I could hear the desperation in Joe’s voicemail. “I’m 62. I’ve been remarried for two years,” he said. “I’ve found the love of my life, but my daughter Julia refuses to spend any time with us. Help!”
Later-life recoupled family situations like this one are appearing more and more often in therapists’ offices. That’s because, although divorce rates have dwindled in the United States over the last two decades, they’re soaring among people over 50, along with rates of remarriage (and redivorce). The understandable fantasy is: “The kids are grown and the dog is dead. Now it’s our time.” However, these later-life recouplers face many of the same challenges that younger stepfamilies do, complicated by the long-standing networks of relationships that come with this life stage.
I’ve now had many cases like Joe’s where normal late-life recoupling challenges have been intensified by painful, unresolved father–daughter dynamics. The adult daughters in these families respond to the pressure to embrace Dad’s new love with cold distance or a flood of heartache and anger. New partners often feel hurt by this behavior, and protective of their husbands. As a result, recoupled dads like Joe find themselves bewildered, torn between two people they love, and feeling they’re failing miserably with both of them.
“My son’s fine with everything,” Joe explained disconsolately when I met with him. “The problem is Julia. Since Lesley and I got married, my daughter’s been to our house exactly three times. The first two times, she barely talked to my wife. The third time, Lesley confronted her about being rude. Julia stormed out and refused to come over again unless Lesley’s not there. Finally, I phoned her and put my foot down, saying, ‘You’re an adult. I’m married to Lesley!’ Now she won’t even return my calls. Lesley’s so angry and hurt. She wants me to get Julia to apologize. Can you help me do that?”
What’s a Therapist to Do?
Well-meaning therapists can make a number of mistakes with these families. Joe and Lesley’s previous couple therapist had advised Joe that his daughter needed to accept reality. “Put your couple relationship first,” she told him. Lesley’s individual therapist had said, “Don’t let Julia triangulate. Confront her directly.”
These prescriptions may be appropriate for some first-time families. For stepfamilies, however, they’re misguided and even destructive. Joe’s effort to put his marriage before his daughter and Lesley’s attempt to “be direct,” only deepened the anguish between Joe and his daughter, and heightened the tension for Joe and Lesley.
Both sets of counsel ignore the fact that parent–child relationships are as much a part of the current reality of a stepfamily as the new couple. In stepfamilies, children of all ages need time alone with their parents and often experience stepparents as interlopers. Successful stepcouples don’t rush children into acceptance, nor do they privilege the couple relationship over parent–child ties. They honor both.
In cases like Joe’s, there’s an additional challenge: Long-standing ruptures in the father–daughter relationship will need repair before Julia will be ready to open to Joe’s new love. Meanwhile, Lesley and Joe will need to turn away from pressing Julia toward “blending” and toward each other for comfort and compassion.
Sometimes, this new framework is enough to get these families unstuck and on their way. Not so for this family.
Stepping Toward the Pain
One of the chief therapeutic tasks in stepfamilies like these is to get dads to move closer to the pain of both their daughters and their partners. Sensing that Joe would need considerable support for this, I began by meeting alone with him.
Joe was a big man, but in our first individual session he looked small and forlorn. “Let’s start with a little history,” I said to him. “Tell me a little about your marriage to Julia’s mother.”
“Looking back, it was empty with Karen for a long time,” he said. Still, Joe had been stunned when, after 27 years, Karen had announced that she wanted a divorce. Falling in love with Lesley had opened a whole new world for him. “I didn’t even know this kind of love existed,” he said. “Lesley’s so physical and affectionate. I feel so good with her.” He was quiet for a moment. Then he asked dejectedly, “Why isn’t Julia happy for me?”
“Let’s talk about that,” I replied. “Tell me about growing up with Julia.”
“We had a fine relationship,” Joe began. But as we sat together, a different story unfolded. In his first marriage, Joe had devoted himself to being a breadwinner, spending long hours in the office. When he was home, he reported being tense and detached. Joe had coached his son Jim’s tennis team, but as he put it, “I figured Karen knew more about girls.”
After his divorce, Joe found it easier to maintain his relationship with his son than with Julia. “Jim and I can talk about business. It was always awkward with Julia.”
“I’m thinking that maybe your daughter has been missing you for a long time,” I said softly.
“She’s a grown woman,” he retorted.
“Yes,” I said, “but parent–child relationships are forever. Julia’s your daughter, and she’s longing for her father.” I let him soak that in. Then I said, “It sounds like you were a really good provider. But maybe you ended up missing out on a lot. And while you were missing out, I think that Julia was missing you. What do you think?”
