Counseling Stepfamilies: SAAs Counselors Corner
Creative Refusal to Use a Stepfamily Frame in Therapy
By Helen W. Coale, L.C.S.W., L.M.F.T.
Stepfamilies Quarterly, Summer 1995
A young couple came to see me ten or so years ago and poured out a story of tension and fighting about the intrusiveness of the husbands parents in their marriage. The husband, an only child whose leaving home had destabilized his parents rocky relationship, exacerbated the problem by acquiescing to his parents every demand. When the wife complained, he got upset with her rather than with his parents. The wife and the marriage became the problem rather than the relationship with the parents.
I listened for twenty minutes and then said "You know, I dont really think that this is a marital problem . . . I think it is a parent-child problem. I cant really help you in your marriage as long as there are four people instead of two in your bed."
The young man agreed to work on setting boundaries with his parents but, after several sessions, stated that he was just not ready to do this and wanted a divorce from his wife because she was "causing" such friction between him and his parents. He divorced her rather quickly and immediately married another young woman who would distract him from his conflcit with his parents.
Years later, the young woman called me for an appointment to discuss career and relationshp issues. She told me in the first session how relieved she was with what I had said to her and the young man years ago. I was curious and asked her to what statement she was referring. "When you said there were four people instead of two in our bed," she replied. "It helped me adjust to his leaving me. If I had thought that the problems were all in the marriage, I would have been devastated not only by the abandonment but also because I would have questioned my capacity to function in a marriage."
This conversation started me thinking about the usefulness of framing a presenting problem as not the relationship which the client(s) present to therapist. A marital problem with unfinished extended family issues, for example, can be framed as a parent-child problem (as described in the above example). A parent-child problem can be framed as a parent-child problem at a different generational level (e.g., "Is this a mother-daughter problem between you and your seven-year-old or between you and your mother?"). A marital problem can be framed as a problem with the husbands "lover" (with the "lover" being his work, his passion with a hobby or his weekly hunting trips) or as a problem of the wifes "marriage" to the children.
Reframing the problem as not the relationship which presents as the problem in the therapy can be viewed from various theoretical perspectives. A Bowen theorist might think in terms of how lack of differentiation from ones own family of origin affects the functioning of subsequent generations or how anxiety in dyadic relationships gets detoured through third persons and/or issues. A developmental theorist might think in terms of what "unfinished business" there is from previous stages in an individuals or familys life cycle that might be impacting on the current problem situation. A structural therapist might conceptualize the problem as an organizational one related to boundary issues that need to be redefine. Creative ideas for changing the relationship focus can be derived from any of these perspectives.
In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, therapists found themselves working with many stepfamileis who created or compounded problems by judging themselves according to the norms of first married families. Because it was impossible for them to achieve success according to first married family norms, many stepfamilies felt deficient or deviant in some way. Helping them to discover different ways of functioning--ways that were more congruent with the realities of ex-spouses, multiple households, permeable boundaries, etc.--made it very important for therapists to name the normal problems associated with stepfamiliy adjustment. Self-pathologizing due to application of first family norms, therefore, was alleviated by framing the bulk of stepfamily problems as normal problems of stepfamily living.
Now, fifteen to twenty years later, stepfamilies have developed a more normative stature as a valid alternative family structure in American life. Families who could benefit from normative reframing about stepfamily life still exist and still ask for help from therapists, but many of these families no longer need therapsits in the way they did a decade or two ago. I think that the families that avail themselves of therapist assistance today often bring in more complicated problems for which normative reframing is not appropriate . . . or for which it is helpful in reducing anxiety ("Im so glad were normal") but does not really help solve the problem(s) with which the family presents.
Now that we--and many of the families with whom we work--understand many of the "normal" problems which stepfamilies face, framing something as not a stepfamily problem can help the therapist and client focus more precisely on problem solution. In addition, in the same way that the young woman in the anecdote above felt relieved to have some of the pressure taken off of the marriage by having a marital problem reframed as a parent/child problem, stepfamilies--often overwhelmed by the complexity of relationships which must be negotiated in the family--can experience relief to have a family problem reframed as the problem of some other relationship. Some examples follow:
A remarried couple presented for therapy with chronic conflict about money. The wife was upset because the husband not only gave his ex-wife the required alimony and child support but also paid for lots of extras, not only for his children, but also for his ex-wife. The husband framed the dilemma as an inevitable aspect of stepfamily life. After all, his wife knew when she married him that he had obligations to his first family didnt she? The wife did not know how to respond to this argument because, on the surface anyway, the husband was right, but, at another level, she knew intuitively that this was not the only reason for the extra payments.
The therapist sensed this, too. In exploring the husbands unresolved guilt about his divorce and understanding that the money was a way in which he tried to atone to his ex-wife for leaving her, the therapist reframed the problem as an ex-marriage rather than a current marriage problem. This meant, therefore, that the problem was not an inevitable problem of stepfamily living but a problem which could be solved by doing something different in the ex-marriage. Could the couple table their fights about money while the husband worked on a different way of atoning for his guilt in his relationship with his ex-wife? They agreed.
The husband had several sessions with his ex-wife in order to finish up some of the loose ends of their relationship and to apologize to her for the ways in which he had hurt her when he left. As he felt less guilty, he reduced somewhat the extra money flow to her and the children. When he did give them extra money, it was because he wanted to--not because guilt drove him to do it. As he felt less guilty, he and his wife argued less and less about money.
As long as the couple had framed the problem as a normal and, hence, unavoidable, problem of stepfamily living, they were "stuck" in chronic marital conflict. Once it was framed as an ex-marriage problem, it could be solved.
A stepmother cried to her therapist saying she felt both sad and exhausted with the overwhelming task of raising her husbands children. She had read a lot of articles and books about stepmothers and understood that her feelings were probably very normal. This awareness, however, was small comfort to her and she did not think that she could continue in the marraige without some relief--not because there was anything wrong with the marriage but because the relationships with her stepchildren were so tiresome.
The therapist said that she did not think that all of the womans exhaustion and sadness were because of normal stepmother feelings. In fact, some of her feelings were not necessarily tied to the role of stepmother and were, in fact, because of problems between the children and her. (This was based on information the woman had given the therapist about ways in which the mother dumped many responsibilities onto the stepmother and then sabotaged the stepmothers efforts). Could the stepmother, therefore, turn over more of the work of parenting to the childrens mother?
The rest of the therapy focused on helping her deal with the ripples in the marriage and throughout the family system as she turned over more of the responsibilities to the childrens mother.
While the two examples described above could be viewed as illustrative of common problems faced in many stepfamilies, the problems were more quickly solved by deconstructing the problems as stepfamily problems and reconstructing them as the problems of some other relationship. Now that we have a cultural context which includes stepfamilies as a normative family structure, refusing to use a stepfamily frame can be a creative therapeutic tool.
Helen Coale is a licensed clinical social worker and licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, Director of the Atlanta Area Child Guidance Clinic and author of All About Families the second time around.
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