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Pre-Stepcouple Counseling: A Sample Session Format

 

Ron L. Deal, M.MFT.

 

Author, The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

Licensed Professional Counselor

 

The following represents a basic plan of action for the premarital counseling process.   Specific session content should be tailored to each couple once the assessment phase is complete.

 

A thorough examination of the pre-stepcouple counseling process can be found in this article entitled “Getting Remarried with Children: Effective Pre-Stepfamily Counseling”.

 

 

General Interventions:

1.      Foster Deliberation.  Slow the couple down!  If possible, require a 6 month waiting period before the wedding.

2.      Identify and Label Unrealistic Expectations. 

·        Normalize the stepfamily journey.

·        Provide realistic expectations of the integration process.

3.      Identify unhealthy emotional triangles and work to resolve them.

4.      Identify the “Ghosts of Marriage Past” that influence assumptions and behavioral interpretations of one another.

5.      Sprinkle the sessions with couple assignments (e.g, readings, interviews with older couples, etc.) that you have found helpful with all couples.

 

Pre-Counseling Assessment:  PREPARE inventory through PREPARE/ENRICH (www.prepare-enrich.com) or the Couple Checkup (essentially they are the same inventory).

 

Wedding Ritual:  Discuss the Family Medallion as a ritual of connection and affirmation in the wedding ceremony (www.familymedallion.com).

 

 

Session 1: Couple

1.      Contract with the couple for a pre-determined number of sessions. 

2.      Conduct a genogram to explore their families of origin and first-family relationship history.

·        Take special note of the manner of their divorce/family death experiences and the amount of time that has passed. 

3.      Homework: Assign The Smart Stepfamily book or DVD and The Remarriage Checkup; continue reading throughout premarital counseling.

 

Session 2: Couple

1.      Further explore the expanded system of relationships (e.g., ex-spouse relations; visitation schedules; co-parenting boundaries and patterns; relations with ex-in-laws, etc.)

2.      Begin to anticipate the changes to the single-parent home(s) once the transition to marriage begins (e.g., what will it be like to make space for another parent? How have the children responded to your dating partner so far?)

3.      Discuss strategies for “cooking a stepfamily”.

4.      Ask and discuss what they are learning from The Smart Stepfamily and The Remarriage Checkup.

 

Session 3: Couple

1.      Explore the PREPARE or Couple Checkup inventory results.

2.      Determine growth areas to be addressed in later sessions.

3.      Educate the couple on common emotional and relational shifts that tend to follow the wedding.

4.      Coach the future stepparent on ways to bond with stepchildren.

5.      Homework: 1) List their hurts, pain, and bitter feelings that remain from previous relationships. 2) Ask future stepparent to begin slowly working on middle-ground connecting points with stepchildren.

 

Session 4: Biological Children Subsystems

1.      Meet with each parent and their bio children in a separate session.

2.      Checker-board technique to assess how the children perceive current boundaries, power, and family functioning.

3.      Explore their current feelings about the remarriage, fears, hurts from the past, and general level of acceptance of their parent’s decision to marry.

4.      Explore loyalty issues as it related to their bio parents and accepting the new stepparent (e.g., What name/term would you like to use to refer to your stepparent? What if your bio parent is in the room? How will you introduce them in public? What term would you like them to use for you?)

5.      Determine whether it is necessary to meet with ex-spouses based on current between-home dynamics.

 

Session 5:  (Optional, but recommended) Ex-Spouse Individual Session

1.      Affirm the importance of their place in the children’s lives.  Affirm your desire that they new stepfamily not reduce their contact with the children.

2.      Discuss their fears related to the new marriage.

3.      Share the importance of them giving the children permission to respect the new stepparent (“release loyalty binds”).

4.      Consider an additional ex-spouse—bio child session to allow the ex-spouse to “release loyalty binds” and affirm their ongoing relationship.

 

Session 6: Couple

1.      Teach active listening skills (continued to use throughout the counseling process to help them solidify use of the skills).

2.      Address parent-stepparent roles and develop the “team” concept of parenting.

3.      Negotiate “household rules” and general parenting strategies. 

 

Session 7: Bio Parent—Children Session(s):

1.      This may require more than one session if each adult has children.

2.      Make overt that it is common for children to fear losing their parent to the stepparent and stepsiblings.  Discuss ways to express this openly when it happens and make plans to keep certain key “touchpoints” alive.

3.      The bio parent must express an expectation that the children respect the stepparent “as they would any other authority figure.”  Discuss the implications.

4.      Discuss the possibility of changes in family rituals, household rules, and discipline.

 

Session 8: Couple Session

1.      Discuss ways of protecting the marriage within the stepfamily.

2.      Make calculated sacrifices to help the children adjust after the wedding (e.g., the stepparent gives permission to the bio parent’s special time with children).

3.      Discuss the use of the Family Medallion in the upcoming wedding.

 

Session 9: Stepfamily Session

1.      Discuss life immediately after the wedding and honeymoon. 

2.      Examine how life may change (e.g., daily routines, introducing one another in public, etc.)

3.      Teach Family Meetings as a tool for problem solving and regular connection.

4.      Agree on a ritual to mark the beginning of the family (e.g., purchase a new dining room table and chairs). 

5.      Homework: Follow-through with the ritual.

 

Sessions 10 plus: Couple

1.      Sessions to address growth areas of their relationship as identified by the PREPARE or Couple Checkup inventory.

2.      Possible topics include: sexuality, spiritual in marriage, budgeting & money management, dealing with extended family, etc.

 

Schedule 6 month and 12 month follow-up sessions (after the wedding).

 

Optional Sessions:

·        Ex-spouses to negotiate co-parenting cooperation.

·        Extended family sessions.

·        Sessions with a minister to discuss spiritual implications of remarriage.

 



Common Relational Changes in Stepfamilies After the Wedding [1] 

 

Ron L. Deal, LMFT, LPC

Author, The Smart Stepfamily

 

 

Person(s)

 

Spiritual, Psychological, Legal, & Practical Shifts

That Occur After Remarriage

 

Stepparents

 

1.      Increase in spiritual and parental responsibility for stepchildren.

·        Before marriage: “hands-off”, cordial, get-to-know the kids posture.

·        After marriage: judging of child and parenting style of spouse; attempt to fill the gaps by taking on agendas for the child; assume spiritual roles (e.g. “head” of the home); assumes they will be given equal say in family decisions.

2.  Assumes spouse will “put them first” before the children.

 

Biological Parents

 

1.      Senses stepparent’s increased agenda for the children and is irritated/resists their judgment or increased activity.

2.      May hand off too much responsibility to the stepparent.

3.      May alter attitudes toward an ex-spouse’s access to children since “we’re a whole family now.”

 

Stepchildren

 

1.      Fear loss of biological parent.  May result in an oppositional/resentful attitude toward the stepparent.

2.      Perceive stepparent as exerting authority and may resent their attempts for power or to join the family.

3.      Now feel that enjoying time with the stepparent is betraying the non-custodial biological parent.

 



[1] Adapted from Scott Browning, “Why Didn’t Our Two Years of Dating Make the Remarriage Easier?”

in Stepfamilies, Summer, 2000, p. 6

 


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