We sat quietly. Finally, he asked, “Will Julia ever accept Lesley?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “I’ve seen these relationships get a lot better over time. But it’s not going to happen until you get closer to your daughter.”
Joe nodded slowly. “Okay. What’s next?”
“The conversation I can help you have with Julia isn’t about convincing her to apologize,” I said. “It’s hearing about how much she’s missed you and how much she needs you. That’s what will bring her back to you. Meanwhile, Lesley is also going to need you. You’re the center of this new family, Joe. Julia and Lesley are part of the tangle, but you’re the one who’s most connected to each of them. That makes you the go-to person right now, and maybe for a while.”
“Let’s do it,” he said.
Family therapy may seem like the obvious next step. However, in troubled stepfamilies, therapy generally proceeds best in subsystems. Children of all ages often need to express their unhappiness with all of the changes and be fully heard and understood by their parents. In turn, stepcouples need a separate, safe place to engage constructively over their differences and to hold their sadness and disappointment together. Once these subsystems are working well, it becomes more possible to bring the whole family together, and to attend to stepparent–stepchild relationships.
Before I began meeting with Joe and his daughter, though, we needed to make sure Lesley was on board. Guessing that this might be no simple task, I set up a meeting with Joe and Lesley.
Turning Toward Each Other
Joe and Lesley sat close together on my couch, radiating distress. “Julia’s 34 years old and acting like an adolescent,” Lesley began, barely able to contain her tears. “She ignores me, and now she’s ignoring her dad. She’s rude and spoiled.” Joe sat stiffly, squeezing Lesley’s hand.
I took a breath, looking for a way to reach for the anguish and dashed hopes beneath Lesley’s rant. “This is not what you were hoping for, is it?” I asked.
Lesley sighed and softened a bit.
Wanting to put Joe into the equation, I said to him, “It’s so painful when the people you love most are unhappy with you.”
Before Lesley could make any shift, I knew she needed to experience Joe’s support for her. I turned to helping her bring her disappointment to Joe, rather than pressuring him to change Julia. Sometimes the “language of wishing” gets us to the grief that lurks under entrenched expectations. “You so wish this were easier for Julia,” I said softly to both of them.
Lesley looked at me forlornly. “I do,” she said sadly. “It’s been so hard.”
“Okay to turn to Joe and let him know?” I asked.
“I wanted this to be different,” she said to him, her voice trembling.
Joe instantly sprang into fix-it mode. “I’m trying to get Julia to come over, but she won’t answer my calls,” he said desperately. Lesley tensed.
I stepped in. “Joe, I know you love Lesley. I wonder if you could look into your heart and find what you do understand about her feelings.”
Joe sat for a moment. “It’s been hard for you,” he finally said to Lesley with genuine feeling.
“Now add a sentence or two of your own,” I said.
I use this structure, called “joining,” to actively shape experiences of connection and empathy.
“It’s been hard for me, too,” Joe said.
Hoping to help him move a little deeper, I asked, “Joe, can you find the feelings that go with that?”
“Sad that I can’t make it right. Guilty that my daughter is unhappy and Lesley’s unhappy.”
Now it was Lesley’s turn. “I know you love Joe,” I said. “Can you find the place in your heart where you understand what he’s feeling?”
“You feel really bad,” she said quietly to Joe. “You want to make us both happy. And you can’t!” They both laughed. For the moment, Joe and Lesley were in this together.
“It sounds like it was a total surprise that Julia has had such a difficult time,” I said. “I think I can help you understand.” With Joe’s permission, I shared the backstory of Joe’s decades-long distance from his daughter. “I’m gonna bet Julia didn’t know what she was missing until she saw her dad being so affectionate with you, Lesley,” I said.
“Will she ever accept me?” Lesley asked plaintively.
“I don’t know,” I answered, echoing my earlier response to Joe. “Before Julia can take in a new person, she and her dad have a lot of catching up to do. Meanwhile, let’s help you and Joe take really good care of each other.”
Reassuring Lesley that Joe and Julia would concentrate on healing their relationship with each other, not on bashing Lesley, we now set up a meeting for Dad and daughter. Guessing things would get more fraught for this couple before they got easier, we also set up a series of couple appointments.
From Blending to Repair
Julia had almost no track record of voicing her feelings to her dad, so I began their first joint session alone with her, helping her find some language for her distress. She remained huddled in the corner of my couch. “But my dad doesn’t get it. He never did.”
“I think he’s willing to try,” I said. “If you’re willing, I’ll help him hear you.” She looked doubtful but agreed to let Joe join us.
