Divided Loyalties

The Challenge of Stepfamily Life

by William Doherty

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 steady connection with
them. But in the second session, a distraught Roy told me that one of his
boys had referred to their 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 to make
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 guilty--not 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 away--that evening if possible--because 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 cycle--remarriage and stepfamily
life--more 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 loss--that 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 life--feeling loved, nurtured, protected and
cherished--have 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 loyalty--the
unbreakable, preferential commitment to one's children--was 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 them--they
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

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 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 life--the
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

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 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 sleep--playing the stereo loud at night is not a fundamental
right of childhood. I supported her request and helped her couch it in terms
of fairness--that 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

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 a 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 on 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 marriage--when Kristin was only 16--Phil 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 child--and he would be gone
in three years, too. 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

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

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
immediately 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 terms--trust and betrayal--on
Marla's side, giving her credit for more than mere self-interest. But 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
planning--how 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 part--and 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

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, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the
Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. Address:
University of Minnesota, 290 McNeal Hall, St. Paul, MN 55108; e-mail
address: www.drbilldoherty.org  He is author of Soul Searching: Why
Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility (Basic Books, 1995).

Family Therapy Networker, March/April, 1999
Reprinted with permission
To subscribe to the Family Therapy Networker call 301-589-6536 or
email: ServiceFTN@aol.com

Back to ARTICLES page.

To Smart Marriages Home 

Application Log
  CategoryMessageTime Spent (s)Cumulated Time Spent (s)
  Application Showing content page for URL key: stepfamilydoherty 0.000000 0.000000