Lesson 7 of 7  - how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Use Structural Maps to
Strengthen Your Stepfamily

Discover what
needs improving

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/help/map.htm

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      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 biological parents, or any of the three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      "Structural mapping" is a visual tool for understanding how your home or family is "built." - This tool can help you answer questions like...

  • "Who is most influential in our homes and multigenerational family, including dead people?"

  • "Who's makes the key decisions in each of our homes?"

  • "Which members are allied. and who is conflicted or shunned?"

  • "Is anyone excluded from full family membership? By Whom? Why?"

  • "Do we have major communication blocks in and between our several homes?"

  • "How do the structures of our homes change in situations like child visitations, major conflicts, and celebrations?"

      To get the most from this article, first read...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • making a family genogram;

  • structural mapping of a biological family,

  • traits of high-nurturance (functional) families; and...

  • stepfamily basics, Q&A, myths, and common problems,

  Contents - this page...

  • provides 13 premises about family functioning,

  • describes sample structural-mapping symbols;

  • illustrates baseline maps of functional and dysfunctional biofamily homes;

  • illustrates maps of functional and dysfunctional stepfamily structures before and during child visitations; and...

  • starts describing how to map your stepfamily; including four special situations; and...

  • suggest how to use your structural maps,


      These premises add to those for biological families:

      Structural mapping can be most effective if you view the stepfamily as a multi-generational, multi-home system. One home in the stepfamily system may be functional and other related home/s may be dysfunctional,

      Because typical stepfamilies are formed from three or more biofamilies, (six or more adult family trees), the odds that one or more adults iin the system carry inherited psychological wounds are higher than in a biofamily. system. Structural maps should indicate such wounded kids and adults.

      Because the number of possible relationships in a stepfamily system is far higher than in biofamilies, the chances for communication blocks and values, membership, and loyalty conflicts in and among the homes in a stepfamily system are far higher than in typical biofamilies.  Each of these st8ressors should be identified with suitable symbols in the system's structural map.

       Most stepfamily homes with resident minor kids have two structural states: kids home and kids away (visitation). If both re/married mates have prior kids and living ex mates (a blended three-home stepfamily), the home "in the middle" may have three or more visitation structures or states, The structure of each home in the system may change in each state, so a complete stepfamily structural map should include a diagram for each common state.

      Minor kids eventually change custodial homes in a significant minority of typical stepfamilies. When they do, the structure of most homes on the system change, justifying a new structural diagram. Similar changes occur when kids leave for college or military service.

      Other reasons for redrawing a stepfamily's structural map include a family member's engagement, separation, divorce, desertion, or disability, a birth, or a death, and/or a geographic relocation .

      Discuss these premises with the other adults in and supporting your related homes. The more aware you all are about ideas like these, the more useful family-structure mapping will be for you.

      Now Let's put these premises to work...

  Structural-mapping Symbols

      Structural family maps use symbols to show how the members relate to each other. The symbols can be initials, alphabetic letters, geometric shapes (e.g. a small square, circle, or diamond) or special characters, like these.

      Stepfamily maps can also use small encircled letters to designate important individual or couple dynamics like these:

A = addiction

VC = values conflict

SD = stepfamily denial

$C = money conflict

M = military

D =  depression

MC = membership conflict

G = grieving

H = homeless

J = in jail

(CP2+C1 ) or

Psychologically over-involved (enmeshed or codependent) Co-Parent "2" and Child "1", or enmeshed Biosiblings "2."

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

Biokids visiting between co-parents’ homes

      Let's look at how you can use symbols to diagram your family's homes:

Sample Family-structure Maps

      Recall: "structure" here refers to home and family membership, leadership, responsibility, boundaries, and communications. We’ll start with high-nurturance-family maps. Then we’ll see some of the many kinds of dysfunction (low nurturance), for both biofamilies and typical multi-home stepfamilies.

      Again: the purpose of these maps is to show simply and concisely whether a home or multi-home nuclear family is organized in a functional way or not. Use maps to help discuss and improve your family’s nurturance level, not to expose, attack, or blame any members.

