- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

I recently received some sad news from Margorie Engel, a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center’s Stepfamily Expert Council. Dr. John Visher, a California psychiatrist, had died April 17 at the age of 88.

Dr. Visher personally spoke with me from his Walnut Creek home last summer, and in the few conversations we had, it was apparent he had changed the world for the better. The world has lost a pioneer, and I wonder how many of the nearly 100 million stepfamily members in the U.S. he may have affected even know it.

I first learned about Dr. Visher while researching and preparing to launch reMarriage magazine. As I contacted hundreds of people, including marriage educators, counselors, authors and remarried couples, John and Emily Visher’s names came up repeatedly. With my own passion for enabling successful remarriages and stepfamilies, I had to learn more about this man.

His accomplishments, including trailblazing research and counseling for stepfamilies, were many, and they were rooted in his personal experience. Writer Lise Lingo interviewed and wrote about Dr. Visher in “In Step With a Pioneer, Dr. John Visher” in the spring 2008 premier issue of reMarriage magazine.

He and Emily remarried in 1959 with eight children between them. As Dr. Visher shared in the article, “People tended to conceal the fact of remarriage. At that time there was not a lot of sympathy for stepfamilies.”

“Following 18 years of unexpected challenges while trying to integrate two families with four children in each, [the Vishers] were convinced that the tasks would have been easier with support and assistance,” Dr. Engel wrote in her e-mail to me.

“Amen to that,” I say, as our latest family dilemma is we have a limited number of tickets to my stepson’s high school graduation and even fewer to my stepdaughter’s college graduation. Can I run away to Aruba and not have to stress about which siblings, stepsiblings, grandparents, stepgrandparents, cousins, boyfriends, etc. get the golden tickets? (Note to self: There’s a future column.)

The Vishers, too, struggled with remarriage issues in the early years. In the article, Dr. Visher said, “We had some tough times along the way. But we just kept going and tried to make it better.”

They were keenly aware support could come from other families in the same situation. The Vishers founded the Stepfamily Association of America in their home in 1977, and it became an incorporated, national organization.

Dr. Visher said, “We helped people form groups with other stepparents, so as a community we could see what was working. Getting people together in groups helped them realize that they were normal people, dealing with a normal relationship. … That gives a lot of people hope.”

This gentleman witnessed how divorce has grown over the years. In fact, the divorce rate more than quadrupled from 1970 to 1996, according to a Census Bureau report, “Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1996.”

About remarriage, he observed in the article, “Some people would be so discouraged by the fact that things were tense. They would think that something was wrong with them. One thing Emily and I did was help people accept that being in a stepfamily is normal and realize that they could make it work.”

I am going to place these statements where I can see them frequently. You see, the stepfamily support group in our area dissolved recently. There was only a handful of attendees, and often I wondered, where are all of the stepfamilies? Who is supporting them so they don’t become another casualty in the 60 percent — or higher, depending upon the study — divorce rate for second marriages?

Dr. Visher was pleased that the SAA evolved into the National Stepfamily Resource Center in 2006, as part of Auburn University’s Center for Children, Youth and Families. Its goal is to serve as a clearinghouse of information, resources and support for stepfamily members and the professionals who work with them.

As a tribute to Dr. Visher, let’s think about how we can support stepfamilies everywhere.

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