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Helping Families Flourish

Posted on 23 September 2013

web Biz Stepfamily

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, visit their Sag Harbor office at 334 Division Street or call 725-0911.



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2 Responses to “Helping Families Flourish”

  1. As a step and biological Mom, and the author of a book on stepfamilies which included not only my own experience but research with stepfamily authorities and other stepfamilies, I am aware, all to often, of the high rate of divorce among these families.

    One reason is that there are no understood guidelines for these families. Society tends to apply the rules of first marriages, while ignoring the complexities of stepfamilies.
    A little clarification: In a stepfamily the child(ren) is of one co-parent; in a blended family, there are children from both co-parents; and, virtually all family members have recently experienced a primary relationship loss.

    The Landmines

    Three potential problem areas are: Financial burdens, Role ambiguity, and the Children’s Negative Feelings when they don’t want the new family to “work.”

    Husbands sometimes feel caught between the often impossible demands of their former family and their present one. Some second wives also feel resentful about the amount of income that goes to the husband’s first wife and family.

    Legally, the stepparent has no prescribed rights or duties, which may result in tension, compromise, and role ambiguity.

    Another complication of role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other. In reality, this is often just not the case.

    The third reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that a child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility, since children commonly harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

    Stepmother Anxiety

    Clinicians say that the role of stepmother is more difficult than that of stepfather, because stepmother families may more often be born of difficult custody battles and/or particularly troubled family relations.
    Society is also contradictory in expecting loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtime stories we are all familiar with).

    Stepfather Anxiety

    Men who marry women with children come to their new responsibilities with a mixed bag of emotions, far different from those that make a man assume responsibility for his biological children. A new husband might react to an “instant” family with feelings which range from admiration to fright to contempt.

    The hidden agenda is one of the first difficulties a stepfather runs into: The mother or her children, or both, may have expectations about what he will do, but may not give him a clear picture of what those expectations are. The husband may also have a hidden agenda.

    A part of the stepchildren’s hidden agenda is the extent to which they will let the husband play father.

    The key is for everyone to work together.

    The husband, wife, their stepchildren, and their non-custodial biological parent can all negotiate new ways of doing things by taking to heart and incorporating the information you are about to learn—the most positive alternative for everyone.

    One Day at a Time

    Now you have a pretty good feel for what everyone is going through. How do you start to make it better — a process that can take years? First you must be very clear about what you want and expect from this marriage and the individuals involved, including yourself. What are you willing to do? In a loving and positive way, now is the time to articulate, negotiate, and come to an agreement on your expectations and about how you and your partner will behave.

    The best marriages are flexible marriages, but how can you be flexible if you do not know what everyone needs right now. And, this may change over time, so there must be room for that to happen as well.

    In flexible marriages partners are freer to reveal the parts of their changing selves that no longer fit into their old established patterns. You couldn’t possibly have known at the beginning of your new family what you know now and will learn later.

    Spouses may feel the “conflict taboo” even more than in a first marriage. It is understandable that you want to make this marriage work. You might feel too “battle-scarred” to open “a can of worms.” And so, you gloss over differences that need airing and resolution—differences over which you may not have hesitated to wage war in your first marriage. Avoiding airing your differences is a serious mistake. It is important for you to understand your own and your partner’s needs because society hasn’t a clue how stepfamilies should work. Unless you talk about your expectations, they are likely to be unrealistic.

    Living Well

    Since roughly one third of stepfamilies do survive—even thrive—we know that stepfamilies can grow the safety, support, and comfort that only healthy families provide. Consider the following for living your step/blended family life well:

    You must assess, as a couple, how well you accept and resolve conflicts with each other and key others. Learn and steadily work to develop verbal skills: listen with empathy, effectively show your needs, and problem-solve together. The emotional highs of new love can disguise deep disagreement on parenting, money, family priorities, and home management, i.e., values that will surface after the wedding.

    Together, accept your prospective identity as a normal, unique, multi-home stepfamily. You need to admit and resolve strong disagreements, well enough for positive results.

    You must balance and co-manage all of these tasks well enough on a daily basis to: build a solid, high-priority marriage; enjoy your kids; and, to keep growing emotionally and spiritually as individual people.

    Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

    Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.

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