A)  Baseline: A High Nurturance, Intact Two-parent Biofamily Structure

- - - - - -
C ... C

BioMom and BioFather are co-equally in charge of their home ("above the line"). Communication is open between all adults and several minor kids. Family roles are clear. Kids are encouraged to be kids, vs. little adults. No interfering relatives or other people. No one is demoted, excluded, exalted, absent, enmeshed, or addicted. Household emotional boundaries are open, so friends, kin, and ideas freely enter and leave, yet there are clear limits.

B) Typical Low Nurturance, Intact Two-parent Biofamily Structures

- - - - - - -
C ... C

BM //
    - - - - - (BF


- - - - - - - -
C...C  BM

BF || BM
- - - - -

1) Dominant BioMom, blocked parental communications with BioFather

2) Detached or absent BioFather, blocked parental communications

3) Blocked parent - child communications; Parents enmeshed

4) Child co- controlling the home, BioMom ineffective ("below the line")

5) BioMom's dead mother controls the home; parents can’t talk; kids anxious

      More examples of dysfunctional two-parent biofamilies...

BM ) - - - - (BF
C ... C

BF) - - - - - - - -       C ... C  BM

BF || (C+BM)
- - - - - - - - - -
C ... C

(BU++++BM) [BF]
C ... C

6) Two uninvolved bioparents; teen controls the home; No family boundaries

7) Overwhelmed mom, detached dad, Bio Aunt in charge; Rigid (closed) household boundaries

8) Enmeshed BioMom and controlling child; no parental teamwork or problem solving

9) Enmeshed BioMom and (non-resident) BioUncle; BioFather dead, but still key; kids feel unheard


10) Regressed or overwhelmed  Bioparents. Nobody is consistently in charge of the home (no adult-child responsibility line): All family members are isolated from outsiders (solid border).


11) Similar, including a resident BioRelative; Everyone is enmeshed and chaotic: no effective personal boundaries, and no clear family roles. Mates have no private time or space. Adults are kids' buddies, not co-parents.

      These are only a few of the many bio-home structures possible! How would you map the family that you grew up in? Over time, it probably had several structures. Family structures change each time someone is born, dies (including abortions and stillbirths), leaves home, reaches puberty, becomes seriously ill or injured, gets married, and so on.

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

      Divorce and marital separation strongly usually indicate unwise courtship choices and  psychologically-wounded mates who are unable to relate and problem solve.

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 effective communications.

B) High nurturance mature two-home co-parenting structure: open family boundaries, and effective 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 responsibility 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 hostilitiezs, 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. The many  dysfunctional-structure elements in intact biofamilies 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; geographic moves, 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 mapping 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, 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...

1) Start With Your Home

      Rough draft: Think of the people regularly living in (vs. visiting) your home. You’ll do other maps on your one or two related co-parent homes later. To begin, lightly draw a horizontal co-parental responsibility line on a blank page. Now decide: among all our stepfamily members, who’s needs, opinions, and drives usually directly and indirectly affect the minor kid/s in our home the most? To put it bluntly: Who really makes the key co-parenting and administrative decisions in our home most of the time?

      Consider that the people really running your house may be living elsewhere or dead . They may be one or more adults, a scared, depressed, or enraged child, a powerful relative, an absent bioparent, or some combination. They may also control everyone else by choosing to be over-helpless and a victim. Recall - this exercise is not about finding fault with anyone. It’s about discovering what's good and improving what's not.

      Tentatively, put initials or symbols for the one or more in-charge people above the line. Try to avoid pre-conceived expectations (well of course both of us resident adults are equally in charge here). Of those above the line, is there one who’s more in charge than another? For example, it’s common that in a new step-home, resident (and maybe absent) bioparents have more authority over live-in and visiting biokids than the resident stepparent (see example 4).

      A strong-willed, outspoken, or an acting-out child, relative, or ex mate may strongly influence the decisions in your home. If so, draw a shorter horizontal line above the responsibility line, and put the name or initials of this strongest person above this line. If any home-leader is dead, put their name in parentheses, or a circle.

      Membership spot checks: Many homes are strongly influenced by certain members’ spiritual beliefs. Such members’ relationship decisions and boundaries are often affected by their deep belief in, and relationship with, a personal Higher Power. If this is true now in your home, find a way to symbolize the influence of such a spiritual home-structure member - e.g. {God} or {HP}.

      Also, many two-career homes hire part-time or live-in child-care help. If you regularly use a nanny, senior baby-sitter, relative, neighbor, or other child-care provider to help parent any of your minor kids, decide how you want to add them to your household’s structural diagram. They are affecting your children’s welfare! In the same way, consider any professional counselors of importance to any regular member of your house now.

