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May 23, 2015
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This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles
on howtoevolve a
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
related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home
membership or inclusion
illustrates why can they be a significantstressor.
who does belong
to your multi-home stepfamily, and...
how adults can
resolve membership conflicts effectively.
First, learn something about
your stepfamily with this anonymous survey.
This video on stepfamily problems offers context for what you'll find in this
article. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in
this Web site - I've reduced that to seven:
This article assumes you're familiar with...
to this nonprofit Web site, and the
premises underlying it,
Take a moment to mentally list everyone whom you feel "belongs" to
your present family. Now list others you know who don't "belong."
Would each adult and child in your family agree on who belongs and who
doesn't? What's the difference between the "ins" and the "outs"?
criteria for family inclusion are...
sharing common genes,
ancestors, and last names;
titles, like grandmother, nephew, sister, father, and cousin, etc.;
inclusion in family
rituals and gatherings, like reunions, birthdays, weddings, and
shared experiences over
several to many years;
genuine or dutiful caring
about each other's welfare, and...
expectations of mutual
support in stressful situations.
Can you think of other
criteria for family membership (inclusion)?
Non-genetic relatives may be included because of (a) social customs ("We're
now related to our new daughter-in-law's family"), and/or (b) mutual
friendship, respect, and enjoyment ("Komiko is so thoughtful, warm,
and fun to be around!") Religious and ethnic ties may foster some
family inclusions ("Hilda is from the old country.")
Reflect on how family memberships
change. Think of current members of your family who weren't
members when you were a child. How did they get to be included? Common
answers are by birth, adoption, marriage, and special mutual friendships
Now can you think of a child or adult who has been excluded from
belonging among you all? If so, what caused their exclusion? Do all your
members agree on it? Note the difference between
exclusion ("You're no
longer one of us") and rejection("I don't want to be included in this family!")
Do you know any families whose
members seriously disagree on who is included and who isn't? These
can be calledmembership or
inclusion conflicts. They can range from trivial to major
(disrupting family functioning).
Notice the different emotional levels of family inclusion...
duty and/or politeness
("We ought to include Juan's sister in our dinner, tho we don't
familiarity and real
friendship ("We really like Rosa!"), and...
genuine bonding("We all
love and care about Rosa!").
Family-member bonds and
loyalties can range from intellectual and loose to intense dependencies,
based on a mix of factors like personalities, ethnicity, customs, and
gain perspective by making a
genogram of your present family. Then use
colored markers to identify whether each person in the diagram is mildly
(say, blue), moderately (yellow), or very loyal and bonded (red) to
other family members. Mark many members who are
excluded with an "E," and any
who reject family membership
with an "R." See what the overall pattern looks like. Ask your
older kids and relatives to do this
exercise, and then discuss it together.
So how does all this relate to forming a
Membership Conflicts are Normal
People in healthy biofamilies seldom
argue about who belongs to their clan.
stepfamily adults and
kids over inclusion and exclusion are common. If not resolved, these disputes impede the psychological bonding of the
biofamilies, and stress everyone..
For perspective, typical three-generational stepfamilies have
50 to 100+ members
related by genes, history, marriage, emotions, and legal contracts (e.g. wills,
and parenting agreements. One of many differences between average biofamilies and stepfamilies is that
members disagree on who they define as "my
family." Normal stepfamily kids and adults can be
within themselves ("I ought to include my stepmother and her brother, but I don't want to"), and
between each other.
Perhaps the most common membership conflict is whether a
co-parenting ex mate and/or their relatives "belong" to a new
stepfamily. This surface problem is usually caused by a mix of these
common relationship barriers. Where true, work to
steppeople face are...
"Who, specifically, do
feel 'related to' now, genetically, legally, and
"Among this group of relatives, who do
bonded (emotionally connected) with? Whose needs, feelings,
and well-being am I genuinely concerned about?"
I feel I should
care about, among these people?"
"Do each of these
people accept me as a full member of their family now?"
is responsible for resolving any membership disputes among us?"
In my experience, it's
rare for the adults and kids living in related co-parenting homes to agree
on answers to these
questions. Typical new stepkids have
no strong urge to include their stepparents kids or kin in "my family," and
vice versa. Half-siblings can feel speciallyconfused and torn about
whether to include some or all of these other kids and their relatives in
defining "my family." There are no clear social rules to follow as there are
in typical intact biofamilies.
Besides the large number of people
and relationships in new stepfamilies, there are significant odds that their newly-related biofamilies...
have significant unresolved
from prior divorce/s, and child-related
custody, visitation, parenting, names, and financial issues, and...
have no effective way to
resolve group problems yet.
