By Neal Brodsky and Judy Gotlieb, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapists
Judy and Neal practice both as co-therapists and as individual therapists helping individual adults, couples and kids in Fairfield County Connecticut, New York City and on Zoom or Skype. They have been in their second marriage since 1997 and are stepparents to each other’s children. THIS ARTICLE MAY ALSO PERTAIN TO PEOPLE IN NEW RELATIONSHIPS.
After the pain and difficulty of a previously ended marriage or relationship, many of us are searching for a more peaceful and loving place in the next. In the beginning or “Eros” stage of a relationship, we fall into what may feel like a field of flowers, delightful and intoxicating. The new partner appears as a source of what we’ve always been looking for. Yet it dawns on us at some point that this relationship will be more complicated than initially expected.
Stepchildren and Blended Families
For example, there may be children from earlier partnerships. What are the expectations and the reality of how these children will fit into the complicated structure of a step or blended family?
We’ve been working with a recently married couple (who we’ll call Anna and Joe). They each have children from their first marriages. The couple expressed the following concerns. Will their children be treated differently? How will Anna who makes much more money deal with Joe’s children from his first marriage, when it comes time for birthday and holiday gifts, contributing to college tuition, and designating beneficiaries for inheritance? How involved, if at all will Joe & Anna be in parenting and disciplining each other’s children? And how will their different parenting styles play out in the crucible of a blended stepfamily? At an even more basic level, will Joe’s “alone time” spent with his children from his earlier marriage, be resented by Anna? These are all questions that many stepfamilies face.
For more about this: "A New Approach for Family Therapy"
We’ve been working with Anna and Joe using what the developers of the Exceptional Marriage Mentoring (EMM) approach (Brian and Marcia Gleason, LCSW’s) call the “full self expression process.” This involves challenging their “control patterns” -- predictable and restricted modes of interaction that block emotional closeness -- while we work with their different “levels” of feelings, from most defended to most vulnerable. So when Anna complained that Joe went away for the weekend with his kids and left her with the task of cleaning the house, we asked her to risk exposing her judgments and demands of Joe by “naming it, claiming it and aiming it” directly at him, while we supported Joe in the heat. Anna was able to say, “All you care about is yourself and your kids! I want you to take care of me!” When asked if that belief began with Joe, she was able to connect with how abandoned she felt in her first marriage when her husband used to leave her alone on weeknights and weekends to spend time in his art studio. As we probed deeper, she connected with her feelings as a child when her parents divorced and her dad started another family. After working with her pain around her past, we invited Anna to express her fears and hurt to Joe. She told him that she was afraid he would forget about how much she means to him when he is away from her, and that she felt hurt when he didn’t call her. Joe was able to hear Anna’s feelings when she brought them to him from this vulnerable place, and they left the office feeling closer.
Then there’s Michael and Sue, an older couple who’ve been together for 10 years. Sue moved a considerable distance away from where her children and ex-spouse lived to be with Michael and his children. Now she has become a primary support for Michael who is currently going back to graduate school as part of a mid-life career change. While the two initially signed a pre-nuptial agreement that essentially kept assets separate, Michael’s eldest son is now in his final year of high school and considering where family finances will allow him to go to school. As it comes closer to decision time, will Sue step in to help and if she doesn’t will Michael hold it against her?
Our work with this couple involved helping Michael face and challenge his unspoken demand for financial support rooted in his own childhood where money was always scarce, while helping Sue to uncover her fear that Michael would leave her if she didn’t “step up” with resources that may have entered the domain of “family money” in this long-term second marriage.
The collaborative “mentoring” we did with them also included sharing our own family experience in second marriage. This involved describing the interpersonal work we did that had helped us open to, and explore the grief we each felt about difficulties in our first marriages and it’s impact on our children. We had spent years protecting each other with an “unspoken contract” that involved damping down any potential conflict in our new relationship. It wasn’t until we summoned up the courage to face and powerfully experience unresolved pain and grief, that we began a more spontaneous way of relating. When Michael and Sue heard this they admitted that their own “no-conflict pact” had been slowly draining the passion and aliveness from their relationship as they withdrew from each other at any sign of potential pain they might cause each other. Supporting each member of this couple to take risks as individuals helped them to recover their shared commitment to and passion for each other as they faced the difficult financial questions inherent in second marriages and blended family life. This process led them to tackle complicated financial decisions together that they had previously avoided including embarking on shared financial planning and rewriting their wills to reflect their newfound understanding of each other and the part that money had played in the family drama of each partner.
