“It’s time to turn the page,” invited President-Elect Biden. He affirms, “I will work to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify. I won’t see red states and blue states, I will always see the United States.” His mission is to heal the ruptures in the United States. But how do we live this mission? What practices in daily life will help us turn the page?

Perhaps the first step is recognizing that this election is more like a second marriage than a first marriage. Second marriages are born of loss from previous marriages. They will be uniting two or more completely different cultures. They will be the stepparents to children who not only didn’t choose them but children of a parent who truly desires the children to completely disavow the stepparents. Any successful step-family will tell this is tender ground. Leadership in these circumstances is counterintuitive. The way forward may be slow and paradoxical but healing–indeed resurrection–is possible. Here is some wisdom gleaned from successful stepfamilies

  1. Let Go of Blending–Many stepfamily experts disavow the term blended family because it suggests a melting into one unified whole and discounts the reality that these relationships are just that. A step removed from one another. There is no quick or easy way to take two (or more) family cultures and develop a unified new culture

2. Acknowledge lack of “Middle Ground” and Be Intentional in Relating–In stepfamilies, there is little “middle ground” or established norms that make it easier to connect and collaborate. Middle ground creates the container for optimal arousal rather than being hyper- or hypo- aroused (Ogden, P., Minton, M., & Pain, C. 2006).  Regulation is possible in stepfamilies.  It just has to be done consciously, conscientiously, and consistently. This process is much more about slowing down and soothing and regulating yourself. On the outside, it appears as if little occurs, but inside there’s tremendous growth.

3. Be aware of Insider/Outsider Dynamics and Seek Understanding Rather Than Agreement–The structure of stepfamilies divides the family by the very structure. There are stuck insiders and stuck outsiders (Papernow, P 2013). No person is at fault or to blame for this structure. It just is.  What does this mean for us? On a daily, people will feel disconnected and left out or stuck. Living on autopilot isn’t an option at this stage because there isn’t yet agreement on what it means to be ‘we.’ Inner emotional intensity will be high. The way forward is not agreement but understanding. First, with yourself when you realize some lovely piece of implicit belief or bias surfaces. Second when leaning in and listening to another.  FYI—when you’re hyper or hypo aroused is not the time to engage the conversation…slow down, ground, support you.

4. Loyalty Binds Abound All Around, So Shift from Either/Or to Both/And–Even in the most amicable and cooperative stepfamilies, loyalty binds emerge.  Liking a stepparent often feels very disloyal to a stepchild. Some believe it is not possible to love both sets of parents. Most of these beliefs are implicit or underground and are evident only through behaviors like being unreasonably negative, frivolous reasons for rejection, absence of guilt for how thoughts/feelings affect others, and extension of animosity to anything perceived as connected with the stepparent (Baker, A, 2014). Although in many cases these behaviors are fleeting and a sign that the loyalty bond tightens, in some cases, the loyalty bond is encouraged and supported by the ex-spouse. This creates a situation known as parental alienation. The way through loyalty binds and parental alienation is to bring the bind into the light and allow the child a both/and scenario rather than having to choose. Being mindful of how parents talk about their ex is around others is also very important. The child likely feels like they are betraying close others, so hearing painful rhetoric is salt in a wound.

5. Let Go of The Fairy Tale of Unity and Begin Building a New Culture–The fairytale ends with the moment of joining or the end of the struggle. Real-life generally begins in these moments.  In the United States, the dominant narrative has often been that of the melting pot. Although there has been a critique of this narrative, currently releasing it appears imperative for forward-movement. In many sense 2020 has shoved us all into the wilderness, and we are tasked with building a new culture. Papernow (2016) suggests it is less like blending a cake and more like a step-by-step process of building, where eliminating differences isn’t the goal but getting to know one another is. It’s also helpful to know that this process takes time…years. It also means honoring that we are in a liminal space, which means that none of us knows what our resurrection will look like or be like. What we do know is that process matters, so going slow and being intentional with communication is vital. 

6. Ex-Spouses are Part of the Family, and Clarity of Boundaries and Business Like Relating Can Assist In Managing and De-Escalating Conflict— Research suggests it is not divorce or difference that hurts children but the way conflict occurs (El-Sheikh, Buckhalt, Cummings, & Keller, 2007). In situations where conflict is high intensity and regulation is low, “negative intimacy” fuels the conflict cycle and both sides can become addicted to this way of relating. The way forward is to reframe the relating and consider the relationship as you would a business relationship (Ricci, I., 2012). This process often means getting clear with yourself about your emotional bruises and triggers, clarifying your boundaries, and knowing what and how you will respond when they are crossed.  In our case today, this is where the election policy and procedure anchor us.  As individuals, clarifying what is and is not ours and resisting the temptation to engage in the intoxication of social media shaming can be a good first step.

References

El-Sheikh, M., Buckhalt, J. Cummings, E.M.  & Keller, P.  (2007).  Sleep disruption and

emotional insecurity are pathways of risk for children.  Journal of Child Psycholgy

and Psychiatry, 48(1), 88-96.

Ogden, P Minton, M., & Pain, C.  (2006).  Trauma and the body:  A sensorimotor

approach to psychotherapy.  New York:  Norton.

Papernow, P.  (2016).  Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships:  What works

and what doesn’t.  New York:  Routledge.

Ricci, I, (2012).  Mom’s house, dad’s house:  A complete guide for parents who are

separated, divorced, or remarried.    New York:  Simon & Schuster.