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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!

Sorry I’ve been absent for a while; my latest classes have had zero stepfamily content (except, of course, that I’ve been studying borderline personality disorder, which gives me even more sympathy for the stepmoms I know dealing with borderline BMs!). And my personal life, great shock and surprise, has been going swimmingly.

But I do want to add another category to this blog in the meantime—namely, reviews of stepfamily-related books. And I don’t mean the important nonfiction that we’ve all read, Stepmonster and the like. I want to look at stepfamily relationships in literature.

Today we start with Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. Published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, it is certainly the earliest look at stepfamilies that I’ve ever seen. Even so, it illustrates many of the nuances and complexities of remarried life that we experience today.

I’ll warn you straight out: the stepmother is, sort of, the bad guy. But she’s not a true villain, and that is an important distinction. The reason she is the antagonist reveals as much about the timelessness of stepmother-stepdaughter difficulties as it does about the changes in parenting that have occurred over the last 150 years. But let’s first cover the basics.

Wives and Daughters is set in the charming English countryside. The story follows teenage Molly Gibson, whose mother died when she was very young. Molly’s father, a housecall-making doctor often away from home, decides to remarry in the hopes of providing Molly with a caretaker and chaperone. As though drawing a name from a hat, he chooses a beautiful widow whose own daughter is the same age as Molly.

Molly is devastated by the news. Having lived for a decade with only her father, she can’t imagine sharing him with another woman; she dreads being replaced. The feelings, her grief, are so like the ones my own stepdaughter once had that I marvel at the perpetuity of this struggle. Yet here is the difference: Molly, in many ways, has some cause for concern. In those days, children didn’t fancy themselves equal to adults, and Molly’s stepmother does in fact take over the position that Molly once held. Molly is expected to call her stepmother “Mama,” and both Molly and her father cater to the new wife’s wishes, even abandoning any physical affection so as not to make her jealous. (Can you imagine that happening today? It’s quite the opposite in most households!)

Still, Mrs. Gibson is not a villain. She is silly and shallow, but she genuinely cares for Molly in her own way. Her primary concern, in fact, is that she not be viewed as a “typical stepmother” who would treat her biological daughter better than her daughter by marriage. This theme runs throughout the novel—clearly it was the standard view of stepmothers in those days—and I have to say I recognized a bit of my own paranoia in Mrs. Gibson’s frequent worries about how others in the community perceive her.

All in all, I found the novel refreshingly nuanced for what I expected from 1865. Of course, I wished that the stepmother hadn’t been the problem character, but frankly it could have been much worse! Even as a stepmother myself, I could feel for Molly (who is a likable, if too thoroughly sweet, character)—and I also liked that the book presented stepfamilies as neither miserably horrid nor magically easy. In Wives and Daughters, we watch the Gibsons struggle to create one new family out of two distinct ones. It’s the same struggle we all face today.

Unresolvable problems

“In his vast research on marriage, Gottman reports that 69% of marital problems are unresolvable or perpetual, in that they involve core differences in personality or needs that are fundamental to the partners’ sense of self. It’s how couples go about not resolving their problems that differentiates happy and unhappy couples.” (Clinical Casebook of Couple Therapy, 42, emphasis original)

These two sentences totally blow me away. 69 percent! I can’t help but wonder why so many people who are so different would get married in the first place. But according to my couple counseling professor, who’s practiced for over 40 years, most people do marry those with significant personality differences. (It’s unclear to me if he is referring to most people in general, or most people in couple therapy. The implications of each are pretty different.)

I admit my bias: I’m not sure people who can’t meet each other’s significant needs should be together at all. The whole concept of learning how not to resolve problems makes my eyes bug out of my head a little. Of course, we all do some of that—I deal with my husband’s social anxiety, for example, by leaving him at home when I go to visit friends. But even that small instance of not-resolving is, to me, imperfect. I’m a problem-solver; I want my issues fixed. When the differences in needs get too vast, how satisfying can a marriage be?

It just makes me think of the stepmoms who deal with a towering heap of problems by scheduling activities away from the family, working longer hours, and spending holidays alone. Are they happy? No! But they manage to stay, just barely, on the edge of sanity. I’m willing to bet this is the “unhappy” brand of not-resolving, but I’m dying to know what distinguishes the two.

According to Gottman, a prominent marriage researcher and therapist, “in healthy, stable relationships couples have at least five positive interactions for every negative one.” (If Only I Had Known, 166)

What’s your marital ratio? 5:1 actually seems pretty low to me. It would be interesting to keep a chart, even for a day, and figure out your own ratio. If it’s worse than 5:1, get thee to a counselor!

“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.

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!)

 

A surreal experience

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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