CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION
Family therapists frequently find themselves addressing the needs of stepfamilies. Often the presenting problem is child-related. The fairly typical scenario involves a couple who cannot agree about how to go about forming a smoothly operating family unit
the type they feel socioculturally and emotionally pressured to create. There are many
stories of stepfamily formation that is not going well: Frequently the focus appears to be a child, but parallel to what we find in traditional families, quite often the presenting family issue reveals a problem in the marital dyad. That problem frequently sounds, in therapy, like a conflict of interest for the biological parent. Torn between the needs of the partner and the needs of the biological children, encircled by guilt, and founded in a context of prior loss, these families nonetheless strive for a semblance of the traditional family. Due to the factors affecting stepfamily formation, this goal remains elusive, but striven for, and ultimately proves frustrating and futile. Along the way, these conflicting needs encountered by the couple quite often result in marital problems that are presented in therapy as choices unsupportive of the couple, or conflicting loyalties. The result is an assault on the couple’s attachment bond that is tested by the trials of their stepfamily formation.
Stepfamilies face unique challenges when compared to traditional families. They represent the courage and optimism of two adults, (the “stepcouple”), who forge a new family, with separate histories and experiences regarding “family life.” The “steppartner” lives in a twilight zone: The new mate may gratefully expect him/her to be “in charge” as another adult in the new family, and cultural prescriptions dictate that this should be so. Behind closed doors, though – and sometimes openly – there may be difficulty in obtaining buy-in from the recently disenfranchised children. Their former family structure is now completely shaken to its core, as this new “blended” family seeks to find its place in the hearts and minds of its members.
Contrary to the myths promulgated by the likes of “The Brady Bunch,” the typical stepfamily blending process is bewildering, produces anxiety and anger, with occasional, hopeful glimmers of a new sense of family. Generally, it takes a minimum of three years for those glimmers to brighten to a shared sense of family; even then, this familial sense differs from that of the original family in significant ways (Papernow, 1993).
There is much in the stepfamily literature that delineates the problems faced in stepfamily formation, and how to resolve them. First and most compelling is the fact that stepfamilies are created due to divorce, death or other severed relationships. Stepfamilies are founded in loss (Martin, Martin & Jeffers, 1992). The stepcouple may face bonding challenges to their relationship complicated by unresolved loss issues from past marital/committed relationships.
Further, as in traditional families, the stepcouple is urged to attend to their own bond first; this expectation is frequently challenged by factors unique to their situation. Particular challenges may be posed by biological loyalty ties, which threaten developing dyadic bonds (Visher & Visher, 1979). Specifically, tension may result for the stepcouple due to conflicting loyalties for the couple regarding the children and/or the ex-