 this. 

      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 before. 

      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. Sarah was struggling with a collage of personal, parental, and remarital "problems." She had a high school education, and worked as a beautician.

      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 wounds that 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.

      A 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 was 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 place, but...

      As I learned more about their stepfamily, it became clear that Jack had remarried to 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."

      He was 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 over-controlling and 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 listen, assert their needs, or problem-solve effectively as partners. 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). As a wounded, 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 remarital problems.

      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, unsafe, and 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.

      Patty 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 down.

      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 mother.

      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 "growing up 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 unawareness and psychological 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 addiction and protective denials demonstrated a classic (futile) attempt to self-medicate from relentlessly escalating inner pain.

colorbutton.gif The [Wounds + Unawareness] Cycle at Work

      How was this inherited cycle and these related hazards affecting the Tilmon’s home and relationships? The full description would take book. Here’s an overview...

1) Unseen Psychological Wounds

      As with well over 80% of the ~1,000 divorcing 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 inherited psychological wounds: a disabled true Self, excessive shame. guilts, fears; major reality and trust distortions; 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?

      Sarah’s personality was dominated by excessively shamed, guilty, and scared inner children (plural) and their vigilant Guardian subselves. Her sexual molestation at 13, lack of education and other early-nurturance deprivations, and her divorce trauma 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.

      Sarah's 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 needs.

      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 effects on him, Sarah, and all three stepfamily kids.

      He had camouflaged his personality-subselves' 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 their 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 floundering."

      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 special education and 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 (I'm "1-up"). 

      Another 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.

Several "Jacks"

      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 personality." One was Adult Jack - a genuinely thoughtful, patient, kind, decisive, and often fun, grown  man. Sarah married this subself, who was prominent during their courtship. 

      Another "Jack" emerged after the wedding music ended. Controlling Jack was 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 "1-up"  (superior).

      I experienced Jack as unaware, very wounded, and dogmatically religious, pious, rigid, moralistic, controlling, and defensive, not 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 Professional Jack, who was competent, courteous, warm, and trustworthy. Several other "Jacks" were well hidden from most people: a Scared Jack; lonely, lost, six year old Abandoned Jack; and 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.

      Sarah's Good Mom subself responded instinctively to lonely young Orphan Jack and nurtured and comforted these needy subselves when the other "Jacks" let her. Sarah's terrified, equally-lonely little Abandoned Girl responded powerfully to the strong, decisive, protective part of her husband's personality: Nurturing Jack. 

      These and other personality subselves, including Magical Jack who maintained the man's reality distortions, comprised Jack’s false selves. The talented natural 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 Subselves

      Sarah's daily life and behavior were shaped by several prominent subselves: Good Mom, Good Girl (People Pleaser), a well-suppressed adolescent Rager, her Overeater (i.e. Addict/Comforter), Emotional Numb-er, Catastrophizer, Inner Critic, (Shamer), Sensual Woman, Beautician (Artist/Creative One), and 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 relationships.

      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 wounded and unaware, not "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 Ted had done. This is how the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle 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 80% of site visitors responding to this poll  say "Yes, personality subselves are real, without question."

       In addition to Jack and Sarah's psychological wounds, the second of five factors eroding this typical stepfamily remarriage and home was...

2) Adult Unawareness

      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 learn anything?

      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 not a stepfamily, and Sarah’s self-doubts and fears of conflict and abandonment, blocked them from wanting to learn about...

  • their psychological wounds, what they meant,  and about personal recovery options (Lesson 1);

  • effective-communication basics and skills (Lesson 2);

  • how to promote healthy grief in and between their related homes - i.e. how to form and follow a "good-grief" policy (Lesson 3);

  • effective-relationship basics (Lesson 4);

  • family health and nurturance levels (Lesson 5);

  • effective-parenting basics (Lesson 6);

  • stepfamily basics and realities (Lesson 7). and they were unaware of...

  • the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle they inherited, which was destroying their relationship and damaging young Patty.

