Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Who Belongs to Our Stepfamily?

How to Resolve Membership Conflicts

Peter K. Gerlach, MSW;

Member, NSRC Experts Council

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

Updated  May 23, 2015

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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 bioparents, or any of the related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.  

      This article

  • describes stepfamily membership or inclusion conflicts,

  • illustrates why can they be a significant stressor. and suggests...

  • 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...

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

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • resolving stepfamily identity disputes

  • stepfamily genograms (maps), and...

  • options for analyzing and resolving relationship problems


      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"? Common criteria for family inclusion are...

  • sharing common genes, ancestors, and last names;

  • traditional family-role titles, like grandmother, nephew, sister, father, and cousin, etc.;

  • inclusion in family rituals and gatherings, like reunions, birthdays, weddings, and graduations;

  • shared experiences over several to many years;

  • expressions of 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 ("good chemistry.").

      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 called membership 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 know her.");

  • 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 geographic closeness.

Option - 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 high-nurturance ("successful") stepfamily?

  Stepfamily Membership Conflicts are Normal

      People in healthy biofamilies seldom argue about who belongs to their clan. Conflicts among stepfamily adults and kids over inclusion and exclusion are common. If not resolved, these disputes impede the psychological bonding of the several merging 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, divorce decrees, and parenting agreements. One of many differences between average biofamilies and stepfamilies is that some members disagree on who they define as "my family." Normal stepfamily kids and adults can be conflicted 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 resolve them first.

       Five questions average steppeople face are...

"Who, specifically, do I feel 'related to' now, genetically, legally, and psychologically?"

"Among this group of relatives, who do I honestly feel bonded (emotionally connected) with? Whose needs, feelings, and well-being am I genuinely concerned about?"

"Who do I feel I should care about, among these people?"

"Do each of these people accept me as a full member of their family now?"  And...

"Who 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 stepparent’s kids or kin in "my family," and vice versa. Half-siblings can feel specially confused 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...

  • are of different religious and ethnic backgrounds (causing values conflicts),  and...

  • have significant unresolved issues 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?" Their answers will usually differ a little or a lot. This is normal! 

      Stepfamily membership confusions and conflicts bloom for years around child 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 of concurrent stressors - they don't stand alone, which makes them harder to resolve..

 Membership Conflicts Stress Primary Relationships

they can generate...

  • significant self doubt, hurt, resentments, and guilts in kids and adults; and...

  • divisive loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles.

      For example:

      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.

       Jill alternated 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 loyalty conflict). She feels badly about her own resentment (inner voice: "I'm just being childish...") 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, Nora sees biomom Sharon as "part of Jill's (vs. our) family." The girl feels 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 stepmother." 

      Sharon is torn between accepting Nora as now being part of Jill's legal family, 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 new 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, anxious, and 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 wounded 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, and...

  • accept they're in a two-home (nuclear) stepfamily and what that means,

these several 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 concurrent 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'm sure my true Self is leading my inner family right now  (T  F?)

I can explain what (a) "family identity" is, and (b) why all family members' fully accepting their stepfamily 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 conflicts and relationship 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  F ?)

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  F ?)

      What did you just learn? How would other members of your home and family respond to these items?

  Who Does Belong 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 physical.

      Implications -

  • both bioparents 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 generation.

        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. Red light!

      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 probably wounded, psychologically.

      Help each other patiently apply Lessons 1 thru 7 here, and to reduce significant inner wounds;

      Work together to accept your stepfamily identity and what it means.

      Co-parents draw your stepfamily genogram, and discuss it with your kids and relatives. Identify any family adults or kids who exclude someone from "belonging," or reject belonging to your stepfamily.

      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 real issues 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 personal one!

      A useful question to ponder honestly is "What 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 false-self denials ("Maybe I committed to the wrong group of people!").

      Adults help each other evolve effective strategies to resolve values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Family "membership" disputes always cause clusters of these stressors. Then model and explain your strategies to your kids. 

      Divorcing bioparents accept co-responsibility for identifying and resolving unhealed 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 triangles will recur and inexorably reduce your stepfamily's nurturance level.

      If you still have inclusion / exclusion stress, consider using qualified, stepfamily-aware 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 stepfamily-formation tasks.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you neguide7.htmed? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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