Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Three Levels of Common
Stepfamily "Problems"

Implications for Stepfamily Adults

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


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

Updated 06-01-2015

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       This brief YouTube video previews what you'll find in this article. The video mentions eight lessons in this Web site: I've reduced that to seven.

      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 several related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      This article summarizes three levels of common stressors in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies: surface > intermediate > primary. Most family adults and human-service professionals focus only on the surface level, so the underlying problems go unresolved and the surface symptoms recur. Once aware of these problem-levels, family adults can work together to resolve their primary problems and raise their family's nurturance level.

      All adults and kids want stable, safe, satisfying relationships and families. The size and scope of the coaching, counseling, and therapy professions suggest how elusive these prizes are. Based on 36 years' research and clinical experience, I propose why this is and what you can do about it.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

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

  • Q&A about stepfamilies 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 through 6

  • how to "dig down" to learn your primary needs

  • how to analyze and resolve most relationship problems  

      To begin, see how you feel about these...


all personal and social "problems" are unfilled psychological + spiritual + physical needs (discomforts); [ Agree / Disagree / ? (It depends on...) ]

all families and relationships exist to nurture (fill personal needs). Some nurture better than others. (A  D  ?)

typical needs range between surface, intermediate, and primary; and immediate to long-term. (A  D  ?)

most people aren't trained or motivated to distinguish between stressful surface "problems" and the unfilled primary needs that cause them - i.e. they don't know what they don't know.  (A  D  ?)

      To make what follows more vivid, pause now and mentally identify the top three interpersonal things that are causing you significant "stress" (worry, frustration, guilt, shame, resentment, hurt, anxiety, dread, etc). See what level these stressors are per the following table...

      Typical divorcing families and stepfamilies have a mix of three levels of concurrent problems:

Level 1)  Typical SURFACE Problems over...  

  • finances - asset and debt ownership and management, including investing, child support, insurance, and estate plans

  • courtship, weddings, and cohabiting

  • family membership (inclusion and exclusion)

  • stepfamily role (responsibility) definitions

  • home and family rules, boundaries, and consequences

  • prolonged divorce-related conflict and stress

  • addictions and stressful  compulsions

  • excessive "moods," like depression

  • excessive fears, anger, or apathy

  • significant social isolation

  • a range of psychosomatic illnesses

  • household geographic moves

  • stepparent-stepchild relations

  • relations between current and ex mates and in-laws

  • child discipline, visitations, custody, education, and health care

  • family vacations, holidays, rituals, celebrations, and traditions

  • first and last names, and family- role titles

  • legal parenting agreements

  • legal stepchild adoption

  • conceiving an "ours child"

  • stepsibling and half-sibling relations and favoritisms (loyalty conflicts)

  • family values-conflicts over religion, race, lifestyles, and/or mates' genders

  • psychological / legal divorce, and/or related legal suits and losses

      Each of these common surface stressors is caused by...

   Level 2) Underlying INTERMEDIATE Problems  

  • adult ignorance (not knowing)...

how to reduce psychological wounds (Lesson 1)

effective communication basics and problem-solving skills (Lesson 2); and or...

healthy grief basics and how to spot and release blocked grief (Lesson 3); and family-adult ignorance of...

satisfying relationship and family basics (Lessons 4 and 5), ...

effective-parenting basics (Lesson 6), and

stepfamily realities, and realistic stepfamily expectations; (Lesson 7),  and...

stepkids' special needs, and effective co-parenting skills, and...

ignorance of how to evaluate stepfamily information and advice; and...

  • incomplete grief in adults and kids; and...

  • unwise cohabiting and commitment (re/marital) decisions, and...

  • adult inability to spot and resolve...

    stepfamily-identity and loyalty conflicts, and...

    values conflicts, including adult priority clashes, and...

    stressful relationship triangles; and...

    significant barriers to adult cooperation.

    And finally...

  • lack of informed family, community, and media support, including ignorant clergy, clinicians, authors, educators, coaches, and legal professionals

      All of these common intermediate stepfamily problems are caused by these...

  Level 3)  Unseen PRIMARY Problems  

  • Family adults' inherited psychological wounds, and unawareness promoted by...

  • public and media unawareness and denials of the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its toxic effects. This results in legislation and policies allowing...

    • unwise marriages and unqualified child conceptions, and,,,

    • ineffective parenting and low-nurturance families, and...

    • widespread child neglect and abuse.

          These promote...

    • serious psychological wounding, and spreading these toxic effects down the generations.

      Have you ever seen this three-level concept before? Does it seem credible? Would you agree that average adults, all kids, and many human-service professionals are unaware of this concept?


      When you have significant personal, relationship, and/or family "problems" (level 1 above) you're probably unaware of what's really causing them. If so, your efforts to solve the problems probably won't fill your primary needs permanently. That promotes frustration, arguments, self-doubt, self-criticism, shame ("stress") and re/divorce.

      When people you care about have significant personal and relationship problems, you may be able to provide temporary (surface) help - but unless you all identify their underlying (level 2) needs, their surface discomforts will probably return in some form.

      Notice your thoughts now...

      If your family's adults don't commit to learning (a) the level-2 topics above and (b) how to dig down from surface problems to discern your primary needs (levels 2 and 3 above), then...

  • the nurturance-level of your family and relationships will be lower than it could be, and...

  • your psychologically-wounded kids will leave home not knowing how to discern and resolve their primary problems. This will...

  • inexorably stress them, spread the unseen [wounds + unawareness] cycle, and weaken our society.

      If you're used to being controlled by well-meaning, short-sighted false selves, you risk focusing on surface (level 1) problems; achieving far less than your true potential as a worthy, talented person; and dying prematurely.

      If you don't alert other people to what you read here - specially parents and teachers, who will?


  • Grow the habits of...

  • checking to see if your true Self is guiding you, and...

  • asking yourself "What do I really need here?" in stressful and confusing situations; Then...

  • using awareness to answer that question.

  • Learn to dig down to uncover your primary needs, and then use win-win problem-solving to fill them effectively.

  • Practice applying these ageless guidelines to your life and teaching them to young people; and...

  • Continue studying and applying the concepts and tools in Lessons 1 thru 7,  and encourage others to do the same.


      This article proposes that human "problems" are unfilled needs - i.e. physical, emotional, and spiritual discomforts. Problems often come in clusters which need to be prioritized to avoid confusion and overwhelm.

      The article illustrates three levels of typical adult problems in average divorcing and step families: surface > intermediate > primary. Until adults identify their underlying needs, their surface problems will keep recurring.

      Learning to use awareness and dig-down skills as teammates is an effective way to discover current primary needs in any relationship. Then use the other five communication skills in Lesson 2 to satisfy everyone's current needs well enough.

  Learn something about yourself - take this 1-question anonymous poll.

      Pause, b-r-e-a-t-h-e, and reflect. What are your subselves saying now? Did you get what you needed from reading this? If so, what do you need to do now? If not - what do you need? Who's answering - your wise true Self or ''someone else''?

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