      Psychological, financial, school, sports, or career counselors, clergy, and medical professionals are affecting your members’ emotional climate. How do you want to note their presence and rank in your current relationship structure?

      Now consider each adult regularly living in your home (including grown biokids), and pick a place on your diagram for them. Options:

  • an active co-equal leader above the responsibility line; or...

  • a dominant leader above other members with some co-parenting authority; or...

  • an emotionally-regressed, overwhelmed, sick, or withdrawn role under the line (little or no authority or active influence on household activities); or...

  • an emotionally detached - or passively ignored - co-parenting role.


  Ann  Ed
 - - - - - -


   - - - - -


 - - - - -


- - - (Ed

      Now add each resident minor child by name or initials: where do they usually fit in your home’s emotional structure (in non-visitation mode)? Common options: (1) co-equally below the line; (2) above the co-parenting responsibility line - perhaps even running the whole home; (c) emotionally excluded, withdrawn, or detached, and (d) dominated by one or more other resident kid/s - a scapegoat or black sheep role. Samples (Al and Jo are minor resident kids):



    Ann Ed
1) - - - - - -
  2) - - - -  

3) - - - - - - -
      Ed C...C

4) - - - (Ed

      Now add each resident minor child by name or initials: where do they usually fit in your home’s emotional structure (in non-visitation mode)? Common options: (1) co-equally below the line; (2) above the co-parenting responsibility line - perhaps even running the whole home; (c) emotionally excluded, withdrawn, or detached, and (d) dominated by one or more other resident kid/s - a scapegoat or black sheep role. Examples (Al and Jo are minor resident kids):

   Ann Ed
1)  - - - - - -
   Ann Al Ed
2)  - - - - - - - -


   Ann Ed
1)  - - - - - -
   Ann Al Ed
2)  - - - - - - - -
or       Al 
      Ann Ed
2)  - - - - - - -

      Ann  Ed
3)   - - - - - -
)    Jo

    Ann  Ed
4) - - - - - -
   Jo  Jill

      Some kids may rise and fall above and below the co-parental responsibility line (or a scapegoat line), depending on who’s at home (or not), or what’s happening. Draw each child in their main position in your home, or consider drawing several structures.

      Don’t forget to include any unborn kids who are on the way (e.g. ??). They probably have a big effect on your emotional structure! Also, include dead children (e.g.  [George]  ) who haven't been well-grieved by all regular members of your home. They still significantly influence these adults and kids.

2)  Add Communication Symbols ...

      Once you’ve placed each resident in your home’s structure, focus on whether each regular resident can communicate effectively or not in this (non-visitation) emotional co-parenting-home's structure. Guidelines: Think first about the adult couples (hopefully) above the co-parenting line: does each adult usually feel:

  • safe enough to say clearly and honestly what they currently feel, and need or want?

  • respectfully listened to (vs. agreed with)?

  • If these both are true, are these people able to discuss and really resolve mutual conflicts often enough (in your opinion)?

      If they - or any two people on your diagram - can meet these three conditions, it’s likely that they have generally effective verbal communications. If they often don’t meet these three conditions, draw a vertical line between them to symbolize blocked communication. Use color for emphasis. If you're unsure, use ?

      If you feel a major trait of your home is that co-parents and kids can’t meet these three conditions regularly (now), make the main horizontal co-parenting line solid. Who’s responsible for removing any verbal communication blocks in your home? See Lesson 2 for help.

      By the way, ponder whether you feel prayer or meditation is significant communication with important spiritual and absent members of your home. Also consider phone, e-mail, texting, and written-letter patterns of communication. They all count!

3) Add Coalitions and Antagonisms

      Now you have members of your home located, and family verbal communication factors symbolized. A final aspect of your home’s psychological  structure to map are any specially intense emotional polarizations between certain members. These can be unusually strong bonds between adults and/or kids, like (Ann+Ed). Note such regular alliances by circling the partners, using +, or another clear notation.