      To discover the vital knowledge these adults lacked, try "passing" these quizzes 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 stepfamily problems.

      Their unresolved 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 things, rituals, 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. The 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. A 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 invisible and 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 their denial.

      I believe Ted, Sarah, and Jack each unconsciously used addictions [alcohol and carbohydrates (sugar), prescription medications, and work, respectively] to help medicate (numb) their repressed pain  and distract their unhappy subselves.

      I suspect that Sarah’s "depression" was really her being stuck in the sadness phase of deep compound grief. Defending against being overwhelmed by their own grief, Sarah and Jack weren’t able to make a pro-grief home for Patty, Roger, and Annie. Jack couldn’t tolerate Patty’s or Sarah’s anger – an essential good-grief phase.

      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 tears 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 (a) their denials break, (b) personal inner healing begins, and (c) the unconscious bequests of low-nurturance parenting and wounding are intentionally stopped.

      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 stepfamily. 

      That meant 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 wounded men.

      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 pro-grief home.

      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...

4) Unwise Courtship Choices

      From 36 years’ clinical observation, I believe that significantly wounded co-parents like these six adults unconsciously choose wounded partners repeatedly until they're well along in true (vs. pseudo) personal wound-reduction. This may be because 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] cycle was 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."

      This allowed them find the mental, psychological, and spiritual resources to 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 + unawareness] cycle.

      Our primal courtship ritual is about filling complex sets of surface and underlying primary 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 People-pleaser subself 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 intense. 

      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 Shamed Jack endured.

      Enraged Jack seethed 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 these subselves ("self talk") drowned out the still, small voice of Spiritual Jack.

      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, superficial, and 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 dance.

      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 wrong time. One result they consulted me was because their unmet remarital needs were increasingly beyond denial. Another was that Patty was surviving a low-nurturance home by developing her own inner wounds.

      Overarching these four invisible relationship stressors, Jack, Sarah, and Patty were also hindered by…

5) No Informed Stepfamily 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 stepfamily specialist 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 daughter Patty. 

      Like most of my hundreds of clients, students, and callers, Sarah could find no credible stepfamily-informed counsel or support in their Chicago suburb (population: ~ 85,000). That justified their driving 30 miles to see me and back on busy weekday evenings.

      The 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 meetings.

      From what these typical co-parents told me, the (unmarried) Christian minister who sanctified their remarriage had no knowledge of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle, these five hazards, or stepfamily realities and implications, He apparently had been unable to offer any informed suggestions or realistic 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 problems they 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 knew.

      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 interest" are...

  • widespread minimizing and denial of stepfamily identity,  and...

  • 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, six-co-parent nuclear stepfamily are real people. Their story does not have a satisfying Brady-Bunch ending. The unique McLean-Tilmon-Cohen relationship tapestry is typical of 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 longed for.

      Middle-age re/divorce trauma causes some psychologically-wounded adults to hit bottom (break old denials and accept their agonizing reality), and begin true personal healing. Others fall into depression (often incomplete grief) and weary, wary social isolation. Before or after re/divorce, some GWCs start or escalate one or more addictions to medicate their agonizing inner pain.

      Still other wounded, needy co-parents compulsively repeat the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle. Their ruling false selves earnestly vow "This time, I’ll get it right!" Until in true (vs. pseudo) personal recovery and acquiring informed stepfamily 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/marital hazards is usually active. These usually cause up to 11 common surface problems.

      And typical co parents and supporters aren't aware of this self-improvement course that can protect them and their kids from passing on the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle and it's effects. 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!


      This article describes a real family and marriage suffering from five stressors that result from mates inheriting the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle:

  • unseen psychological wounds from traumatic childhoods, plus...

  • unawareness of the seven topics in this self-improvement course, plus...

  • incomplete grieving of major losses (broken bonds).

      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 kids.

      As 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 Lessons and guard your kids against inheriting the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle! 

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

  This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

If you're in a stepfamily, please help improve Lesson 7
by taking this brief anonymous survey.

Share/Bookmark  prior page  /  Lesson 7


 site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact