June 5, 2012

Read a summary of Bernie’s segment with Yvette Vignando on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife show on ABC 702 Monday 4 June 2012

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Step-Families – How to deal with the New Normal?

Listen to the Broadcast.

Today with 1 in every 5 families being a step family, it would seem that the idea of the ‘normal nuclear family’ is a thing of the past.

Bur what is normal?  According to the French philosopher Foucault, too often in history the concept of ‘normal’ has been constructed by the dominant group of the times – be it religious or scientific, to pathologise those who do not fit prescribed standards. Notions of normality sanction and privilege certain family arrangements while stigmatising and marginalising others.  However the very concept of family has been undergoing redefinition in response to profound political, social and economic changes. Amid the turmoil individuals and their loved ones have been forging new and varied relationship patterns within and across households as they strive to form caring and committed bonds. So the very definition of the ‘family’ must be expanded to encompass a broad spectrum and fluid reshaping of relational and household patterns. Today a normal family can be headed by a single parent, a working mother, two gay parents or indeed as we are going to discuss tonight step-parents.

The nuclear family structure reached its peak in America in the 1950s.  Before this the idea that it takes a village to raise a child was a widely held belief.  But the nuclear family comprised an intact two-parent family unit headed by the male bread-winner and supported by his full-time homemaker wife who devoted herself to household management, childrearing and elder care. This structure was fuelled by a strong economy post WWII which allowed families to survive on one-income.  But it also meant that the family became increasingly insular, living in the suburbs and becoming ever more self reliant.  By cutting itself off from the extended family and greater community, this family was in effect cutting itself off from many sources of resilience, making it impossible to reconfigure in times of need.  Unrealistically high expectations for spouses to fill all needs for romantic love, support and companionship contributed to the fragility of the marriage. And with the increase in the breakdown of ‘traditional’ marriages comes the rise in the occurrence of alternate relationships and families and their own unique challenges.

Sometimes with complex issues it is helpful to ask some basic questions like what is the role of the family and are blended families any different?

To answer this I would say that relationships, driven by our desire to love and be loved are one of the main drivers of wellbeing. And the family is the main institution that we have created to nurture this desire. In a world of competition, the family is a refuge in which each of its members can develop in a supporting, loving environment. But it can rarely be said that it is a perfect haven and in this respect is somewhat similar to a blended family. But unfortunately with the latter the challenges tend to be somewhat more complex.

Blended families are a consequence of a couple falling in love and don’t have the benefits of time for the couple to bond ahead of the presence of children.  In addition the nature of the parents’ separation or divorce may cause some behavioural issues in the children.  Teenagers in particular are not as easy to bond with as babies – they can be going through their own developmental stage of separation and therefore not as interested in forming a relationship with another ‘oldie’.

All families come with challenges but blended families have their own more complex ones. Dealing with conflict is without a doubt a huge part of step families.  By its very nature, a blended or step family comes with the previous family of at least one of the partners.  And with a previous family comes an ex – partner and their parents, i.e. the kids’ grandparents.  It is an absolute minefield to navigate.  However research has shown that of all the predictors, parental conflict is the single biggest indicator of a child’s emotional well-being.  So if the parents could really keep that piece of knowledge in the forefront of their minds and act accordingly, a lot of the other problems could potentially fall away.

And with the new changes to the Family Law Act, it is all the more important that parents keep their differences away from the children. Generally the children of the marriage do not ask for the divorce nor do they ask for the remarriage or stepsiblings.  In most cases they are innocent bystanders and these things just happen to them. It is hard enough for the kids to have to get used to a new family without being forced to take sides in their parents’ conflict as well.  Feelings of guilt in children can be played out as anger and that does not make for a happy new family.  So parents should deal with their own issues if not for themselves, for the sake of their children.  If necessary they should seek out a good counsellor to help them move on.

