The Doctor Is In: Susan Wisdom

21 01 2009

stepcoupling Susan Wisdom is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in working with stepcouples and their families.She lives in Portland, Oregon. She and her husband David have raised five children in a successful stepfamily. Her experiences in her stepfamily prompted her to earn her master’s degree in counseling from Lewis and Clark College.Since 1989, Wisdom has worked with stepcouples and stepfamilies in her private counseling practice. Her book Stepcoupling expresses her belief that the stepcouple is the heart of a healthy stepfamily.

Native American Legend: Lesson for Stepcouples
By Susan Wisdom, LPC


A grandfather and his grandson were talking one afternoon at their favorite spot by the stream. The boy was worried about something that had been bothering him. He turned to his grandfather, and asked “Grandfather, how come I’m happy and sweet sometimes and at other times I can be evil and mean? How can that be when I’m only one person?”

His wise grandfather thought about it and replied, “I believe we have two wolves fighting inside of us. One is sweet, compassionate, generous, and loving. The other one is mean, angry, and selfish.”

The grandson asked “How do you know which one will win?”

The grandfather said, “It’s simple: the one you feed.”

Indeed, stepcoupling can bring out the best and the worst in us. For some stepcouples, mistakes were made in choosing partners prematurely and for the wrong reasons. For others who struggle, it could be the result of sadness and losses carried over from our childhood experiences and disappointments from subsequent relationships. If unaddressed, these issues can have an unhealthy effect on all our important relationships. This can produce fuel for feeding that mean angry wolf inside.

A typical example:

I remember seeing a woman in my office who was six months into her new stepfamily. She had no children; he had one young daughter, whom she described as a good kid, sweet, eager to please. Nonetheless, when the stepdaughter visited every other weekend, my client would go into a tirade of anger and resentment.

In counseling she told me she was raised by an alcoholic mother. She felt she was NOT parented as a child. She remembers little about her childhood. However, when she fell in love and married a man who had a daughter, her anger and sadness from her past dramatically prevented her from having a caring relationship with her stepdaughter. She wanted nothing to do with her stepdaughter!

She was able to quickly recognize the problem and understand how her past drove her to act and feel the way she did. Fortunately, over time, she was able to develop a nice relationship with her stepdaughter based on nothing she experienced in her past. Her marriage was strong from the beginning. Her husband was patient and supportive. Together, as a stepcouple, they learned to NOT feed the bad wolf, but only the GOOD ONE.

Which wolf are you feeding inside?

The Doctor is In: Cynthia D. Rudick, Ph.D.

18 11 2008

Guest blogger Cynthia D. Rudick, Ph.D., has been counseling stepfamilies in her private practice for 20 years. She’s a professional mediator and arbitrator in Canton, Ohio, who is also an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs. For the past 16 years she’s been stepmother of two, now ages 23 and 28. She lives with her husband and two yellow labs. Contact her at 330-492-2941 or email her.

Bonding or Bondage in Stepfamilies: The Choice is Yours
One of the hardest challenges for stepmothers and women in general is to balance their needs with everyone else’s. We are taught from birth to care for others and feel guilty if we think about ourselves. Raising children is a full-time commitment. Raising stepchildren is an overtime commitment. The challenges are huge, the rewards are not immediate, and the conflict can be intense.

Perhaps the most difficult time to enter a child’s life is during their teens. If we are a good parent, we have a need to connect and nurture. Yet this child is experiencing a need to separate, a need to resist what is and find out who he or she is. Developmentally, we are on two different planets. Many battles and deep wounds can follow.

One of the only ways I can justify the slings and arrows of life is to be aware of my transcendent purpose. What I mean is to think about the lessons in this experience that are personal and dynamic for me in a spiritual sense.

Our expectations keep us in resistance to situations we encounter in the reality of our lives. Reality is occurring, but we think it should be different. Our peace of mind or lack of it is measured in the space between reality and our expectations.

Stepmothers are idealistic people. We believe we can create a family where there was already one. Idealistic people have a big space between their expectations and reality. Pain is the result of the distance we feel in the space between how things are and how things should be. We need to work on our growth as individuals instead of trying to get someone else to change.

Our childhoods mark us and we have ideas of ourselves formed early in life – what kind of person we have to be, how we think life should be, how we think others should be. We need to work on our core issues and our own growth if we are to stay married. Women who have done this deep work have developed good relationships over time with their stepchildren. I define a good relationship as an honest one. And we cannot be any clearer with others than we are with ourselves.

 Again, it takes so much time to form a family where there already was one. For example, women often enter a family and then things hit the fan when the stepchild becomes a teenager. The child resists the rules in the stepmother and dad’s home because the birth mother requires no rules. Thus, chaos ensues. The child threatens to go live with their mother. Stepmothers need to hold to the high ground and not be deterred by terrorist threats.

Setting an Example is the High Road
I think we model who we are and how we live by example. This is a much more powerful message than all the words we use. Later in life, when the immature teenager develops beyond the lacks of the birth parent they are tied to, they will understand the guard rail you tried to provide for them. Be proud of your mission here. It may be singular but it is a powerful assignment. Children need to learn these living skills from you even though they may offer extreme resistance.

Model Your Own Virtue in the Face of Powerlessness
Again, it is not so much what we say but who we are that provides such a powerful model for others. Believe in yourself. Teach by example. Yelling and fighting just increase your lack of power. In fact, the louder you yell, the more powerless you feel, and vice versa.

Patience is a Virtue in the Face of Powerlessness
Sometimes our timing is off. We want things to happen now. We want things to change now. These patterns in ourselves and others are firmly planted and it takes time and energy to shake them up.

Don’t Take It Personally Even Though It May Be Hurtful
It takes a long time to build trust. Stepchildren have been hurt by broken relationships and promises. Sometimes the person they lash out at is us – because we are there and we are safe. This is a very backhanded compliment. Behavior can be hurtful, even though it is not personal. Try to find a way to process your feelings. Try to find a method to detach from others’ projections when you have done little to cause the anger. Talk to yourself. Talk to others. Take a walk. Scream. Cry.

Journal, Journal, Journal
One of the safest most private ways to vent emotions is on the pages of a journal. This is a great tool for healing. Also, with enough unexpurgated, unedited journal writing, you will begin to see patterns in your life that you need to change.

Do Some Deep Core Work
Do some mining into your inner recesses with a trained professional. There’s a stigma about going to therapy. I see myself as a coach. We are Americans and we want a quick fix. But to really change, we need to work in the deep end of the pool. Some self-help programs and books only put “whipped cream on poop” and the original problems still smell. I encourage you to do the deep work necessary on your inner life. We change from the inside out. It will pay off in the end. And you are worth it.