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Stepfamilies Can Learn to Tolerate--Yes, Even Like --Each Other

July 20, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer and

When it was over, Sharon Hanna looked at her husband and commented that the next time the two of them presented a panel on the extended stepfamily they should consider including a segment entitled, "Can You Top This?"

One woman in the audience had just complained that her husband's ex-wife won't go near her and has so poisoned the air that her stepchildren start trembling if they are in the presence of both her and the ex-wife.

A Thousand Oaks man said his ex, who has custody of the kids, habitually plans special events for the weekends when he has visiting rights. If he lets them attend the event, he doesn't see the kids. If he insists on seeing them, he becomes "mean Daddy who doesn't live here anymore and who is depriving you kids of the special weekend you've been looking forward to for so long."

The tales of ex-spouses from hell ricocheted around the meeting rooms at UC Irvine during the recent annual conference of the Stepfamily Assn. of America.

For four days, more than 100 people, many of whom brought their children and stepchildren with them, discussed issues of concern to stepparents: how to merge the children into a new family, how to handle finances, how to deal with ex-husbands and ex-wives.

Considering they were descendants of dark, vicious creatures memorialized in literature and lore from Cinderella on down (and probably well before that), the stepparents didn't look evil. In fact, they said they wouldn't mind people knowing they had a few problems of their own.

Sharon Hanna was among those stepparents. What made her tale a bit different was the presence of the others on her panel: her husband, Bob Dinkel; Dinkel's ex-wife, Karen Baxter; and Baxter's current husband, Jerry.

For several years now, at conferences for stepparents, they have delivered the message that if they can get along together, almost anyone else can, too.

Bob and Karen, the parents of 11- and 13-year-old boys, were married in 1964 and divorced in 1977. Bob won custody of the boys and moved to Nebraska. Karen stayed in Minnesota.

After both remarried, the Bob and Karen relationship was strained at best and non-existent at worst, both said. "It was like a war that got started and no one knew how to stop," Dinkel said.

At one point, the older boy went to live with his mother and her new husband; the younger one considered it, and when Bob and Sharon found out he had been talking to his mother about moving in with her and Jerry Baxter, the hostility became more intense.

It wasn't until 1982 that things finally began to work out. The television program "Good Morning America" had the four of them, plus Sharon's ex-husband and his second wife, on the show as an example of stepfamilies who hate each other.

A therapist mediated at the meeting of the six adults and a separate meeting of Bob and Karen's children and the children of Sharon and her ex-husband. The meetings, which lasted for hours, were then edited and shown on "Good Morning America" for a week. "We were so angry when we left that the therapist said, 'Don't even talk to each other. Definitely don't go out with each other,' " Jerry Baxter remembered.

Despite the warning, the six adults did sit down together, warily at first, and began talking about their feelings for each other and what they thought would be good for the kids. Bob and Sharon live in Lincoln, Neb., and Karen and Jerry in Bloomington, Minn. They agreed to meet halfway for a birthday party for one of Bob and Karen's boys. Then the families took a river trip. Eventually, the two couples learned that they not only could stand each other, they didn't mind seeing each other several times a year.

They have gathered at family conclaves for holidays, birthdays and the like, as well as at meetings of the Stepfamily Assn. of America, which is based in Baltimore and was founded 10 years ago.

As an adjunct to last week's conference for stepparents, there were also two days of separate presentations by social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists, intended for professionals in the field.

"People are not getting educated in graduate-school training about stepfamily dynamics," said Judy Mize, the conference director and the association's Western regional director. "They wind up thinking it's the same as a traditional family, and it's not. So when people go to them for help, they're not aware of the dynamics (of stepfamilies)."

While the professionals discussed such topics as "sexual and affectional dynamics in stepfamilies" and "therapeutic strategies," association members held what were called "informal cracker-barrel discussions" on such topics as how mothers without custody can deal with their guilt and how to spread the money around in wills, trusts and prenuptial agreements when someone has had three or four spouses, several children and even more stepchildren.

Carol and Jerry Shaff of Branford, Conn., said it was the second of the annual conferences they had attended and both were helpful. "The whole idea of the organization is you meet other people with similar problems," said Jerry, who had five children from a previous marriage when he married Carol, who has four children of her own.

"You think you have an earth-shattering problem," he said, only to meet others facing the same problem. "It helps to know that you're in a normal situation. It doesn't solve (the problem), but it helps."

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