Divided Loyalty

The Challenge of Stepfamily Life

Illustration of child and parent with woman looking on

This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue.

Roy was still smarting from the divorce his wife had insisted on, but he was settling into a pattern of regular contact with his two boys, ages 7 and 5. During his first therapy session, Roy told me how afraid he was of losing his sons, now that his ex-wife had remarried and there was a new father figure living with them. I tried to be reassuring about his irreplaceable role in his sons’ lives, especially if he maintained a steady connection with them. But in the second session, a distraught Roy told me that one of his boys had referred to his new stepfather as “dad.” Roy had sternly told both children that if they started calling their stepfather “dad,” they would never see him (Roy) again.

I don’t know when I have ever had a client whose emotional response to a family incident was so profoundly at odds with my own. While Roy was proud of having stood up for his rights, I was horrified at his message to his young sons: if you get close to your stepfather, you will lose your father. Much as I felt like shouting, “What the hell do you think you are doing to your children?”, I started low key. I expressed empathy for his fear and pain and elicited his concern for his children by telling him how much I sensed he loved them. Only then did I ask, “How do you think your children felt when you said this to them?” Once Roy began to see what he had done, I helped his insight along by telling him that “the scariest thing young children can experience is the fear of doing or saying something that will make their parent leave them forever.” 

My immediate goal was to enhance Roy’s sense of the moral urgency of making things right with the children. There would be time later to explore his insecurities.  I wasn’t concerned that he would feel guilty; he needed to feel guiltynot the guilt that leads to paralysis and self-loathing, but the kind that leads to corrective action.  I told Roy that I thought this was an emergency in his relationship with his sons, one that I urged him to attend to right awaythat evening if possiblebecause they were living with the fear that they had alienated him forever.

Roy tearfully admitted that there was nothing his boys could ever do to make him abandon them. I suggested that he say that to his children, along with a heartfelt apology, and that he bring them to the therapy session next week so we could work on restoring trust. This experience propelled Roy out of his self-pity over the divorce into a more grounded commitment to his children. This case was one of my early realizations of how suddenly remarriage can shake the tectonic plates of strong parent-child bonds.

MY INTEREST IN PARENTAL LOYALTY AND commitment has grown out of my view of divorce as a moral crucible for fathers and their children. I have come to believe that we must raise the bar of our moral expectations of fathers to the level that we hold to for mothers: fathers must be committed to their children no matter what happens to their marital relationship. But, over time, as I have followed the thread of clients’ loyalty and commitment into the next phase of the family life cycleremarriage and stepfamily lifemore complex moral vistas have opened up.

Stepfamilies enact unique morality plays, with plots involving divided loyalties, betrayal, heroic commitment and Solomon-like discernment. We have always had these stepfamily dramas with us, in the past usually following the death of a parent, and now, more convolutely, following divorce. Hamlet, perhaps the greatest drama in Western culture, is a stepfamily story that begins with a son who feels abandoned and betrayed by his mother’s aborted mourning for his father and her too-quick affection for her new husband.  Loyalty conflicts in the aftermath of lossthat is the perpetual plot line of stepfamily life.

Loyalty requires prioritizing our commitments to the people in our lives, favoring those we are linked to by nature and nurture. Commitment alone is not enough:  I may believe my father is committed to me, but I still feel betrayed when he does not stand up for me to his new wife, who does not want him to spend time alone with me. Without loyalty, the emotional building blocks of family lifefeeling loved, nurtured, protected and cherishedhave half-lives shorter than some subatomic particles. Loyalty is what allows us to say “my” child or “my” parent or “my” spouse within a thick web of morally laden expectations. It is not just a feeling or sentiment. It is demonstrated in our behavior and our choices, and, as family therapy pioneer Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy pointed out, it reverberates through the generations.