Multiple relationships are also another complexity common to blended families. However good communication is the key here and believing in everyone’s good intent.  Sometimes it helps just to realise that all the relationships are different, e.g. there is the new partner relationship, the biological parent – child relationship, the step parent – step children relationships, the new partner – ex partner relationship, the step-sibling relationship, the biological sibling relationship, the grandparent relationship, the step parent – grandparent relationship.  And very often not all of them will be good and not all of them will be bad.  So if there seems to be problems within the step family, separate out the relationships and look at each of them individually.

With the new adult relationship – nurture it.  Unfortunately you do not have the time alone to get to know each other.  At least one of you is coming with a ready-made family. But this does not mean you shouldn’t do all the things you need to do to keep it alive – spend couple time together, appreciate each other, communicate openly and  empathically, make sure you continue to have sex.  Acknowledge that step-family relationships can be difficult and support each other. Research shows that the presence of step children can be a destabilising influence and a major contributor to the somewhat greater rate of divorce among couples with step children relative to those without.

With step parents – step children, it takes time.  Just because the adults fall in love, doesn’t mean everyone else will.  And they don’t have to. Fortunately Cinderella type step-mothers are in the minority but that is not to say there won’t be bumps or even boulders along the way. So while step-parents are advised not to take on a disciplining role early in the relationship, there does have to be respect and consistency.  It is therefore extremely important that the parent, whether father or mother, steps in where necessary.  Before a step parent earns the right to discipline, they must first develop a connection with the step children and then their trust.  Step-parents are the adults in this situation so it is wise to act like adults.  Even if they feel their step-child is behaving like a little monster, it is best not to burn any bridges.  The door should always be left open for him to come back.  His behaviour could very well be nothing to do with the step parent and all to do with the circumstances of his parents’ relationship.  In that respect, treat him like you would your own child and bring in the concept of unconditional love.

With grandparents – step parents.  The point here is that they are all adults and should be concerned about what is best for the kids.  It will not do the kids any good if the new step parent or former in-law is being denigrated by the grandparent.  Once again the children may feel like they have to choose and ultimately the grandparent will lose out.

Biological parents – children have to make sure they spend some one-on-one time together. Children need to be able to share their thoughts and grievances without fear of recrimination.

As mentioned before, there needs to be consistency in how all members of the new family are treated. Anger and guilt can tie two people together as tightly as love. One partner may not have wanted the divorce and may still be reeling from the pain and rejection it caused.  They may have remarried but will still not let themselves feel and then forget about the hurt from the past. Instead they may still be fighting with and trying to get back at their ex.  This may lead to all sorts of behaviours especially in relation to their own kids.  They want to make sure their kids love them more than their ex-spouse and so spoil them more than they do their step-kids.  This can lead to lots of resentment and unhappy times in the new family.  Equally guilt can play a similar part.  Guilt at leaving a former partner can mean trying to ‘buy’ forgiveness – never saying ‘no’ to the ex and the biological children can lead to feelings of jealousy in the new family.  It is really important to talk to the new partner about expectations around discipline, chores and acceptable behaviour and time spent alone with the kids and partner before the step family is formed.  It should never be assumed that the new step parents have exactly the same values and ways of handling parenting.

Another difficulty is that children are often members of two households and can come in and out of a family depending on parenting arrangements.  This can take its toll both emotionally and financially.  In first marriage families, the parents have sole responsibility for all legal and financial matters with regard to the kids.  In step families where the children move between households, these responsibilities are to some extent shared and can lead to competition and conflict between the households. It could be that in one of the households, each of the children has their own bedroom whilst in the other, the bedrooms have to be shared.  In all houses it is important that the children have their own drawer or box to store their precious items.

So even after you the new family may have successfully blended a whole new set of issues arise on the death of one of the partners. There is is no right or wrong way to deal with this – it is a very individual thing and very much depends on the relationship.  However the one thing that should be done is to consult a lawyer who specialises in estate planning.  Just as in traditional families it is important that a person’s wishes are carried out after their death, so it is in blended families.  Without a will, the new spouse will be entitled to part of your estate which of course can then be left to the step children in the spouses will.  If this is not the deceased’s intent, then they should seek advice. It’s such a pity to see all the hard work which went into building the relationships when everyone was alive being just thrown away by not dealing with what should happen after death.

