It can take anywhere from four to seven years for a stepfamily to successfully blend, according to Joshua M. Gold in his book Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm.
The formation of a stepfamily is “uncharted water for everyone,” he says. Not only do parents and children each carry the dynamics and histories from their previous family arrangements but also face a myriad of societal stereotypes that often paint stepfamilies as dysfunctional.
“What must become clear to clinicians is that the old myths of the stepfamily drastically interfere with effective clinical understanding and therapeutic assistance to these family constellations,” writes Gold, an American Counseling Association member and professor in the counselor education program at the University of South Carolina. “Therefore, clinicians must educate themselves beyond comparisons with nuclear families to truly appreciate the unique strengths and challenges in working with a family system whose numbers are predicted to become the dominant family form in the United States in the 21st century.”
Gold is a stepparent himself and says that his “lived experience” contributes to his professional focus on stepfamily dynamics. He is also a member of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association, and is a contributing editorial board member of IAMFC’s journal, The Family Journal.
CT Online recently contacted Gold for a Q+A about his new book, which is published by the American Counseling Association.
In your opinion, what makes professional counselors a good fit to work with stepfamilies?
To my mind, there are several facets to being a good fit to support stepfamilies. I believe that a foundation in systems thinking is a critical part of family intervention. Each family member brings unique resources to counseling to help the family function more successfully, and the clinician must have the orientation and skills to facilitate their emergence. Implicit in that statement is a focus on a wellness model of stepfamily functioning, which entails understanding the stages of stepfamily evolution, a capacity to legitimize stepfamily struggle within a developmental, rather than pathological, context and a deep appreciation for the characteristics and dynamics of stepfamily life.
In addition, a strong clinician would be able to recognize external family members whose input is critical to stepfamily progress and be sufficiently adept to invite the stepfamily to encourage their participation in whatever mode may be feasible. I also think that sensitive clinicians understand the interaction of ethnicity and sexual orientation with stepfamily life and are prepared to embrace the stepfamily’s experience of self and of the larger society. Clinicians must be prepared in all cases to understand any personal biases or societal misperceptions about stepfamilies that may interfere with the efficacy of their interventions.
Your focus in this book is helping stepfamilies through the use of narrative therapy. Why did you choose that particular method? What makes narrative therapy a good fit for working with stepfamilies?
I believe that any marginalized group in society experiences definition through the social lens of dominant social structures. So, for example, in terms of family functioning, all other family constellations may be compared in membership, roles and perceived success to the nuclear family ideal. This comparison leads to perceptions of deficiency or inherent dysfunction based on oft-repeated, yet perhaps unfounded, social narratives. These perceptions focus attention not on how the family is succeeding but rather on ways in which it fails — if not soon, then sometime in the foreseeable future. This expectation of dysfunction, member unhappiness and marital dissolution may create a self-fulfilling prophecy within the stepfamily.
Narrative therapy seeks to identify and evaluate the validity of these social myths based on the lived experience of the client. By recognizing the negative lens through which the family has viewed itself, members have the opportunity to create more positive expectations of their stepfamily life and then to interact with each other reflective of those expectations.
It’s predicted that the stepfamily constellation will be the most common family form in the U.S. by 2020. Do you think the counseling profession, as a whole, is aware of or ready for this demographic shift?
I believe there is not an area of counseling which has not already felt this shift. For example, any school counselor could recount, just looking at a child’s folder, the new names and addresses added to the roster and the names of new individuals permitted to [interact] with the school on behalf of that child. Any family-focused clinician or mental health professional who conducts a social history of a child presenting in pain would identify the number of stepfamilies in one’s assigned caseload. I also believe that the profession’s commitment to client welfare and provision of ongoing professional development training, in multiple venues, ensure the availability of continual upgrading of clinical skill.
What becomes important, to my thinking, is whether a clinician faced with a stepfamily situation ponders the extent to which that family constellation can be activated to help the individual presenting [with] pain to overcome that life challenge. While stepfamily life may or may not contribute to the presenting issue, I am of the opinion that stepfamily members can contribute to its resolution.
In your experience, do stepfamilies often seek out counseling on their own, or are they more likely to come to counseling in a roundabout way, such as referral from a school counselor?
I believe that family counseling is constantly challenged to expand the focus on counseling from the identified client to the entire family. This therapeutic intent can probably best be accomplished by focusing on assignment of blame or responsibility for current stepfamily dysfunction to identifying potential resources within differing stepfamily relational schema.
This situation of “roundabout counseling” is no different in stepfamilies, except where counselors can provide resources to ongoing stepfamily support communities. Within those peer support systems, counselors can offer psychoeducational interventions on multiple levels: to stepfamilies as a whole, to the marital system, to the stepsibling system, to the involvement of ex-spouses, etc.
In the book, you stress the importance of combating stepfamily myths that members of a family may have. What would you want counselors to know about this? Why are myths a key part of understanding the stepfamily dynamic?
