Archive for the ‘Therapy’ Category

This summer I’m taking an advanced course in group therapy, and we met last weekend for an all-day group therapy session with our professor serving as one of the leaders and each of us as members. (We’ll spend the rest of the class time watching the videos of the session and analyzing the work of the leaders.)

In preparation, we were instructed to bring a topic to discuss. “I don’t have any stepmom issues right now,” I thought glibly, and planned to talk about something else.

Well, wouldn’t you know it—another member started talking about parental guilt, and there I went. Within minutes I was weeping about how hard it is to be a stepmom, how much I worry about how my actions and presence and absence—and my pregnancy—affect my stepdaughter.

The conversation moved on to other topics, but I was sitting there churning. My professor noticed and brought it back to me. I could barely speak as I cried about how guilty I feel for bringing another child into this family—a child that my husband and stepdaughter were perfectly happy without.

My professor asked me to turn to another member and say, “I deserve this,” which I could barely do. I believe it, sort of, but not fully—and not enough not to be guilty too. But it was wonderful to recognize and express those feelings. Everyone was so supportive and kind. And even though only one other person in the group was a stepparent, I felt like they really understood anyway. I love group therapy with insightful people!

Yesterday—five days after the therapy session—my husband and I sat spellbound by the magic of technology as doctors told us our baby is a healthy and perfectly formed little girl. We spent the day basking in the news, and last night he turned to me and told me how happy he is. It went a long way in turning guilt to joy.

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As I’ve said before, my counseling psychology program—while so good in so many ways—never seems to address stepfamily issues directly or at any length. I know, there’s a  lot to smash into two or three years of coursework. Still, it’s a big gap. Most of my colleagues will emerge with fresh master’s degrees but no understanding of stepfamily concerns and dynamics.

Job security for me? Okay, maybe. But I know so many stepparents who have been burned by ignorant therapists that I can’t feel comfortable about the oversight.

One required class is called “Counseling for Contemporary Issues”—and I was sure that this would cover some stepfamily basics. But no! I haven’t taken it yet, but I’ve heard that it’s about unsavory things such as alcoholism and child abuse. (Yeah…I guess that stuff is important too.)

Well, recently my school started offering the option to qualify for a very similar, but slightly different, counseling license. In doing so, they launched a second, followup contemporary issues class. It’s brand-new next year, so I haven’t heard anything about it, but I’m really hoping that stepfamilies (and other emerging family structures) are covered. And since I’m going for both licenses, I’ll be slotted to take that class in the next year or so. Here’s to hoping that they’ve corrected this huge omission in the curriculum.

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I began my counseling psychology program intending to specialize in stepfamily issues. Daunted by the difficulty of couple’s counseling (yes, I’ll admit it! It’s freaking scary!), and therefore even more frightened of family therapy (though I haven’t taken that class yet), I was starting to think that my goals were going to have to undergo a significant shift.

Luckily, I’ve landed on a modality that really feels like it could be the perfect fit for me. This past quarter I finally took the beginning group therapy course. Every student in the class also had to participate in a small therapy group (as a member). And though my group was composed of mostly young women, none with children or stepchildren, I felt a level of support and empathy from these women that reminded me profoundly of the wonderful, life-changing experiences I’ve had with online forums for stepmoms.

If you’ve ever joined such a forum, can you remember the incredible relief and happiness you felt upon realizing that you’d found a whole community of women who understand you and your struggles? The isolation stepmothers feel is often so complete and so deadly, and I believe there is immense therapeutic power in simply not feeling alone.

I want to bring this curative feeling of belonging, acceptance, and support to stepmoms in my local community. The group therapy format is absolutely perfect, perhaps even better than individual therapy in many cases: it ends the isolation, it encourages members to share stories and suggest ideas, and it’s a very cost-effective way to provide much-needed sanity to multiple people on a regular basis.

This summer I’ll be taking the advanced group course. I’m so excited to have landed upon the specialty that I believe will truly help the people closest to my heart.

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Happy news

Ah, I’m so sorry for the long absence, but I swear I have a good reason: I’m pregnant!

Last summer, after reaching another excruciating impasse, my husband finally suggested that we see a therapist. We spent three months hashing out our desires and fears before deciding to pursue having a child together. Even if the outcome had been different, it was a great step for our marriage. I finally feel accepted for what I want and feel. That scary crevasse in the otherwise-perfect marriage has been plugged.

Does he have mixed feelings? Sure. My husband is a fretter. Until he can see for a fact that our marriage will continue to thrive with a full-time kid in the picture, he’s not going to relax. But I know, with the same weird confidence that I felt the first time I met him, that it’s all going to be good.

So there it is. I’m coming out of the first-trimester gloom and ready to start blogging again. Though my coursework lately has not been related to the stepfamily experience at all, I’ll share every tidbit I can!

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“Interestingly, major surveys of the practices of ‘family’ therapists…have found that whole families make up only about one-third of ‘family’ clinicians’ work, and that couple problems constitute the presenting problem in almost two-thirds of their cases.” (Clinical Casebook of Couple Therapy, 1)

This reminded me how easy it is to obscure marital problems with the complications and chaos of stepfamily dynamics. How many stepmoms have you seen blame the children or the biological mother for her unhappiness, when her husband is really the one who needs to step up and make the family work? My hunch is that, in most troubled stepfamilies, the marriage is the entity that needs the overhaul.