Issues with the Ex
Next, there are the inevitable issues surrounding the ex-spouse or partner, both unresolved issues and new ones that arise. Jeff and Gail, a couple in a long distance relationship, have set a date to be married 18 months in the future. Jeff typically had difficulty setting boundaries with his ex-spouse (a last minute planner) around schedules with the children. Now, time together with his new partner, Gail, depends on the cooperation of his ex-spouse in taking care of the kids while he is out of town. Gail’s resentment with Jeff’s ex had built up to the point that it spilled over into tension between them (especially given that Gail prides herself on strict control of what she’s doing and when.) Our work with them involved helping Jeff face his fears of being more assertive with his ex around planning, while inviting Gail to challenge her rigidity and embrace more flexibility in a situation which is much more complicated than she might like.
Intimacy and Sex
Because many of the couples we work with have been hurt in their prior relationships, individuals in such couples need to honor that they have experienced trauma and realize that recovery is possible. In response to the difficulty of earlier relationships, couples often “damp down” their feelings and can become conflict averse. This eventually robs them of passion in their current relationship and when conflict does spring up as it inevitably does, we’ve seen couples panic, going into a protective shell or alternatively, lashing out as if the current partner is an “enemy” bent on the kind of destruction experienced in the earlier relationship. Rich and Esther are such a couple. After a red-hot courtship in which sex was an every night affair, mid-life physical challenges in both partners (post-menopausal symptoms including depression for Esther and prostate issues affecting Rich’s sleep) were taking a toll. When they came to us, both partners had replaced sex with sparring and silence as their weapons of choice. Our work with Rich and Esther involved building tolerance for what the Gleason’s call “conflict engagement,” using a written “full self expression process.” In session, we gave them a handout with a series of steps that led Esther to express her fears that Rich would reject her as she aged, mirroring the rejection she felt from her own father as she gained weight in adolescence. Rich had a chance to express his demand that Esther “turn him on” which he came to see was rooted in his rage at his depressed mother who withdrew her affection from him. Esther was able to own her adult need for validation and apologize for shutting down to Rich. She told him how much she appreciated his attraction to her. Rich acknowledged his real need for affection and told Esther how grateful he was for her sensitivity. Getting “underneath” their pattern of sparring and silence resulted in a “repair” in their relationship that showed them they could actually grow from their conflict.
Showing Up In the Face of Challenge
Ultimately, the work we do with couples is about moving them back into love with each other. We see this as finding the “sweet spot.” This includes exploring and uncovering what the Gleason’s call “The Mystery,” the yet to be discovered places in one’s self and partner. They describe the relationship itself as becoming a form of natural therapy where each partner can help the other to open up to new and higher levels of self-awareness.
Second and later relationships are often forged in courage and adversity – with partners having taken a risk to be together despite their fear that perceived evidence of failure in past relationships make them unfit partners – the elephant in the room for many who have taken the leap again. Secretly, many hold the expectation that the new partner should be more like them than the former partner.
We believe that it’s wise not to take the easy way out in demanding our partner live up to this expectation. In fact, many in second and later relationships having struggled mightily through the rigors of separation or divorce and recommitment, deserve, as much as others, to experience a sense of wholeness and happiness in their lives. The “gift” for individuals in such couples is both in the challenge provided by difficulty, and in the promise that falling in love again with our current partner is possible when we are willing to face and transcend the pain of the past. As Brian and Marcia Gleason have said in their book on the Exceptional Marriage Mentoring work we do, “Commitment [in relationship] is the realization that someone other than oneself is as real as we are. Mature need is felt as the desire for authenticity – to know and be known.” As this relates to success in second, third or later marriages and any new relationship, we believe that finding “the sweet spot” occurs most readily when each partner is open to an ongoing process of self-disclosure, exploration and growth.
Dedicating your Marriage or Relationship to Something You Share
“An exceptional relationship is one that strives toward creative leadership.”
--Brian & Marcia Gleason
When we got together in 1994, we couldn’t have predicted the path we would ultimately choose. Yet we knew that there was potential for something really amazing. For us, it began with returning to graduate school together to learn how to work with families and kids. During those years we became part of the Exceptional Marriage Mentoring community and training which draws on some of the most powerful and effective transformational methods for growth in the lives of couples and their families. On this journey, we have been inspired by colleagues and clients to see the true power of committed relationship. Central to this inspiration have been those who’ve trained and stuck with us, including a dedicated group of other couples, all trained as Exceptional Marriage Mentors, who do their own personal work along with us as part of an EMM “Pod.” We meet regularly to explore our lives as individual human beings and the potential of those lives in committed relationship.
We have chosen to fully re-invent our lives, building a practice of Family Therapy for Body Mind and Spirit. We chose to invest first in ourselves and then bring that investment out to help others. We have been blessed to learn that our relationship can be a primary vehicle for personal growth and we invite you to explore what would make your lives as individuals and together really sing.
We only have this one precious life and it is so much better when it’s a life you really love and one you can love together.