“Dad, it seems like your marriage has brought up a lot that Julia never got to express before,” I began. “Julia, see if you can start with just a sentence or two about what you most want your dad to know.”
Julia sat up, leaned forward, and launched. “You were never home. You’d ask me about my grades, but you never asked me about me. After the divorce, you just disappeared. Dad, you were barely part of our family. And now you want me to join this new family?”
So much for a kid who couldn’t find her voice.
Joe looked overwhelmed and ashen. Maintaining a clear, safe structure is vital for these meetings. Julia needed help to talk to her father without flooding him. “Julia,” I said, “How about let’s go a sentence or two at a time, so your dad can really take this in.”
She took a long breath. “Dad, you were never home for dinner. You coached Jim’s tennis team, but you pretty much ignored me.”
Joe started to defend himself and Julia began to collapse back into the couch. I stepped in. “This is tough for you, Joe, huh? I know you love your daughter. Can you look into your heart and find what you do understand about what Julia just said? Not what you agree with, Joe. Just what you understand.”
“She says I was never home,” Joe said, staring at the floor.
“Joe,” I said gently but firmly, “could you look at Julia and tell her what you understand about what she just said?”
Joe’s brow furrowed. He looked up at Julia. “Sounds like you felt like I didn’t care about you.”
“I felt invisible,” she whispered.
Her father looked flummoxed. “Take a breath, Joe,” I said. “Find what you understand.”
Because I view secure attachment as the parent’s job not the child’s, in parent–child sessions, “joining” moves primarily in one direction: from dad to daughter. So we continued in this way, very slowly, a sentence or two at a time, stopping each round for Joe to help his daughter feel seen and felt.
Finally, Julia said, “It’s been so hard watching you and Lesley. You never looked at Mom in that warm, loving way. At first I thought I was mad for Mom. Then I realized it was me, Dad. You never looked at me that way.”
Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry,” he said, looking fully at Julia.
I asked gently, “What happens inside, Julia, when your dad says this?”
“It’s awfully late,” she said bitterly.
Moving to help her stay engaged, I said: “You’ve wanted this for so long, right?” She nodded, wiping away a tear. “Can you tell your dad?”
They’d made a good start. “I think you have a lot of catching up to do,” I told them. “How about starting with doing some things together regularly, without Lesley?”
“I bet I can still beat you in tennis,” Joe said.
“We’ll see about that,” Julia shot back, smiling just slightly.
Rebuilding and Deepening
Joe and Julia began getting together every couple of weeks without Lesley, intermittently coming in for sessions with me. I began by asking them to share stories about each other from Julia’s childhood, moving from there into deeper territory. As Julia began to feel more known by her dad, she became increasingly confident and playful with him. I now began to ask Julia to provide “joining” for Joe as he disclosed more about straining to be a good breadwinner and feeling awkward parenting a girl.
Meanwhile, Joe and Lesley continued in couples therapy. Moments of sweet connection were punctuated with difficult slogging. At first, Lesley continued to sink into despairing anger: “If Julia can’t apologize, I don’t see why you spend time with her.” Joe would jump into his old fix-it mode, or he’d go gray and shut down.
We began interspersing individual work for each of them, focused on healing childhood experiences that were feeding Lesley’s anger and fueling Joe’s “shut-down” and “fix-it” parts.
As some of his old shame and anxiety began to lift, Joe began stepping more fully into his leadership position in this family. “I don’t need you to be happy about my daughter,” he was finally able to say to Lesley. “I know it’s hard. You can ask for my comfort any time. But you can’t ask me to close my heart to my daughter.”
Meanwhile, Lesley had been moving slowly from you have to make her stop rejecting me to I need a hug. This time, after a beat, Lesley reached for her husband’s hand and said, “I know.”
Patience and Persistence
Julia kept her distance from Lesley for two more years. During this time, Joe remained a kind of “shuttle diplomat.” He continued meeting with Julia without Lesley.
By Lesley and Joe’s fourth anniversary, Julia’s relationship with her dad was becoming increasingly secure. Around this time, we scheduled a joint meeting with everyone involved. For the first time, Julia told Lesley directly how painful it had been to watch her dad being so loving to another woman. “I know I was awful to you,” she said to Lesley, looking somewhat embarrassed. “But,” she continued, “if this hadn’t happened, maybe my dad and I would still be strangers.”
“What’s this like to hear, Lesley?” I asked.
“I have to say,” Lesley said to Julia, “I’m a little embarrassed that I was so clueless about what it was like for you. I’m sorry.”
Finally, I thought, the apologies this family needed, just not quite the ones anybody had imagined.
