Ep 25 – Interview with Dr. Patricia Papernow: Part 1

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Hello, stepparents and welcome. I am delighted to have you join me today because I had the special privilege of interviewing the fabulous Dr. Patricia Papernow, who is the world’s leading expert in step parenting and blended family dynamics. Today’s episode will be just part 1 of my interview with her. I’m so excited to have you join me. Without further ado, here we go …

Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us. We are here with the fantastic Dr. Patricia Papernow. Welcome. We’re so excited to have you! Dr. Papernow is an internationally recognized expert on stepfamilies. She integrates a deep understanding of the research with four decades of clinical practice and a wide variety of clinical modalities including psycho educational, systemic and trauma informed. The recipient of the Award for Distinguished Contribution to Family Psychology from the APA Couple and Family Division, Dr. Papernow is the author of one of the classic books in the field Surviving and Thriving In Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

And with Karen Bonnell, The Stepfamily Handbook: From Dating, to Getting Serious, to Forming a Blended Family as well as dozens of articles and book chapters. Dr. Paper now is a psychologist in private practice in Hudson, MA and director of the Institute for Stepfamily Education. We are so excited to speak with you! Clearly, without a doubt you are an expert in this field. And it’s such a pleasure to get to pick your brain and have you share your wisdom with us. I would love, before we begin to dig into a bunch of questions I have for you, for you to share your personal journey and maybe an “aha” moment that brought you to this work.

Um, sure! I’m glad to be here. I’m so glad for this information to be in the hands of people who can use it. I got into this because my first marriage. I married a guy with two daughters, 5 and 9 when I met them. And a couple years later, I needed a dissertation and I was allowed to write what’s called a qualitative dissertation, meaning talking to people rather than counting numbers. And I could see that my family was changing. My kids were my step kids, are now seven and eight and you know 11 and 12.

Some of the kids were changing, but something in the family system was changing. And so I wrote my dissertation on stages of development in stepfamily relationships, looking at how to step down and change over time, and what are the different patterns of how stepfamilies change over time. And I got hooked. I finished my dissertation in 1980. This is a few years later. I got hooked. Then I learned after that lots of different clinical models that since then I’ve folded into this work. And I’m still learning because there’s still so much to learn.

That’s so fantastic and it’s so needed. And of course I’m a stepparent myself so I can fully relate to everything you’ve just mentioned in an overarching way about the experience of being a part of a blended family. I would love to begin with hearing your thoughts on what is different about the stepfamily versus the family of origin, if you will?

I call it first-time family. Family of origin meaning the one you were born into. First-time family meaning a family where both parents are the parents of the kid. So the difference – and it is a fundamental difference – in a first-time family, the couple has usually some time to make a relationship. To establish some trust to enjoy each other without interruption to get to know each other to get to know even the things like, “I hate how you load the dishwasher.” But that starts to become, you know, kind of ordinary.

To begin to develop some rhythms of being with each other. And in a first-time family, children enter the parents – the adults’s – established relationship. And they enter hard-wired for attachment to both of their parents. And both adults are pretty much hard-wired for attachment to the child. And the other thing that happens is that, over time, the family starts to develop ways of doing things – rhythms of being together. And the next child and the next, if there are more, are born into that already established adult relationship, but also the family network of, you know, we like this kind of ice cream, we like to go to this kind of place, we go here in the summer. We eat Grape Nuts. Those things develop over time.

In a stepfamily, the pre-existing relationship is between the parent and his or her child or children, and also between the parent and the children’s other parent. The stepparent enters as an outsider to all of that. The children’s attachment is to their parents, not to their stepparent. And eventhough step couples are often very much in love, the shared rhythms, the shared understanding of you know, “What’s an appropriate cost of a pair of sneakers?” or in my family “Is Grape Nuts a form of cardboard or a breakfast cereal?” My family it was a breakfast cereal.

My daughter and I married into a family where my daughter opened the cabinet door of the pantry in my husband’s house the first time I went over there, floor to ceiling sugar cereal. Every sugar cereal you’ve ever thought of. And her eyes got as big as saucers. So we’re not going to ask his kids to eat Grape Nuts. Are you out of your mind? And I want my kid to eat Grape Nuts. So there’s that difference right away. They’ve all grown up one way, my daughter’s grown up another way. So that not only the attachment but also the shared rhythms of how we do things are shared between parents and children, not in the new step couple and not between stepparents and stepkids. That’s a very different story.

Yeah. And I’d love to ask you further then, since we’re kind of starting at the beginning of this journey, you talk in your book about the cycle for establishing and building that that new connection, establishing these new rhythms and these new relationships. And I would love for you to share a bit about that, because I think it’s fascinating. And it’s obviously difficult to assign a timeframe for every single situation, but I know that you’ve noticed some of that in your work that exists – that cycle. Could you elaborate on that and share that?

Well, I think the first thing is that language ‘blended’. It reflects the longing. We want to have a family where we’re all connected to each other. Doesn’t reflect the reality. And you’ll notice that in The Step Family Handbook, blended is in quotes. Because blended is the language that we use – we all use it. But it is not the reality. It’s, in the best of all cases, it’s a several-year process. And there are some major challenges that make it difficult. That make it very different.