These and other
factors combine to generate frequent disagreements on "Who's included in
our household and extended stepfamily?" A quick way to identify a membership
conflict is to ask two or more stepfamily adults or kids: "If you were giving a party
for your whole family, who would you invite?"
answers will usually differ a little or a lot. This is normal!
Stepfamily membership confusions and
conflicts bloom for yearsaround
visitations, holidays, vacations,
and special family events like baptisms, bar and bas mitzvahs, marriages, graduations,
birthdays, and anniversaries. These conflicts are usually part of clusters
stressors - they don't stand alone, which makes them harder to
Stress Primary Relationships
they can generate...
significant self doubt,
and guilts in kids and adults; and...
12 year old Jill's father Jason has just
remarried Nora, after a seven-month courtship. Jill's parents separated about four years
ago, and their divorce finalized 18 months ago. The divorce was "messy"
(contested and conflictual). Both Jill's parents are still hurt, angry, and distrustful
from incidents before and during the divorce. Jill's biomom Sharon is secretly hurt and
resentful her ex has "found another woman" so soon, though she claims she
"doesn't really care."
Following a bitter legal custody
battle, Jill lives
with her biomom, and visits her dad and stepmom one night a week, and every other weekend.
Communication between Sharon and Jason is strained and curt. Though they're complying with a
legal parenting agreement, neither is really happy about the terms.
Sharon gives off
covert signals to Jill that she (Jill) shouldn't like or accept her stepmother Nora
"too much." As with most divorced kids, Jill feels a strong loyalty to, and
a need to please, her custodial bioparent.
Neither mom nor dad has adequately explained their
family disintegration to Jill, and she is confused and secretly
angry, guilty, and ashamed about it.
Her mother implies, but doesn't say outright, that her father is largely
to blame. Jill is secretly torn between siding with her mother, and feeling
protective and worried about her dad. On top of this, Jill has overheard her Dad and Nora
talking about having a baby, and has mixed feelings about that.
between warm and accepting, and coolly distancing with her father's
"girlfriend" before their re/wedding.The bright 12 year old has steadily rejected the "new" woman's attempts to
"make friends" since the ceremony and honeymoon.
Nora's tolerance for her stepdaughter's unwarranted and
hurtful rejection is starting to thin. This reaches a painful crescendo during their first
attempt at a "family summer vacation." During the 10-day trip to a
beach resort, Jill is frequently silent, moody, "crabby," and unenthused,
despite her Dad's and Nora's best efforts to entertain and cater to her.
Jason over-tries, and Nora grows resentful, feeling her husband's energy is mainly focused on his daughter, not her (a
conflict). She feels badly about her own resentment (inner voice: "I'm just being
but says nothing to Jason. Nora begins to wonder if her stepdaughter's biomom is coaching
Jill to reject her. She again feels guilty and ashamed of wondering about that. She's
incensed that Sharon peppered Jill's luggage with "I love and miss you" notes,
and small presents.
Tension grows among all three, and
they're relieved to return home from "the vacation from hell." At this point,
sees biomom Sharon as "part of Jill's (vs. our) family." The girl
impelled by duty and anxiety to exclude Nora and her relatives from "my (psychological)
family." She sees Nora as "my Dad's new wife," not "my
between accepting Nora as now being part of
Jill's legalfamily, but not really belonging to their pre-divorce marital
biofamily. Jason is torn between wanting "space" from the history of painful
conflicts with his ex Sharon (implication: "No,
my ex is not part of my
family"), and having to acknowledge the reality of Sharon's genetic, historic,
emotional, financial, legal, ongoing ties with Jill, himself, and now with Nora.
Everyone feels confused,
guilty about all this - and no
one talks about their feelings and needs. This is partly so because all three co-parents are
unaware of being psychologically
and in protective denials.
As time goes
on, Nora and Jason both begin to wonder "What have I gotten myself into here?" If
Jason and Nora don't...
discuss all these feelings, expectations, and attitudes,
stepfamily inclusion conflicts can escalate over time.
The inner and mutual conflicts will probably
increase as Thanksgivings, year-end holidays, Easters, birthdays, and family outings accumulate. Nora,
Jill, Jason and Sharon all have to make continuing decisions about "Who do we invite, and how do we all feel about doing so?" Relatives get mixed signals, and have
their own mosaic of opinions on "Who belongs to our (multi-generational) stepfamily?"