But if it all seems to be falling apart, there are still things which can be done. Just like in the traditional family, seek outside help.  But it is imperative not to wait until the family has imploded.   In most step families very little is done initially to prepare anyone for step family life and this lack of preparation can be especially damaging for those who have trouble handling complexity or ambiguity.  However outside help does not necessarily mean family counselling – in some cases a good family mediator will allow issues to be raised and aired and new norms and boundaries to be set without wallowing too much in the problems of the past. In the majority of cases, emotions take over the family discussions and very quickly everyone forgets what they wanted to talk about and it becomes much more important to prove that they are right and the other person is wrong. A good mediator will contain the emotion and make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.  And in this neutral setting a greater awareness of everyone’s needs and wants can be attained

April 3, 2012

A summary of Bernie’s appearance on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife show – ABC 702 Monday 2 April 2012

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Divorce – everyone knows someone who has been through a divorce.  With nearly 1 in 2 marriages breaking down and over 30,000 of these involving kids every year, we need to get it right.  So how come so many of us are getting it wrong?

Bernie Bolger, a Sydney based psychotherapist has been looking into this with her colleague, Hadass Segal. And they have come up with the Happy Divorce Method – the 5 steps needed to be taken to ensure a happy and fulfilling life post divorce.

Listen to Bernie Bolgers Talk – Click Here


Question: Before we go to the idea of a happy divorce – why do you think so many marriages are ending in the first place?

The 20 million dollar question.  There is no one answer to this.  In fact what seems to be a deal breaker for one couple sometimes is the making of a marriage for others e.g. infidelity for one couple might be an unforgivable breach but for another it can be a reason to start paying more attention to the relationship.

However overwhelmingly, communication and financial issues come up time and time again in the research. More so than abusive behaviours and habits.  So while violence affects 1 in 4 marriages today, it is not often cited as a cause of marital breakdown. External pressures such as the ‘in-laws or work’ tend to be in the slightly irritating basket rather than a reason to leave.  Unfortunately there does seem to be a socio-economic bias.  Divorced women who reported severe abuse during marriage tended to be poorer than those who reported communication or financial pressures as the main reason

Question: I presume it is normal for one person to end the relationship – what connection is there between a person being the one who makes the decision and his/her ability to move on?

There is a big difference between being ‘left’ and being the ‘leaver’.  Sometimes it is helpful to use the horse race analogy. The leaver might already be at the finishing post while the person who has been ‘left’ isn’t even in the starting bays. So yes the emotional adjustment after divorce is often very dependent on a person’s part in the decision making process.

Question: So what is this concept of a HAPPY Divorce? For me a HAPPY divorce is a situation where both partners can move on after the breakup to lead happier and more fulfilling lives without regret and without anger.  If there are children involved, the ongoing relationship between the partners is conducted in such a way that the best interests of the children are always at the heart of any their decisions and interactions.

Obviously there is no magic path and every divorce has its own idiosyncrasies.  But it seems to us that there are some common steps which people who have a Happy divorce seem to take.

Question: So what are the steps involved in getting to a Happy Divorce?

The first step I would suggest is to seek outside HELP.  Do not be afraid to seek help from a counsellor when the issues first arise.  On average people wait 7 years from the first signs of marriage distress to the time they seek counselling. And this is just too late.  Bad behaviours have already become entrenched.  People can halve their counselling bill in the long term if they are proactive about getting Help.  Obviously from a financial point of view, this isn’t a very sensible approach for me to take as a counsellor but in all honesty, I am more concerned about getting a good result.  And this is so much easier if I am called in at the beginning stages of the breakdown.

Question: I’m looking at your acronym ‘HAPPY’ and I’m sure many people would be substituting A for Anger – tell me about Acceptance?