Oh, for instance, remember I said that in a first-time family usually both parents are in love with the kid and the kid needs both parents? In the stepfamily, the parent is in love with the kid, that parent is not. And every time there is a child present, the attachment is between the parent and child and the stepparent is left out. And being left out is painful. We’re hardwired to feel good when people close to us turn towards us. When they turn away, it does not feel good. In a first-time family, you know, I watch my daughter parent her little toddler, and she parents and her husband’s thrilled, he parents and she’s thrilled.

In a stepfamily, if I’m going to take care of my kid, I have to turn away from you, my partner. And if I want to turn towards my partner, when I turn towards my partner, especially for children over eight or nine, I’ve turned away from them. So I call that the insider outsider challenge that parents are left out over and over and over again. And parents are torn. You know, I turn to this one that one that I care about is upset. Both are really difficult and part of what’s hard is it’s one thing to empathize with each other when you’re having the same experience, like oh it’s cold.

It is really different, and takes a lot more skill and self-regulation to empathize with each other when we experience very differently. So when the stepparent says, “I felt really left out,” the parent’s like, “Huh?” And not because they’re an idiot, but because they have a totally different experience. And one of the things that successful step couples do, is they manage to be curious about each other. Manage to be curious and develop some empathy for each other. Some people are better at it than others.

Definitely, I can certainly 100% relate to how you’re describing this. And I love how, in the book, you’re so thoroughly painting the picture. And I think you’re totally right, I think these experiences happen. But it really takes the ability and awareness and effort to step back and really sit down and notice all the nuances of what’s going on for just in general, and then for each person individually. And then, you know, Who are they? What are they? What are their inherent needs? And then therefore, What are their needs with regard to each other? And starting to blend those personalities and needs and relationships.

Well, I actually think one of the dilemmas if you start trying to blend right away, you’re actually going to be really frustrated. You’d be better off trying to … I call it both hold both. Can I as a stepparent, understand, or get curious, and be a little less defensive when my partner says they felt left out when I was having a fun time with my kid? Can a stepparent get curious about what it’s like for me as the parent when she says I was left out? For me to, you know, to say, “Oh … huh. Really?”

It turns out, by the way, that successful stepfamilies and struggling stepfamilies face the same exact challenges. Successful stepfamilies have much better interpersonal skills. Skills to be able to calm yourself when you’re … and soothe yourself, take a breath when you’re upset. It’s like being able to John Gottman calls it “have a soft start.” To start with some kindness than “Why’d you do that?” Just say “Gee, that was a little hard. Can you tell me about it?” That’s when step couples have more skills.

As you described that one, one question that pops up is, would you say it’s equal parts of that curiosity and kind of self-regulation? As well as communication?

They’re totally related. You can’t communicate if you’re trying to be totally flat. The other thing that really helps is having a map. It really helps to know that if you are a stepparent, you are going to be left out and you’re not going to like. And it really helps for parents to know that your kids may not really be too pleased about your partner, not because your partner’s doing anything wrong. But because for kids, adults, a new couple is … Oh it’s wonderful. It’s a gift.

They’ve been alone for a while. They’re thrilled. And often, the couple wants to charge forward. Kids often experience a new couple as a loss. And that’s hard for the adults to get sometimes. But my experience is grownups and love are just as solid is any teen. And of course, now we have our cell phones. And if I’m in love with you, I’m going to turn towards you, and my kid is gonna feel left out. There’s a loss of parental attention when parents fall in love.

And I would imagine that, you know, something I work around with my clients is this notion that, you know, to some degree, when you’re turning towards this new person, it’s almost like a little bit of a rejection because there’s a such an acute awareness like this person is here and my other parent isn’t. And kids inherently always want that reunification and want to hold out hope for that. But at the very least, that’s something that’s come up personally – we’ve had to talk a lot and explain extensively about that inclusion. Almost creating space for that other parent to be around, even though they’re not physically present.

That is critical. I talk about five challenges. The 1st is that insider/outsider one that I talked about. The 2nd is the kids feel differently about step families than adults do. Kids experience losses. They also experience a loyalty bind – “If I start to care about my stepmother, I’ve done this loyal to my mother.” 3rd is Parenting – which we’re going to need to talk about. Because tasks in a stepfamily pretty routinely divide parents and stepparents. 4th is Precepting we started off about how do we become an us in the presence of Us and Them.

And 5th is what you’re talking about right now is ex-spouses, another parent – at least one other parent – a permanent part of the family. How do you make it okay for kids to love both of their parents. And in fact, it’s not divorce that is the most robust predictor of poor well-being in kids, it’s parental tension and conflict. And not even high conflict. Non divorce, non-clinical families are associated to poor academic achievement, lower immune functioning. I forget what the other one is, I think it’s attentional stuff more and more attention issues. But I’m not sure I answered your question and went off somewhere.

No, that’s okay. I think we’re exploring, but I just so appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

Thank you so much for joining me for my interview with Dr. Papernow. You definitely want to make sure to tune in next week for part 2 of our conversation. You don’t want to miss it. See you then.

Want more? Listen to Part 2 and Part 3 of this interview for more of Dr. Papernow’s tips and insights!

Related Episodes:

Interview with Dr. Patricia Papernow: Part 2

Interview with Dr. Patricia Papernow: Part 3

Your Stepchild’s Loyalty Conflict – Part 1: Background

Links for this Show:

Patricia Papernow

Patricia Papernow LI

Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t

The Stepfamily Handbook: From Dating, to Getting Serious, to Forming a “Blended Family”

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