by John Mariner, L.C.S.W.
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A fair amount has been written in the stepfamily literature on the subject of couple bonding. The importance of the biological parent and the stepparent developing a strong, healthy relationship can hardly be overemphasized. Status issues in stepfamilies stand directly in the way of healthy couple bonding. In this article, my intention is to illuminate the problems caused by unrecognized and unresolved status issues in stepfamilies. I write this in respectful acknowledgement of the many couples I know in stepfamilies, and out of deep gratitude to my wife Suzanne and our son David for my own stepfamily experience. It is my hope that others beyond my immediate circle of family, friends and clients will find this information useful.
I believe that a perspective on status gives one a map — a useful picture of the initial “lay of the land” of a stepfamily. This map can be illustrated in a few simple diagrams or by demonstrating a family sculpture in a workshop. When all the pieces of the new stepfamily settle and fall in place, a quite understandable and dysfunctional pattern is usually established. With some variations, it appears as follows:
The person in the original relationships, the biological parent, winds up being in the middle with his or her child(ren) pulling on one arm and her/his spouse pulling on the other. The biological parent often describes how they feel in the middle, pulled first one way and then the other. This pulling causes the stepparent to look like and often feel like a child. It seems that she/he needs to get down to the level of the child(ren) literally and figuratively in order to get the attention of the biological parent.