Acceptance.  So many people waste time and energy digging over the past or refusing to accept the relationship is over. They blame everyone except themselves.  They refuse to move on.  And if they eventually do come to terms with the demise of the relationship, they then spend their lives trying to change their spouse. They try to change his/her time keeping habits, the food that is being cooked for the kids, the bedtimes.  This is all a waste of time.  What smart people do is to understand that the reason the old relationship is ending is to allow both parties to move on to a new life. To make this a better life, they need to park the baggage of the old relationship at the door of the old home and not take it with them. This is easier said than done. A useful first step is to take responsibility in part for the relationship. No matter how obnoxious your partner may have been, mature individuals will take responsibility for their half of the relationship while saying their partner was responsible for the other half. Focus on what you could have done better, without becoming maudlin or getting into the game of self-blame, rather than what your partner did wrong. You had no control over your partner during your marriage and now you have even less. But you can control yourself and working out what you can do better will help you in the future. It also helps to leave any bitterness and anger that you feel behind. Taking anger and bitterness forward is disastrous for both parties, but most so for the party who can’t leave it behind.  In the first instance it means the divorce proceedings are used as the new ground to fight old battles and seek vindication. Battles that will never be won and vindication that will never be achieved. But the financial costs of trying to win this unwinnable battle are devastating for both parties. And the impact on kids even more so. The best divorces occur through mediation or the collaborative law process

Question: So tell me about mediation or collaborative law?

Done through mediation and with the help of a good mediator, the total legal costs can be kept to below $10,000. Done in an adversarial way, there is no end to what the costs may be. It has been common for me to counsel clients who have initially had a divorce lawyer quote them around $10,000, but because they do not accept advice or mediation (sometimes encouraged by an adversarial lawyer) they end up chewing up the equity in their house and pay a legal bill in the many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Worst of all is the impact on any kids in these situations.

An alternative is the Collaborative Law Process where both parties and their lawyers undertake to try and come to a mediated settlement out of court.  All meetings will involve the four parties plus any experts such as Financial Advisers or Mental Health Counsellors as are deemed necessary by all parties. Should negotiations break down, the clients must engage new lawyers so therefore it is in the best interests of everyone to come to a negotiated settlement out of court.

Smart people fight the battles that need to be won and they don’t sweat the small stuff.  They use the divorce proceedings as a chance to look forward rather than to look back. They choose lawyers and counsellors who are going to represent them well, while being fair and sensible. They are guided by principles of fairness and reasonableness, not revenge and vindication. Given time they accept the new reality, they accept the new single self and they accept the reduced lifestyle and all that it means

Question: You are also a qualified financial planner and you emphasise the importance of this – why is this important?

For me the first P in the Happy divorce is for Planning. Planning gives structure and meaning to this new life.  Smart people plan their finances with the help of a financial adviser if possible. They set a budget and take control.  This can be one of the most empowering things they do. To work with a planner who will help you discover your values then help you set new goals which are aligned with these values.

People who move on also plan their new social life.  A social life as a single person doesn’t just happen.  Sundays are the worst; they are such family days and your married friends are busy with their own families. So people who want to start afresh plan to meet friends on Sunday mornings and they also plan for Sunday evenings. There is nothing worse than being alone on a Sunday night – in the early phase it can leave you wallowing and wondering what has happened to your life. It is easy to fall into the trap of looking back.

Question: I would imagine parenting post divorce is one of the hardest aspects to deal with. There is normally a whole lot of emotion invested in the kids.  How do you deal with this?

Parenting. Just because you divorce doesn’t mean you stop being parents. One way to look at it is that your ex partner will always be the parent of your kids, therefore you will always have a relationship with them, so it might as well be as good as it possibly can.  So many parents use the kids in their marital warfare and the only people who are affected are the kids.  It doesn’t work and I counsel so many kids who are the products of a dysfunctional family unit.

Question: And finally tell me about looking after yourself.  It would nearly seem that this is the most important – I mean if you fall apart, you will be no good to anyone?

Yes you’re right – taking the time to look after You is huge and is something that often gets forgotten. It’s time to start being kind to yourself, showing some self compassion.  Maybe lowering expectations

There is no better time than when you are going through one of the biggest life changing events to look within and perhaps change aspects of your life which are not aligning with your core values

May 4, 2011

Listen to Bernie talk to Tony Delroy on ABC 702 Nightlife about how Financial Issues are putting a huge strain on Australian Relationships

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Click on the link below to hear the radio interview.