      Significant dislikes, distrusts, rejections, indifferences, and antagonisms (barriers) are common in and between average stepfamily homes. Be honest about acknowledging any such relationships regularly affecting your home’s basic emotional climate now (map what is, so you can problem-solve!). Use lightning lines ( www ), slashes ( // ), xs, or any other symbols to show conflicted members - e.g. Al>>||<<Jill. Needless to say, such relationships rarely have effective verbal communications…


4) Add Home Boundaries

      As a final option, ask yourself what’s the unspoken rule that currently governs this home: are new people, customs, and ideas usually welcome here? Do the adults’ invite friends and relatives to visit fairly often? Are the kids’ friends consistently welcome, and do they feel comfortable visiting this home? Are the people in this home usually interested in the world, and in different customs, beliefs, and new ideas? Are our adults selectively open with some trusted people in sharing important aspects of our family and household life?

      If you feel most of these are true, then the emotional and social boundaries of this home are open. Draw a dashed square or circle around everyone in the home to symbolize this. This implies that someone in the home sets these open boundaries (limits). Who?

      If there were no boundaries, all kinds of other kids and adults would be free to enter the home, use the resources there, and leave when they wanted. Strangers, old lovers, remote kin, would come and go without comment. There would be no sense of privacy. If the adults in this house freely told acquaintances or strangers intimate details of their relationships and home life - and encouraged the kids to do the same - the home would have no container - no us-ness. Such homes are often very low nurturance (dysfunctional).

      The opposite condition occurs when the adults silently or openly decree that new people, ideas, and beliefs are not to be trusted, and aren’t welcome to cross the threshold. Kids are told rigidly who they can invite in or be with. It’s clear that people who act and believe differently (than we do) are wrong, untrustworthy, or bad.

      Such distrusting adults often rigidly enforce the rule Our family’s affairs are nobody else’s business - we don’t talk about ourselves with others! Not freely describing yourselves as one of a set of linked stepfamily homes is a form of this. Such homes may be said to have closed psychological and social boundaries. If your home often seems to be like that, draw a solid circle or rectangle around it.

      When adults feel an unusually high need for personal and household privacy, the prevailing psychological climate inside their home is often tension, anxiety, guilt, distrust, and repressed anger. Over time, this infuses the personalities and attitudes of any resident minor kids.

      Where post-divorce distrusts and wounds haven’t really healed in and between ex mates, the adults often erect rigid emotional boundaries between their homes. Their kids often feel caught in the middle. Insecure stepparents can promote similar distrusts and boundaries, and/or can feel increasingly conflicted and stressed because of them.

5) Final check

      Look at the symbols and relationships you’ve created to show your home’s (non-visitation) emotional structure. Stand in the imaginary shoes of each of your regular residents, one at a time. Would they agree that they and the other members seem to fit where you’ve mapped them? If you’re unsure, sketch some other combinations, and see how they feel. Come back in an hour or several days, and scan again. Evolve your best fit, and avoid trying to be perfect! When you're satisfied enough...

6) Add All Stepkids' Other Homes

      Now, on the same page, repeat the same diagramming process you’ve just done, with all regular adult and child residents in the home of each living co-parent emotionally important to each of your minor bio and stepchildren - including bioparents you rarely hear from.

      These adults do help shape the emotional life and welfare of their biokids, so they affect the psychological climate in your home and re/marriage. Recall - you haven’t begun mapping your homes during child visitations yet…

      Do the same assessments and notations for special (spiritual, unborn, dead, absent, and professional) members; significant communications blocks; key relationship alliances, exclusions, and oppositions; and social and emotional boundaries. Take your time mapping each home: the more time you take, the more awareness you’ll harvest.

      When you’ve finished this set of diagrams, notice your thoughts, and how you feel. Write about these, without editing anything. See what happens.


      After you’ve finished your baseline structural map, the next step is to evolve other maps for any special conditions. These include:

  • Child visitation times

  • Child-support times-of-the-month

  • Family celebrations, and...

  • Unresolved family conflicts.

      Typical intact (1-home) nuclear biofamilies don’t experience the first two of these. When average stepfamily homes experience any of these four, they usually undergo major structural (role and relationship) changes. Members typically feel extra stressed - or relieved, if they gain privacy and quiet.

      If the co-parents don’t all co-operate, communicate, and try to problem-solve together, these stressful shifts from the baseline psychological structures of their homes usually corrodes re/marriages and stunts stepfamily bonding over time.

      Let’s look briefly at each of these four special situations …


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Updated  September 29, 2015