from: Smart Marriages  24 May 1999


Divided Loyalties


The Challenge of Stepfamily Life


by William Doherty


Roy was still smarting from the divorce his wife had insisted on, but he


settling into a pattern of regular contact with his two boys, ages 7 and


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


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


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,


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


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


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


to their children no matter what happens to their marital relationship.


over time, as I have followed the thread of clients' loyalty and


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


always had these stepfamily dramas with us, in the past usually following

the death of a parent, and now, more convolutely, following divorce.

<I>Hamlet<I>, perhaps the greatest drama in Western culture, is a


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


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


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


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


behave. This is as close to a universal moral norm as we have in our


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


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


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


balanced. Tilting emotionally toward one member feels like pulling away


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"


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


stepparents as well as her original parents. She didn't think either


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


reassurance, and Rachel subsequently broke her cycle of small betrayals




For stepparents as well, commitment to stepchildren is not


Stepparents must accept the reality of children who are not theirs, and


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


fresh start. Time that the original parent commits to the children is

frequently a source of conflict, because the stepparent's personal agenda


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


honor the stepparent without dishonoring the original parent. 


 As a therapist, I am fascinated with stepfamilies because they


like no other family form, the subterranean moral domain of family


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


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


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


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,


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


concerned that the plug was being pulled on the therapy, and wondered if


had missed something.


What he had missed, in focusing on the mother's obligation to her


was the husband's loyalty claims on his wife.  "Children first" is a

starting point for exploring stepfamily responsibilities, not an end


Marital bonds bring their own obligations to love, cherish . . . and spend

time with a partner. In this case, the therapist should have supported


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


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


bed at 10:00 p.m. because she had to get up early. When she asked the


to lower the stereo, they begrudgingly complied, then gradually dialed up

the volume, only to repeat the same scenario the next night. I believed


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


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


control in their own households. Visible, clear demonstrations of loyalty


the spouse, in areas where the children owe respect for the stepparent's

needs, can improve the stepparent's morale and teach important moral


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


them than they were to their stepmother. An aunt does not threaten a


loyalty to the "real" mother. Perhaps it would be less confusing to


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


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


not convey parental investment and authority and that does not immediately

generate loyalty conflicts for children. Here's a start: children could


"this is my momsmate or my dadsmate"; adults could say, "this is my

mateskid."  These terms define the primary relationship as that between


parents, not between the stepparent and the child. If you don't like


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


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.


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


with Marla. Although Kristin had settled down somewhat in her senior year


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


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


been slow, steady progress on the kids' behavior, although Marla still


tense in the home. With their marriage on solid footing for the first


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I never saw it in a master video case. I ended the session lamely and


that in two weeks they would make some progress on their own, because I




 Of course, by the next session, they were more dug into their positions.


first, I saw myself as neutral about whether Kristin should be allowed


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


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


on Nathan. As I listened harder to Phil's concerns about Kristin's


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


"Yes, it is, but I feel so terrible about hurting Marla by doing right by




When I used the word "moral," Marla nearly jumped out of her seat. She


sense the tide turning, because her case was not based on something as


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


You have survived the past three years, and you are a very resilient


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


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


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


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


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


she would not use her "veto" unless she thought the children were using


household as a revolving door. Phil said he would not want a revolving


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


that the curtain will close on their moral drama of divided loyalties and

divergent commitments when the last child leaves home. Not so. Imagine


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


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


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


often diverge. We want a divorce and our children want us to stay married


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


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


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


day to reconcile that which cannot be fully reconciled. I am reminded of


Spanish phrase about social revolution: "la lucha continua"--the struggle

continues. Stepfamilies are the moral pioneers of contemporary family


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.


University of Minnesota, 290 McNeal Hall, St. Paul, MN 55108; e-mail

address: bdoherty@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx He is  author of Soul Searching: Why

Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility (Basic Books, 1995).


Family Therapy Networker,

Reprinted with permission.