Ryan and Micky have been married for 3 years. They dated for two years before that. Ryan has a twelve year-old daughter, Samantha, from his previous marriage to Alicia. Alicia and Ryan share joint custody of Samantha. She spends two days on and two days off at each parent’s home.
When Ryan and Micky were dating they mostly got together on the nights Samantha was at her mother’s house. Samantha and Micky were together sometimes, but not often, as Micky didn’t want to intrude on Samantha’s time with her dad. When the couple was first married, it looked as though everyone would adjust and that Micky and Samantha would continue to get along well with each other. By the time Ryan and Micky came into my office for therapy however, the situation had changed dramatically. Micky and Samantha could barely stand to be in the same room with one another and Micky and Ryan were arguing about his daughter several times per week. Micky made it clear that if the situation did not improve, she was seriously contemplating divorce. She expressed frustration with Samantha’s “bad attitude”, her refusal to do chores or schoolwork, and her disrespectful way of speaking to both Micky and Ryan. In fact, Micky was convinced that Samantha was even ruder to her dad than she was to her. But she couldn’t stand listening to their bickering and watching Samantha get away with “walking all over” her father. Ryan agreed with everything Micky shared in therapy, but he added that Samantha had been through a lot because of the divorce, because of having to go between two homes, and because of her mother’s wild lifestyle. Alicia, who had left Ryan for another man, often went out partying. The relationship with the other man hadn’t worked out, but she had continued dating. Samantha called her mother’s boyfriends “jerks” and said she “couldn’t stand” seeing her mother “throw herself at them”. Reports of mom’s behavior made Ryan angry and caused him to feel sorry for Samantha. He defended her rebelliousness on the grounds that she was unhappy and had a poor maternal role model.
Upon further investigation, I discovered that the following triangle patterns were in place:
Ryan refused to initiate contact with Alicia, period. He passed messages to her through Samantha.
Alicia called Ryan to complain about child support and expenses. She also complained to Ryan that Samantha was rude at her house, too.
When Micky wanted Samantha to do something around the house, she would ask Ryan to take care of it on the grounds that he was the parent and should be the one who handled “discipline”.
Micky and Alicia never spoke if they could help it. When Micky saw Alicia’s phone number on the caller i.d. she wouldn’t pick up the phone. She often complained about Alicia’s intrusiveness-calling at odd times and disrupting the household with her irrational demands.
Both Micky and Samantha accused Ryan of taking the other’s side. Ryan, on the other hand, felt absolutely stuck in the middle of a no-win situation.
It is well known that the divorce rate is higher among second marriages than first marriages, with stepfamilies being the most vulnerable. Much of this has to do with the unrealistic expectations and unfinished business that people bring into the new marriage and family. If Ryan and Micky had come in for premarital counseling I would have told them to anticipate all of the problems they were now experiencing, and to take pro-active steps to mitigate the predictable issues. Fortunately, it was not too late to change the dynamics in the family.
I taught Micky and Ryan about emotional triangles. I explained that all their active relationship triangles were generating most of the family stress and conflict. There was then a need to establish one-to-one relationships between everyone in the family. I explained to Ryan that an important determinant of the success of a stepfamily is the quality of the contact between the ex-spouses. Ex-spouses who maintain relevant contact with each other-not too much and not too little-have less conflict with other family members. Ryan came to understand that Alicia was “acting out” the conflict between her parents. It was like she was transporting their unresolved anger back and forth between them. It was hard for him to master his negative feelings about Alicia’s affair, but for the sake of his daughter and his wife, he started to call Alicia to discuss issues pertinent to Samantha’s care. He stopped asking Samantha to be the go-between (sometime later Samantha was able to express to her dad how stressful that role had been for her). Likewise, I encouraged Micky to create her own relationship with Alicia. I used the argument that they were going to continue to be in each other’s lives and that she might as well accept it and take some control of the interactions. I suggested she call Alicia now and then-to ask for advice about dealing with Samantha or to share good news about her, like good grades or other school achievements. It also made sense for her to be the one to talk to Alicia about holiday and other arrangements since she usually handled the social arrangements anyway.
Micky also had to start to deal with Samantha directly. Instead of going through Ryan, she had to express her expectations to Samantha, and to hang in there when they weren’t met. Micky was concerned that she didn’t have the right to punish Samantha when she disobeyed. I agreed that at this stage of the relationship and because of Samantha’s age she didn’t have the authority to set consequences with her stepdaughter. But she did have the power to talk to her about their relationship, including her frustrations. She also had the power to decide what she was and was not willing to do for Samantha. For example, even though Samantha’s room looked like a pigsty, she could simply choose not to go in there. If Ryan wanted to deal with it, he would. Lastly, if Micky decided to ask Dad to intervene, she could tell Samantha of her intention beforehand.
Regarding the communication between Micky and Ryan; they had to work on calming themselves down enough to really listen to one another and to focus on their goals for the family. Ryan realized he often took the “stuck in the middle” position because he didn’t want to upset anyone-but by not taking sides, he upset everyone! He began to define his own place in his family, rather than simply reacting to whichever female was putting pressure on him at the moment. At first both his wife and his daughter complained, saying that he was being “stubborn” and “rigid” but soon they both began to see Ryan as a more reliable, centered person they could count on. As therapy progressed and things calmed down at home, the couple began to explore the ways in which the triangles in their original families were affecting their reactions in the new family. This work helped to further take the emotional focus off Samantha and put it on the marriage, where it properly belonged. Samantha’s behavior improved and she began to take more of an interest in her school work. There were far fewer complaints from her mother as well. Micky and Ryan grew to understand how their relationship triangles kept them from dealing effectively with their issues and also kept them for experiencing the intimacy they both craved. After just a few months of treatment, they began to feel more optimistic about their family and their marriage.