Historically, parental loyalty to children has been seen most often as a “covenantal” commitment as opposed to a “contractual” commitment. Rich in religious tradition, the idea of covenant conveys irrevocability: God will always love and do right by his own, no matter how they behave. Similarly, parents must always love and do right by their children, no matter how they behave. This is as close to a universal moral norm as we have in our world, a norm honored in every culture and expounded in fields as disparate as evolutionary psychology and theology. Indeed, parental loyaltythe unbreakable, preferential commitment to one’s childrenwas so taken for granted that it is not even included in the Ten Commandments. Perhaps abandoning one’s child was so unthinkable to the ancient Hebrews that no commandment was necessary.

Loyalty struggles abound in stepfamilies because of the unbalanced triangles their members encounter. In reasonably healthy families with two original parents, a child’s love for one parent does not compete with love for the other parent. And, although new fathers sometimes feel jealous of their wives’ focus on a new baby, generally, both parents are heavily invested in the welfare of their children. If you are my spouse and caring for our children, you are indirectly caring for me. 

But even in reasonably healthy stepfamilies, claims on loyalty are far from balanced. Tilting emotionally toward one member feels like pulling away from someone else. Children who like their stepparents often feel loyalty binds more acutely than those who don’t. I had to lean forward to hear as 6-year-old Rachel told me, in a near whisper, that she did something she felt bad about after each visit to the two stepfamilies she shuttled between. Rachel had written down these feelings in a notebook so she would not forget them in the annual “check-up” session she, her brother and her divorced parents had with me.

Rachel went on to say that she always said something “a little mean” about what happened in the other family, often something the stepparent did or said. Sometimes, she confessed, she kind of made things up. She felt compelled to say something negative soon after arriving in the other household, but then she felt guilty because she genuinely liked both of the stepparents as well as her original parents. She didn’t think either family was inviting these disclosures, and no one seemed to pounce on themthey were the confused loyalties of her 6-year-old heart. When, with her permission, I told her parents the problem, they responded with empathy and reassurance, and Rachel subsequently broke her cycle of small betrayals and guilt.

For stepparents as well, commitment to stepchildren is not straightforward. Stepparents must accept the reality of children who are not theirs, and many would admit, if asked for an honest response, that they wish that these children did not exist so that they and their spouse could have a completely fresh start. Time that the original parent commits to the children is frequently a source of conflict, because the stepparent’s personal agenda is less saturated with the needs of the children. And everybody in the family knows that the stepparent’s commitment to the children, at least in the early years, is contingent on the survival of the marriage.

The chief challenge of stepfamily life is these divergent loyalties that manifest themselves in the tension between our responsibility to our children and our commitment to our new spouse; in our courage or cowardice in standing up to our spouse on behalf of our children, or to our children on behalf of our spouse; in our supporting or undermining our ex-spouse’s new partner because that person is important in the lives of our children; in our trying our best to love and nurture our stepchildren even when their needs conflict with our own. For children, the challenge is to find a way to honor the stepparent without dishonoring the original parent. 

As a therapist, I am fascinated with stepfamilies because they illuminate, like no other family form, the subterranean moral domain of family lifethe world of fairness and unfairness, loyalty and betrayal, commitment and abandonment, selfishness and altruism. Stepfamilies inevitably live with dramatic tensions that are never fully resolved. Original families can have illusions of balance and harmony where moral conflict seems to disappear, but stepfamilies have no such illusions, and they can never relax their vigilance for long.

Another reason I am fascinated by stepfamily life is more personal: I don’t think I would be any good at stepfamily life, and mostly I don’t think I would be a good stepparent. My needs for centrality are too great to tolerate feeling like the third wheel in my own house, and my patience is too limited to wait five or more years to get deeply into the family. In short, when I work with stepfamilies, more than with any other kind of family, I feel more humble, more empathic, more curious and more flat out impressed.

THE CHALLENGE OF MAINTAINING multiple perspectives adds to the fascination of working with stepfamilies. For instance, I strongly believe that the needs of children who are minors must have priority when it comes to parental loyalty, but original parents and stepparents have claims as well, and as therapists, we ignore these at our peril. A case I supervised points this out.