Added to other
financial, household, and co-parenting conflicts, these loyalty and
membership issues increasingly stress Nora and
Jason's re/marriage, and hinder Sharon and Jason's chances to
evolve stable co-parenting teamwork. These conflicts will probably escalate if Jason and Nora
have a child, and/or Sharon re/marries - specially if her new
mate has children.
Does this example seem credible to you?
If you were one of these co-parents, what would you do about this situation?
Stepfamily membership conflicts may not be re/maritally
fatal themselves, but they can promote other complex home and stepfamily
stressors along the way.
Before continuing, try this Status Check: circle T(rue), F(alse), or "?"
("I'm not sure now")
I can explain what (a)
"family identity" is, and
(b) why all family members'
fully accepting theirstepfamily identity
is vital.(T F ?)
I can clearly explain the concept of a
stepfamily membership conflict to another person now. (T F ?)
Option - try this!
I can clearly describe loyalty
triangles to another person now, and how stepfamily
identity and membership conflicts cause them. (T F ?)
I'm very clear now on who belongs to our multi-generational
(extended) stepfamily. (T
All our kids'
bioparents and stepparents are clear and agreed on
who comprises our extended stepfamily now; or we all
know how to reduce our membership disagreements, and are working to do so.(T F ?)
Each minor and grown
child in our family is clear (a) that we all are a
stepfamily,and(b)on who comprises their stepfamily now. (T
What did you just learn? How would other members of your home and family
respond to these items?
to Our Stepfamily?
The short answer is - any legal or
biological relative who's existence "significantly" affects
one or more other family members is a legitimate member of
your stepfamily system. Their impacts may be
genetic, psychological, spiritual, legal, financial, and/or
bothbioparents of each stepchild, and their respective biofamily
relatives, are full stepfamily members, whether alive or
dead, and involved or not.
for healthy stepfamily
harmony and bonding, the needs and opinions of each such relative
need to be genuinely accepted and respected by all adults and kids.
rejecting or excluding
full membership will cause compound clusters of divisive
loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles in and among the
stepfamily's related homes.
Unless admitted and
resolved, these clusters will (a) stress stepfamily marriages
(promote re/divorce), (b) lower the stepfamily's nurturance level,
and (c) pass on the lethal [wounds + unawareness]
cycle to the next
Pause, breathe, and notice you're thots and feelings now. If you
disagree with these implications, you're probably unaware of stepfamily
realities and/or ruled by a false self.
If any of your
stepfamily adults or kids significantly
disagree on who belongs, what can you do?
Options for Resolving Membership Conflicts
Focus on "What's best for
all our members over the next 25 years?," rather than
focusing only on local inclusion /exclusion disputes;
Adults agree that your
highest shared responsibility is to protect your present and future kids
from the wounds + unawareness] cycle. Adults who disagree are
Help each other patiently apply Lessons
1 thru 7 here, and to
Co-parents draw your stepfamily genogram, and discuss it with your
kids and relatives. Identifyany family adults or kids who
exclude someone from "belonging," or reject belonging to your
Co-parents model talking openly about membership
(inclusion / exclusion)
conflicts ("Pat, you and I disagree on who comprises our
stepfamily, don't we?"), and encourage your kids and kin to do so.
These are normal
divorcing-family and stepfamily stressors:
no one is bad or wrong when they happen!
Agree that the realissues are how much any
exclusions and rejections affect your co-parents' serenity and
relationships, and each child's security and wholistic health.
Inclusion / exclusion conflicts are a family problem, not a
A useful question to ponder honestly is
would it mean to me if I fully accepted __________ as a full member of our
stepfamily?" Often the core reasons are prospective losses of
prized hopes ("We'll never be the 'regular family' I long for"),
illusion ("Stepfamilies aren't that different,") or protective
denials ("Maybe I committed to the wrong group of people!").
other evolve effective strategies to resolve values and loyalty
conflicts and relationship triangles. Family "membership" disputesalwayscause clusters of these stressors. Then model and explain your
strategies to your kids.
bioparents accept co-responsibility for
stressors with (co-parenting) ex mates and key
kin. Ideally, begin well
before re/wedding. If you don't, membership and related
loyalty conflicts and relationship
and inexorably reduce your stepfamily's nurturance level.
still have inclusion / exclusion stress, consider using
professional help until you learn to master it yourselves.
This Lesson-7 article offers
perspective on "belonging" to a family, and why membership (inclusion / exclusion)
conflicts are likely in average stepfamilies, It suggests why these
conflicts can stress
re/marriages; and gives an example of such a conflict and practical options for
resolving them. Resolving "membership conflicts" is one of many related