May 2, 2011

What’s going on behind closed doors: Relationships in modern day Australia by Bernie Bolger

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Australian couples are in crisis – relationship crisis. And what is it about?  Sex, money and power and the role of each in the relationship. And it’s causing mutual resentment.

From the men’s point of few they aren’t having sex with their wives, they may be having sex, but it is not with their wives.  From the women’s point of view, they are feeling, powerless, depressed and resentful. Mix these all up together and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

For at least the past 40 years, women have been encouraged to have the same expectations of life and career as men. In fact at school they are actively encouraged to study hard and pursue a career.  And in this day and age, most of these expectations can be realised.  Until they have a baby that it is and then all sense of equality goes out the window.  From the moment that baby is born, in the majority of cases, the care of that child becomes the mother’s issue. And this can happen without even a conversation taking place between the parents. In a lot of cases, it is just assumed that the mother will take time out of her career to look after the child.  This may work for the first few years, but ten years out of the paid workforce takes a toll on the woman’s self-confidence and sense of power and ultimately on the relationship.

But it is all very subtle.  It starts with the wife expending all her time and energy on being super mum.  In her mind, if she is going to make this her career, then she is going to do it to perfection. No wonder she is too tired to have sex.  And what about the husband? Well he has a role to play as well.  W hen he rocks in from the office, he doesn’t think of asking how her day has been or if she’d like a hand with bath-time.  In fact he is more than likely to put his nose in his blackberry to check the constant stream of emails.  And so the tit-for-tat begins. Wife decides “I’m not going to put out if he can’t even be bothered asking about his daughters’s ballet lesson!” Husband responds with ‘I don’t even know why I bother coming home – I may as well stay on in the office” And so the reality of parallel lives within the marriage begins.

Bernie’s Steps to a better Relationship

  1. If you think this might be your situation, the first thing you have to do is acknowledge there is a problem.  Issues like this do not go away – they go underground and fester. 
  2. Have a conversation.  If your situation is too far gone and it feels like it has been years since you were able to have a constructive conversation with your partner, it’s amazing how productive just one facilitated session with a therapist can be in raising all those issues which have been causing such resentment over the years. 
  3. If you are about to embark on a new relationship or have children who are about to go down this path, have the hard conversations upfront – it could save a lot of tears later. And make sure that in those conversations, the following topics are covered off.
  • The importance of sex in your life
  • The importance of financial independence and security in your life
  • What about child-care – who is going to look after the child?
  • How is that person going to get paid?  I would suggest that 50% of the wage-earner’s salary goes into his partner’s account
  • If the primary carer wants to go back to work, how will that work?
  • Make looking after the family finances, part of the stay-at-home partner’s role.  This includes seeing the financial adviser, the accountant, the lawyer.  Just because you give up paid work, doesn’t mean you give up access to your brain
  • When the kids get to school-going age, consider returning to paid work, even if it is only part-time.  This is not always about money – it is about self-esteem, a feeling of usefulness and a sense of achievement, the best counter-actions to those feelings of depression.

March 21, 2011

Women juggling a career and family!

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Watch Bernie Bolger and Gretel Killen as they examine whether or not women can have it all. Laugh along as they explore the often hilarious trials, tribulations and balancing act facing women juggling a career and family.
Watch now!

August 2, 2010

Blogs coming soon!

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Are you are trying to get back on your feet after the breakdown of a relationship or are you feeling low for no apparent reason? Are you worried about your financial future?

Do you want to improve your work-life balance?

Wherever you are in life, taking the opportunity to talk to someone in a safe, supportive environment can make all the difference when it comes to making some hard decisions.

If you feel you want to change some things in your life but don’t quite know where to start, I’d love to talk to you.

Together we can explore your values, visions and goals and get you started on your journey towards the life you were meant to live.

Bernie Bolger

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