Bob wanted some time alone with his new wife, Alice, who had three preteen children who took up most of her time. He was good with the children and supportive of Alice, but felt like a junior parent and not a spouse. Their therapist, who consulted with me, described the session in which this issue came to a head. The therapist supported the wife’s obligations to her children and encouraged the husband to understand that as an adult, his needs would have to be secondary at this time in the family’s life cycle, as is true for most families in the busy childrearing years. Alice wept with relief at being understood and Bob admitted that perhaps he was being selfish. The therapist felt proud of his intervention. A few days later, Bob left the therapist a message saying that they were ending therapy because the previous session had clarified things so well. The therapist was concerned that the plug was being pulled on the therapy, and wondered if he had missed something.

What he had missed, in focusing on the mother’s obligation to her children, was the husband’s loyalty claims on his wife.  “Children first” is a starting point for exploring stepfamily responsibilities, not an end point. Marital bonds bring their own obligations to love, cherish . . . and spend time with a partner. In this case, the therapist should have supported Bob’s legitimate loyalty claims even though he was willing to surrender them in the session.

Supporting stepparents’ claims for loyalty and fairness also enlists them in constructively dealing with the children and not playing critic to their spouse. In one family I worked with, the father’s teenage daughters had always blasted the stereo until late at night, but their new stepmother went to bed at 10:00 p.m. because she had to get up early. When she asked the girls to lower the stereo, they begrudgingly complied, then gradually dialed up the volume, only to repeat the same scenario the next night. I believed that the stepmother was making a legitimate claim on her husband for support in being able to sleepplaying the stereo loud at night is not a fundamental right of childhood. I supported her request and helped her couch it in terms of fairnessthat the father explicitly tell his daughters that his wife’s need to get a good night’s sleep had priority. Stepparents often feel out of control in their own households. Visible, clear demonstrations of loyalty by the spouse, in areas where the children owe respect for the stepparent’s needs, can improve the stepparent’s morale and teach important moral lessons to the children.

An irony about the loud stereo story is that the children would probably have been more sensitive to the needs of an aunt if she had been living with them than they were to their stepmother. An aunt does not threaten a child’s loyalty to the “real” mother. Perhaps it would be less confusing to everyone if we abandoned the odious term “stepparent” (“step” is the middle English word for “bereaved”) in favor of a new term that conveys the simple reality that “this is my parent’s new spouse.” Maybe we need a contest for a name for the relationship between a child and a parent’s spouse, a name that does not convey parental investment and authority and that does not immediately generate loyalty conflicts for children. Here’s a start: children could say “this is my momsmate or my dadsmate”; adults could say, “this is my mateskid.”  These terms define the primary relationship as that between the parents, not between the stepparent and the child. If you don’t like these, come up with your own, something that does not carry the baggage of “stepparent.”

BUT EVEN WITH A CHANGE in words, loyalty conflicts in stepfamilies will explode with remarkable force. I thought I had helped Phil and Marla, a remarried couple, navigate the treacherous waters of establishing a stepfamily. We were in the winding-down phase of successful marital therapy, which had focused on how they could coparent Phil’s two teenage children, Nathan (age 15) and Kristin (age 18). Marla had no children of her own. The original mother lived out of state and had infrequent contact with her children. Kristin had had a tumultuous adolescence, with regular temper flare-ups at her father, which increased dramatically when Phil got involved with Marla. Although Kristin had settled down somewhat in her senior year of high school and had a better relationship with her father and stepmother, she was still unpredictable in her moods. What’s more, as her behavior improved, her younger brother took over her place as the family’s lead source of conflict.

Although Phil and Marla had come to me for marital therapy, I invited the children in for several sessions and saw firsthand how intense and challenging they were. They were uninterested in working on improving a stepfamily situation they had not signed up for. Neither of them was willing, when I talked to them alone, to get into their feelings about their mother’s abandonment and their divided loyalties vis-à-vis the stepmother. Any changes in the family would have to come from Phil’s and Marla’s initiative, not from any direct efforts on the part of Nathan and Kristin.