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Though there are lots of different methodologies, and every case is different, most couple therapy tends to be short-term—around 12 sessions. If you have a partner reluctant to incur the financial and temporal cost of therapy, this could be motivating news!

If there’s been infidelity, however, therapy instantly swells to a year or longer. (You might want to remind your partner of that fact, too!)


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In class last week I watched my own couple therapy unfold before my eyes.

My professor played one member of the couple, an older man with children from a previous marriage. A classmate played his younger, childless wife.

He didn’t want more kids; and when they got together, neither did she. But she’d changed, and he hadn’t, and though they were happy in every other way…there they were.

It was surreal. My classmate—not a stepmom—did a really amazing job predicting and expressing the feelings I had poured out before my own therapist.

My professor said afterward that this was a real case of his. He wanted to demonstrate what are, to him, the most heartbreaking cases of all: the ones where a wonderful couple just can’t agree on an issue for which there is no possible compromise.

And how strange to know that my husband and I were, more or less, that tragic couple. I couldn’t help thinking that, if this demonstration had come only a few months earlier, I probably would have left the classroom in tears.

But if you’re like me, you want to know what the outcome was for this couple in real life. My professor said that they finally agreed to try for a child for six months. If they were not successful, they would stop. And that’s what happened. The husband’s daughter ended up having her own child, and the stepmom helped raise the baby. My professor pointed out this last as a positive, though I know many a stepmom whose heart would remain forever in pieces to see her own stepdaughter having the experience she was denied.

Caught in the uncertainty of trying for my own child, I have no way of knowing if this woman’s fate won’t also be mine. All I can do is hope for better, and be grateful that my husband—like this man—came around.

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In my graduate program there is a huge age-and-life-experience divide. Most students are in their young-to-mid 20s, unmarried with no children. A significant group is in their 40s and 50s, almost all married or divorced with children. I, a childless stepmother at 34, sit squarely between these two camps.

And not for the first time in the past year, I witnessed the parents smugly patronizing the non-parents.

It started out innocently enough. My professor was talking about the impact that children have on a marriage. And suddenly he said, “When you have children, your capacity for love instantly expands. It really affects how you do therapy.”

That’s right, folks. Having kids not only makes you more loving, it makes you a better therapist!

Well, you can bet the parents in the class jumped all over that jazz. They were all glowing and sharing anecdotes about their marvelous expansive love.

Oh, but wait. Before anyone could get too annoyed, too offended, there came the attempt to level the playing field…

“That’s not to say that you have to have kids to be a good therapist,” my professor hastily explained. “There are lots of ways to get in touch with that kind of love.” He went on to say that one of the best marriage counselors he knows is a nun.

I believe he meant it. But the damage was done. The non-parents got the good old patronizing pat on the head. I’ve seen this same treatment over and over again: Having children is the most meaningful thing in the world! they gush. Oh, but there are lots of meaningful things in the world. Don’t you worry, now. And then they go on their self-satisfied way, feeling like they’ve exonerated themselves from rudeness while still having made their superiority perfectly clear.

Witnessing all this, I felt worse for the other non-parents than for myself. After all, my classmates know I’m a stepmother, and never would I admit to them that my experience in that capacity has been any less satisfying than their own lives as parents. And perhaps before too long I’ll have a biological child of my own.

But I still wanted to punch them all.

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This quarter I am taking a class in couple counseling—a course that has, so far anyway, convinced me that there are few things more difficult than doing couple counseling. I honestly don’t know if I am up to the challenge.

Yet this experience has been juxtaposed with the single most significant development in my marriage since approximately 2004: my own recently-terminated course of couple therapy, in which my husband graciously agreed to have our own child.

Is he thrilled out of his socks? No. But in about three months’ time, he went from adamant naysayer to willing father-again. He’s doing it because he loves me, and he wants me to be happy. He’s doing it because his desire for my fulfillment is stronger than his fear.

I finally have the marriage I knew was in there somewhere. All these years, there’s been this blight on our relationship, the proverbial elephant upending the couch and shattering the china. It was hard to make sense of a marriage that worked so very well until I broached the one subject that most couples take for granted.

Even more important, perhaps, we’ve had to talk a lot about what we want, and don’t want, for our future. We’ve had to make it concrete.

It would be magic to be able to do this for other couples, to turn terror and agony into intimacy and growth. I don’t know if I have what it takes.

But I’m a believer. Whether or not I’m blessed with a child of my own, counseling has bridged our marital chasm. I’ll always have therapy—and my husband’s courage—to thank.

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Well, I’m pretty excited that school has started again and I can start to bring you heaps of interesting material from my studies. This quarter I’m studying couple counseling (does that sound weird to anyone? “couple’s counseling” sounds better to my ear), so I’m sure there will be lots of relevant stuff I can share.

My professor, who’s been a marriage counselor for a looong time, told us that therapists almost always like one member of a couple better than the other. And that the person they tend to like—at least in a heterosexual relationship—is the woman. Why? Because regardless of the therapist’s own gender, s/he is usually adept at communication and navigating emotions, just like women tend to be. Thus the therapist is more likely to connect with the woman.

Of course, this is just one man’s experience—and his point to us students is that we need to work around these biases—but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my current couple counselor prefers me to my husband. He’s done a great job of not seeming biased, but I will admit it gives me a little kick to think that he might be siding with me all along. Hee hee.

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