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Family therapist keeps the peace for blended families

Three decades into the divorce revolution, and the myth of the evil stepmother is still alive. The enduring power of this legend is based on the reality of blended families, said Judy Osborne, director of Stepfamily Associates of Brookline. “It’s so hard to be a stepparent at the beginning, and it takes time for connections to form,” said Osborne. “Most people think there’s supposed to be instant love, but that’s unrealistic.”

Osborne speaks from experience: she divorced her husband in the late ’70s, when they were parents of a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. The separation was amicable, but later, as she formed a blended family with a new spouse, many difficulties arose. There was shame and guilt about the divorce, confusion about roles, and disruption to routines. Still, Osborne refused to call her original family “broken.” “I don’t consider my family broken, even now, even though we have been separated for 30 years,” said Osborne. “What we do is untangle relationships and rearrange them.”

As a family therapist, Osborne admits it can feel odd to walk into an office and tell your deepest struggles to a complete stranger. She starts by making a map of family connections, actually drawing out an outline of players. Another important question she asks is, “What kind of parenting model did you grow up with?” “Most couples don’t even think they have a pattern they are responding to, but we all have ingrained attitudes and actions,” said Osborne, author of "Wisdom for Separated Parents: Rearranging Around the Children to Keep Kinship Strong.”

Q: You founded your practice in 1981. What has changed since then?
A: Respected professionals used to advise separated parents to avoid having much to do with each other; it would be too confusing to the children. But today we realize that it’s important to talk and plan with an ex-partner.

Q: What are some unusual questions you get as a counselor?
A: Because I’m located close to hospitals and universities, I see a lot of international couples from India, the Middle East, and China who have different cultural practices and concepts. With one Asian couple, for example, I had the feeling I should be sitting in a long robe, stroking my chin. They wanted me to be an authority figure, something I wasn’t prepared to expect of myself. We all had a lot of learning to do on different levels.

Q: Let’s be honest: Do you get tired of hearing people whine and complain all the time?

A: When I was first a therapist, I was more impatient and maybe even sleepy sometimes. But now, I’m really interested in people’s stories and see every situation as a puzzle. Some of the pieces might be turned over, but I want to help put them together to see how it all fits.

Q: What do people say when they hear what you do for a living?
A: Once I was sitting at a big table where there was an animated discussion. Someone asked me what I did for work, and the conversation abruptly stopped. People have the false notion sometimes that I can almost read their minds and find out something about them they don’t want anyone to know.

Q: And your blended family – how is everyone doing today?
A: My ex-husband and I are now grandparents to four lovely kids and still see each other around weddings, births, and the changing lives of children. The passage of time can heal anger and hurt. My stepdaughter is now in her mid 40s, and we have a very loving relationship that was hard to imagine when she was 12 years old.

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