By the ending phase of the year-long therapy, Kristin had gone away to college, and the father and stepmother had learned to mesh their roles better. Marla had become more supportive and less critical of Phil’s parenting, while he was taking a firmer stance with his children. There had been slow, steady progress in the kids’ behavior, although Marla still felt tense in the home. With their marriage on solid footing for the first time, we started to wind down our therapy work.

Then a marriage-breaking issue surfaced. In the difficult early months of the marriagewhen Kristin was only 16Phil had promised Marla that once his children left for college, they would be on their own. They would be expected to find their own place to live, with their father’s financial support while they were in school. In other words, after high school, they could come home as visitors, but not as members of the household. This agreement kept Marla’s hope alive during the darkest days of stepfamily life. But the agreement was never shared with Kristin.

During her visit home at the Christmas break of her first year in college, Kristin told her father that she wanted to come home for the summer and find a job. Phil replied that he wasn’t sure, which precipitated a meltdown by Kristin, who accused her father of abandoning her. Until that point in the visit, Kristin’s behavior had been better than when she was in high school, but still challenging. Now she was surly.

Phil’s hesitation also elicited a strong response from Marla. In the therapy session, Marla said that she did not believe she could spend another summer with Kristin. Marla believed she had done enough. She had given herself to an impossible stepparent role, had put up with disrespect, had learned to be a supportive coparent and to temper her criticism of her husband’s parenting. But her migraine headaches were worse than before she got married, and she did not think she could face another summer of stress with Kristin. She wanted Phil to keep his promise. Although 15-year-old Nathan was a handful, at least he was just one childand he would be gone in three years, too. With one child gone and three long years till the second one would leave, Marla felt betrayed when Phil hesitated to follow through on their deal.

Phil knew he had made the promise to his wife, and understood how much she had been awaiting this leaving-home stage, but he felt an obligation to take Kristin home when she wanted to come home, especially since her mother had walked out of her life. And he also wanted to use what he had learned in therapy to improve his relationship with his daughter. He knew he could lose his wife or hurt his daughter, as things stood.

For me, at the end of a difficult but seemingly successful course of therapy, this was a most unwelcome impasse. A marriage that four weeks ago had been at its peak was now at its nadir, and they were looking to me to help them at a time when I was prepared to say my good-byes. This kind of family-splitting dilemma was not covered in my training or in the textbooks. I never saw it in a master video case. I ended the session lamely and hoped that in two weeks they would make some progress on their own, because I was stumped.

Of course, by the next session, they were more dug into their positions. At first, I saw myself as neutral about whether Kristin should be allowed home for the summer. The heart of the model I use when I feel there is a strong moral component in a family conflict is to explore with clients their sense of the effects of their actions and decision on those involved. So I asked about the effects of a yes or no decision on Kristin, on Marla, on Phil and on Nathan. As I listened harder to Phil’s concerns about Kristin’s emotional fragility and her abandonment by her other parent, and to Marla’s fear of never having a marriage and household without an oppositional stepchild present, I tilted the discussion toward finding a way for Kristin to come home for the summer without making Marla feel betrayed. I was no longer neutral because I believed that, in this case, Phil owed his daughter an open door this summer, given her history and current fragility. So I introduced the “m” word into the discussion by saying to Phil, “It seems that this comes down to a moral issue for you, that you cannot live with yourself as a parent if you turn Kristin away this summer.” Phil teared up, “Yes, it is, but I feel so terrible about hurting Marla by doing right by my daughter.”

When I used the word “moral,” Marla nearly jumped out of her seat. She could sense the tide turning, because her case was not based on something as lofty as duty, but on her own self-preservation. But I was also ready to address her side. “And for you, Marla, I don’t think this is really about whether you can survive the summer emotionally and physically. You have survived the past three years, and you are a very resilient person. In fact, Kristin’s behavior toward you is better than it has ever been. There is no doubt in my mind that you can handle the stress of a summer stay. What I sense is that the deeper issue is twofold: whether you can trust your husband to keep his word, and whether you can have any hope for a time when there are not children in the household, a time when you can feel the home is yours and your husband’s.”