Joe and Julia continued to spend time alone together. Now, however, along with Jim and his partner, Bob, Julia began joining Joe and Lesley for dinner. Increasingly, Julia arrived early to cook with her dad and Lesley, or stayed late to wash dishes with them. Finally, Lesley and Julia began getting together for lunch occasionally.
As Joe and Lesley near their fifth anniversary, theirs isn’t quite the ideal blended family they had been wishing for. Nor is it the disaster that Julia feared. At a time when Joe and Lesley thought life would finally become much simpler for them, and Julia had despaired and thrown in the towel, they’re all discovering how to do the work of healing old wounds. Together, they’re successfully traversing new, unexpected territory.
As I near four decades of doing this work, I continue to be deeply moved by these families. Guiding them away from the all too easy wrong turns can feel like some combination of wrestling alligators and tenderly rocking the vulnerable child in each of them. As in Joe’s family, helping our clients in stepfamily relationships to meet the complex challenges they face often requires defying deeply held expectations about what successful family life looks like. It’s still some of the most difficult and the most satisfying work I do.
By William Doherty
This case illustrates an unusually sophisticated approach to treating later-life couples in stepfamilies while reminding us how little attention we’ve given to the distinctive challenges they face. With remarried couples, we typically assume that the therapeutic action goes on only within the boundaries of the couple’s relationship and neglect the other active players, including the couple’s children and other loved ones. But stepfamilies are mini-morality plays of conflicting obligations and loyalties, and we can’t effectively treat remarried couples in stepfamilies without a broader systems perspective and an acute sensitivity to the moral dimensions of family life.
Stepfamilies are born from loss, whether through death or a breakup. The parent getting remarried has a fresh start at love, while the children (of any age) often experience the remarriage as a reigniting of the loss. Mom isn’t just gone: now she’s been replaced by a stranger. Or Dad, whose distancing led to the divorce and may have left the children feeling fatherless, is now gushing with attentiveness for a new woman. As this case illustrates, these old wounds and regrets resurface for those left out of the new circle of affection.
Stepmothers tend to get the brunt of all this, more than stepfathers. After all, who better to project all this grief and resentment on than Mrs. Intruder? No one knows exactly what’s hit them, except that someone is behaving badly and has to stop. So they go to their individual therapist, who often makes it worse, as seen in this case. They get messages like “confront the bad behavior,” or “that person is probably a narcissist,” or “take a leave of absence from this toxic family relationship.” The harm of these messages isn’t intentional, but it comes from blind ignorance of the complexity of stepfamily relationships.
Fortunately, Joe and Lesley found a therapist who recognized a common pattern and moved quickly to the heart of the problem. The starting point has to be the parent who has bonds with all the parties—in this case, Joe. He can’t be left to be the hapless good guy who just hopes the women can learn to get along better, and he can’t be supported in a coalition with this new wife against his daughter, or accept a cutoff from his daughter to placate his partner. He has to be pushed to step up in leadership, take responsibility for repairing this problem, and renew his relationship with his daughter and then with his wife. I especially appreciated Papernow’s emphasis on not letting Joe off the hook and asking him to take relational leadership.
My only mini-warning to readers about this impressive case study is that there was no doubt a lot of steady pacing by the therapist to help Joe get ready for the hard emotional work. Brief case write-ups (my own included) tend to emphasize the dramatic breakthrough. If Papernow had moved too fast on Joe’s vulnerability, he’d have been likely to have fled. As therapists, we need to bear in mind that suddenly illuminating issues with floodlights is typically less helpful than gradually ratcheting up the dimmer switch. Similarly, I’d imagine that Papernow also did some good old psychoeducation along the way, explaining and normalizing everyone’s responses. For example, I sometimes say to the scapegoated stepparent, “It’s not about you, even though it feels like it’s about you. In new stepfamilies, it’s almost never about the new spouse: it’s about the old parent.”
I finished reading the case with sadness mixed with my admiration for Papernow’s careful craft. It’s still too rare for a remarried couple to get this kind of skillful help for problems that have become extraordinarily common in contemporary family life. But as therapists become more and more attuned to the evolving forms of 21st-century family life, my hope for our field is that, rather than the nuanced work described in this case seeming so remarkable, it will become increasingly routine.
Illustration © Sally Wern Comport
Patricia Papernow, EdD, is the director of the Institute for Stepfamily Education and a psychologist in private practice. She‘s the author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn‘t.
William Doherty, PhD, is professor of family social science and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, The Ethical Lives of Clients: Transcending Self-Interest in Psychotherapy.