"My Stepdaughter Is Coming Between Us"
The Counselors' Turn
"Even joyful events such as graduations and weddings can turn sour as fears and insecurities that usually stay on the edges of our consciousness get thrust into the limelight," said the counselors. "This is especially true in stepfamilies. In this case, we also suspected that the couple's stress was compounded by the prospect of an empty nest that was less sturdy than it should have been. Still, we felt strongly that through counseling this couple could resolve their current crisis and strengthen their marriage against future problems.
"We first asked them to describe their happiest moments. Couples in crisis often focus on the negative, forgetting what brought them together in the first place. Ann and Bill recalled how in sync their values and interests were and how much they'd enjoyed the weekend 'mini-vacations' they'd taken when Ann's kids were with their father and Kim was with her mother. 'We'd usually drive to the ocean,' said Ann. 'It was a time to laugh and be close.' Reminiscing helped them soften their stances so they could figure out why some issues had become so explosive.
"Ann had a history of feeling ignored. Her parents had focused little energy on their youngest child, and as an adult she weathered a traumatic betrayal and divorce. So she was still easily wounded by perceived slights. As the eldest of six, Bill believed his job was to keep things running smoothly and fix them when they didn't. Like many men, he became irritated by his wife's desire to chew over problems.
"To help them work through emotionally charged issues, we had Ann and Bill draw up an 'anger contract' wherein they vowed to let the other know when anger was surfacing and promised not to vent it by hurling blame or accusations. We also taught them to use the classic reflective-listening technique of structured speech: One partner speaks and the other calmly paraphrases what he or she has just said. This method dramatically increases the odds that each spouse will truly 'hear' the other."
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