They were both listening carefully now. I went on to take even more focus off the summer decision, saying to Phil, “If I were Marla, I would wonder if you will ever be able to say no to one of your children who wants to move home. When they are 35 and want a place to live for a year or so to save money, could you turn them down? Can Marla ever count on a time when it will be just the two of you?”  Marla interjected, “Yes, that’s the point. It is not about this summer, it’s about what this summer means for the future, about whether I can count on you to set limits on your children’s role in our marriage.”

Notice that after using terms that validated Phil’s moral position on the decision, I immediately sided with Marla on what I thought were her deep and legitimate concerns. I introduced moral termstrust and betrayalon Marla’s side, giving her credit for more than mere self-interest. I shifted the issue from the summer to their overall marital contract for managing the pressure of children in their lives.

Then I offered my own opinion about Kristin’s needs. I explained that the first summer home after leaving for college was a developmentally unique time, when many young people need to know there is a home to return to before they really try their wings. Kristin was still working through her dependence on her father and would take a “no” as a powerful rejection. Marla did not fully agree with me, but saw more merit in Phil’s concerns.

With the impasse softening but no solution emerging, I made a cautious proposal for them to think about something that carried risks for both of them. For this summer, they would agree that Phil could make the decision about whether Kristin could come home, but in the future, it would require two votes: Phil’s and Marla’s. Marla immediately liked the idea, saying that she would not use her “veto” unless she thought the children were using the household as a revolving door. Phil said he would not want a revolving door either, and that he looked forward to being alone as a couple. But the proposal was scary to him, and he needed time to think about it.

When we met for our final session, Phil said he agreed with the proposal, and that trusting Marla had led to a breakthrough in their relationship. Marla herself was beaming because she felt the partnership was restored.

As therapists, we encounter stepfamily loyalty dramas such as Phil’s, Marla’s and Kristin’s during a single conflict. But for the  families themselves, of course, the play goes on.  Sometimes remarried couples expect that the curtain will close on their moral drama of divided loyalties and divergent commitments when the last child leaves home. Not so. Imagine Phil and Marla’s future if they had not made a parenting alliance. They would fight over Nathan’s private college tuition, which Phil could not pay alone, but to which Marla would be unwilling to contribute. Fast forward another four years and imagine the couple’s argument about Nathan’s request to move home after college.

When Kristin turns 25, Phil and Marla would have fought over her wedding, especially if Kristin’s mother suddenly took center stage again and Marla became an extra. In another dozen years, the struggle would be over estate planninghow much Phil left to his children versus Marla. If he left everything to his wife, he might fear she would leave no money to his children. Marla, in turn, would feel deeply mistrusted. And so it could go until death do they partand beyond.

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, stepfamilies make us face the unpleasant truth that the core goals of adults and children, and of husbands and wives, often diverge. We want a divorce and our children want us to stay married to their parent. We want to remarry and our kids want us to stay single or remarry our original spouse. We want to move to a house not previously owned by either mate, and our children want to keep their old house, school and neighborhood. We want to create a tightly bonded family, like the original family once was, and the kids resent the intrusion of newcomers. We expect that stepfamily life will get better before long, and our teenagers are counting the months until they can move out. We want our new spouse to love our children the way we do, and they, too, are counting the years till the children leave home. When stepfamilies nevertheless succeed in creating a nurturing life together, as many ultimately do, it is a striking human achievement.

Conceived after a loss and born in a love affair that represents the renewal of hope for grownups but not for children, stepfamilies strive every day to reconcile that which cannot be fully reconciled. I am reminded of the Spanish phrase about social revolution: “la lucha continua”the struggle continues. Stepfamilies are the moral pioneers of contemporary family life, showing us all how to love and persevere in the face of loyalties that multiply and divide, but never fully converge.

William Doherty

William Doherty, PhD, is professor of family social science and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, The Ethical Lives of Clients: Transcending Self-Interest in Psychotherapy