By Tessa Raebeck
Rather than throwing in the towel when she found herself in a “huge fight” with her new husband just three weeks into their marriage, Dr. Jeannette Lofas decided to use herself as the guinea pig for a new business venture.
Dr. Lofas and her young son from a previous marriage had moved into her new husband’s home, which he shared with his four adolescent daughters. According to Dr. Lofas, she got along great with the girls while she was dating their father, but the dynamics changed once they became a stepfamily.
“As soon as I was in the bed in the house with their father, answering the phone,” recalled Dr. Lofas. “It was all of a sudden, ‘Who are you?’ And they wouldn’t talk to me.”
The experience prompted Dr. Lofas to research solutions to mend her new family, but she found there was little written on the subject. Realizing that she was not alone in her struggles with stepchildren, in 1975 she founded the Stepfamily Foundation, Inc. The non-profit organization focuses on working with couples to find tangible solutions to the struggles that can emerge within stepfamilies.
“We are really the only organization that offers concrete solutions to the whole problem of a stepfamily of remarriage and kids,” said Dr. Lofas, who has offices in Sag Harbor and New York City.
“We overcome the whole negative actions of the stepfamily by creating rules of behavior,” she said.
With a PhD in psychology and a background in broadcast journalism, Dr. Lofas has written five books on stepfamilies and was honored with a presidential award for her work.
“We look at it as a managerial problem, not necessarily a psychological problem,” said Dr. Lofas. “But we’re certainly cognizant of all the psychology that goes on.”
The major complaint of newly married couples with kids from previous marriages, according to Dr. Lofas, is “We love each other, but the children are destroying our relationship. Or really, our reactions to each other’s children.”
Like in the case of her own marriage, many families find that once they are all under the same roof, the pleasantries and manners dissolve, said Dr. Lofas. “The whole notion of blended families – we say they don’t blend, they collide. The ethos of each family system collides and you’ve got to prepare for that…People go into a remarriage, as I did, like its like a biological marriage just with a couple more people; but it’s not and it never will be. It won’t function.”
When a couple comes to the foundation seeking help, the first step is to strengthen their bond.
“They realize that they’re the head of the household and they have to start imposing on that household some sort of rules of the road,” said Dr. Lofas. “We enforce the couple to create some rules that they can agree on – and that’s a big task.”
Examples of suggested rules include saying hello, goodbye, please and thank you, letting others finish their sentences without interrupting and looking each other in the eye.
“I lead the couple to some sort of compromise and in many times I impose it,” said Dr. Lofas. “It’s like basic manners you’re teaching them, but manners in the context of a stepfamily where manners are absent usually.”
The counselors first work with the couple together then with each individual separately. The children are not involved until the couple has demonstrated a strong bond and established a set of rules moving forward, like those in a biological family, said Dr. Lofas. Regardless of the family’s affluence, the foundation suggests a system of chores and allowances.
“The kids really do want rules,” said Dr. Lofas. “They pretend not to but they do want rules, there’s some sort of safety in having rules.”
Dr. Lofas and her team report an 84 percent success rate in counseling couples to save their marriages and reconcile their broken stepfamilies.
“It’s a joy to see these people flourish,” said Dr. Lofas. “Coming from negativity or getting a divorce to now, we’ve got a working family. That’s my pleasure in doing this.”
For more information on The Stepfamily Foundation, visit stepfamily.org, visit their Sag Harbor office at 334 Division Street or call 725-0911.