Societal myths influence stepfamily expectations and offer templates for role expectations of differing stepfamily members. However, these myths are imbued within social lore and espoused by social institutions as well as individuals. Therefore, stepfamily members are influenced subtly as to what to expect of others and of themselves within stepfamily roles.
From a clinical orientation, cognitive behavioral counseling, in general, speaks to the function of beliefs, thoughts and assumptions as precursors to action. From that perspective, interventions that seek to modify behaviors, such as conflict-resolution skills, step-parenting, marital communication training, etc., are overlooking attention to the attitudes which drive the actions. Narrative therapy encourages clients to identify, evaluate and perhaps reauthor dominant social beliefs in a way that results in more positive views of stepfamilies in general and each role within that family specifically.
More importantly, in a situation where the dominant myths seem to portray family constituents in negative lights, this process introduces the idea that the issue lies not within that individual but rather within the assumptions one holds about the role that person enacts in the stepfamily. By distancing the negative portrayal from a person to a social perception, the client can better author that perception based on real-life experience and interactions with that specific individual.
For example, stepchildren may view a new stepfather as aloof and uncaring, while the stepfather’s intent is to allow the children time and space to warm up to him. In this situation, it is easy to envision the emotional distance between them and the emergence of negative assumptions about each role. However, by transcending these social narratives about the role of “distant” stepfather and “unappreciative stepchildren,” the adult and children can begin to learn about each other’s gifts and capacities in more positive ways.
Do you think stepfamily dynamics receive enough focus in the education and training that people receive before becoming licensed marriage and family therapists? What do you want students and new counselors to be aware of related to working with stepfamilies?
I think that training programs are challenged to provide both generic and client-population-specific knowledge and skills. To my thinking, as clinicians encounter clients with whom they have not had previous experience, they hold a professional obligation to seek the knowledge and skills that have been found to be relevant for that specific client group. It is the purpose of post-graduation supervision to support each new clinician in expanding one’s generic knowledge and skill sets to ensure efficacious treatment of new and diverse client groups. The career-long expectation for professional development is founded in the understanding that any graduate program cannot prepare a clinician for every client situation. [It] must be augmented by individually determined specialized study to meet the clinical needs of one’s client populations.
In terms of preparation to work with stepfamilies, I would want students and new counselors to be aware of the wealth of current professional knowledge, as compared with self-help resources, and to honor that an admission of “not knowing” is not a sign of clinical unreadiness, but rather of receptivity to new learning.
What inspired you to write this book?
The roots of this work can be found in my clinical, personal and scholarly pursuits. I began providing counseling many years ago and was referred to a stepfamily support group to offer a psychoeducational workshop to normalize stepfamily challenges. Through working with stepfamilies as clients, I had recognized how dissimilar their family challenges were to those experienced by nuclear families, and had dedicated myself to learning what was known about stepfamilies in hopes of offering better clinical service.
Even then I intervened from a systemic perspective and saw the symptom bearer as the “voice” of family pain, requiring systemic change to allow the family to become unstuck. However, before I could intervene effectively, I needed to develop conjointly with the family an orientation toward healthy stepfamily functioning.
From personal perspective, I co-created a stepfamily over a decade ago, [composed] of two teen stepdaughters, their mother and a 6-year-old mutual child. That life experience has provided me with a reality-based template through which to evaluate my thinking and relationships as a husband, stepfather and father. That personalized learning has proven invaluable to continually reinforce the maxim that there is a gulf between theory and lived experience, and both are critical components of deeper and more profound understandings.
From a scholarly perspective, I trace my current book to my clinical experiences in my predoctoral days, my doctoral dissertation focusing on stepfamily marriages and then subsequent publications dealing with differing aspects of stepfamily life and growth. Driven by the identified failure rate of stepfamilies, plus the ongoing escalation in their numbers, I wanted to present to the profession what I hoped would be a useable and understandable treatise about how to help these families become more successful.
Finally, I hoped to contribute to the helping professions a guide for clinicians who work with stepfamilies, and for stepfamily members themselves who wish to analyze their unique family strengths and challenges.
Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222
- Approximately one-third of all weddings in the United States today create a stepfamily.
- It’s predicted that stepfamilies will be the most common family form in the U.S. by the year 2020. An estimated 9,100 new American stepfamilies are created each week.
- Thirty-three percent of all Americans are in a stepfamily relationship, including an estimated 10 million stepchildren under the age of 18.
- The divorce rate for remarried and stepfamily couples varies but is at least 60 percent. At least two-thirds of stepfamily couples divorce, and divorce occurs more quickly in stepfamilies than first marriages.
- About 46 percent of U.S. marriages today are a remarriage for one or both partners, and about 65 percent of remarriages involve children from the prior marriage, thus forming a stepfamily.
- Four recent U.S. presidents were members of stepfamilies: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
Source: Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.