Special Guest: Jackie Dunagan, MFT


My guest today is Jackie Dunagan, MFT. Jackie works with couples, individuals and families. Her specialties include relationship struggles, blended families, divorce and separation, and life transitions . Her strengths rest in the ability to help others successfully navigate the challenges that may be encountered during life’s struggles.

Jackie holds a Master of Family Therapy degree from Mercer University School of Medicine. She is a Gottman Level 3 trained couple’s therapist. She is also an Approved AAMFT Supervisor (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy).

You can find Jackie on the web at:

[Jon Dabach] 00:00

Today on the relationship Revival Show, I’m excited to introduce you to my new friend Jackie Dunagan based at a Georgia she works with couples, individuals and families. And one of her specialties that I really wanted to ask her about was working with blended or step families.

[Jon Dabach] 00:17

She specializes in that specific segment in the relationship world, which is one I don’t specialize in, and also selfishly, I wanted to interview or just to learn more about her process. And she’s just super sweet and great to talk to and, and I know you’re going to love her as much as I did.

[Jon Dabach] 00:35

So, I’m excited to share this with you. You’re listening to the relationship revival podcast with Jon Dabach, also known as Mr. Spirituality. That’s me, I’m your host, giving you insights and guidance from over 10 years in the field of this amazing journey we call romance on this show, I go over everything you need to know about how to get into a relationship, how to get the most out of a relationship, and sometimes even how to gracefully end a relationship without pulling your hair out and going crazy.

[Jon Dabach] 01:04

And occasionally, I’m even joined by new and old friends who are also relationship experts to bring you guidance and wisdom with new perspectives. Thanks for stopping by, first of all, what made you decide to go into the field? I think we should start there. Tell me your story, your journey, kind of wanting to help people?

[Jackie Dunagan] 01:24

Yeah, well, well, my journey is, it’s kind of the long and winding road to get there. This was not my first career. My first career was actually in the risk management world. And I worked for a large insurance company.

[Jackie Dunagan] 01:43

 And then and, and I will say my background, my education, my undergraduate was more of an engineering background. It was an it was an engineering accredited school. So, it was very systemic, which comes to play in the, in the, the, the MFT world. But then when 2008 happened, I left that job along with a lot of other people on the same day.

[Jackie Dunagan] 02:09

And for the next four years, I spent my time working for the company that did the career transition services for my company and for other companies that were letting people go. So, it was a lot of grief and loss work. So, I would be the first point of contact for people I mean, outside, of course, their work. And let them know, these were offered as part of their severance benefits. But these were people who were really hurting.

[Jon Dabach] 02:40

And I was 2008. It’s it was because of the crash, right?

[Jackie Dunagan] 02:45

It was because of the crash. And it was really, really busy. And it was all remote work then. But it’s as hard of work as those sounds, I loved it, it was so fulfilling to get to just really be there and help people. But that Job was never meant to be a permanent job.

[Jackie Dunagan] 03:08

 The funny thing is, when I left my, my, I left the insurance company, I said to my husband, I said, I want to do a job, first of all that I really feel like I’m making a difference. And I’m helping people. And I also because my other job was extremely demanding. I mean, I took my laptop with me on vacation, you know, kind of couldn’t shut it down. And I said, I want to be able, at the end of the day to kind of shut things down.

[Jackie Dunagan] 03:37

And I said anyone a job where I can work from home. And he said, I don’t think you’re going to be able to work? Well, I did, I did all of those things I did not put in there, that it would be a high paying job or anything like that in my wish list. And so, but it was extremely meaningful. And but it was meant to be a temporary job.

[Jackie Dunagan] 03:59

And then it gave me all the tools to really look at what I wanted to do next. And I really did a lot of evaluating because I had to if I was changing careers, I really had to give up my identity doing what I did before. And that was hard. Why do you think let’s touch on that?

[Jon Dabach] 04:15

Because that’s such a fascinating idea. And I think I see that a lot with my male clients, where their identity is completely wrapped up with their career. And I’ve noticed in the last 10 years a huge transition where women are doing it to I don’t know if it’s healthy. I mean, it’s it’s kind of an interesting, it’s an interesting thing. Why do you think we do that so much?

[Jackie Dunagan] 04:42

It will you know, and I think that is a really, really good question. Part of my identity. I will say I was brought up with work being a huge part of, you know, my value system and the family and the family’s system I grew up in. So that was huge to me.

[Jon Dabach] 05:04

Business owners or more in the corporate world.

[Jackie Dunagan] 05:07

They were I grew up on a farm, but it was a commercial farm. And so, but I always grew up in that business element. And quite frankly, the first time I started working, I was six years old, and I had this little job where I cut the, the string of plants and put them on the planter. And I was very proud to be sure it was a great worker.

[Jackie Dunagan] 05:35

Yeah, but it was hard, you know, because the other thing was my husband, I both worked for the company that I worked for, he just retired from that company last year, by the way. And so there were a lot of connections there. There would be a lot of you know, house Jackie doing type things that questions that would come back and, like I’m doing fine, but it kind of, uh, you know, I still kind of had a little bit of soul ties to, to that world. But it was extremely meaningful to me.

[Jackie Dunagan] 06:09

 And I’m going to say, what I took from that job is immense, it truly impacted who I am today. But in order for me to move into the field of marriage and family therapy, I couldn’t be in the field of risk management anymore. They’re just the two, there’s a think they could align a little bit but they don’t naturally align. And so I really felt like I had to say goodbye to that world to that career. And say, it served me well and move on. But there was there was grief that went

[Jon Dabach] 06:45

yeah. How long did it take you to make the transition on an emotional level?

[Jackie Dunagan] 06:52

Well, that’s what I was really, really fortunate, you know, those four years, I worked for a career transition company. So, I was immersed in it. And I had access to a lot of great tools that let me really do a lot of evaluation. And by the time I made the transition, and I did a lot of evaluating, I processed I was processing through the whole time.

[Jackie Dunagan] 07:24

 And so, I would say if it took me those four years.

[Jon Dabach] 07:28

yeah, well, I think that that’s kind of a gift that you had those four years to, to kind of get up to speed and process that transition in life. Where did you go after your education? And how did you get to where you are now?

[Jackie Dunagan] 07:46

So, um, so I decided to go back to grad school, which in itself was a challenge, because I wasn’t 22. And so that was a little bit challenging. And then, just from the standpoint of, do I really want to do this at this stage of my life, and it was absolutely the best thing. And then I was so fortunate, I mean, I have been blessed all along the way that I started working for grow counseling, the practice that I’m at now, while I was finishing up my last semester of marriage and family, do

[Jon Dabach] 08:26

you interned with them? So, I’m under supervision hours with them, or?

[Jackie Dunagan] 08:30

I, I didn’t technically intern with them. It was a little bit of an intern. But I was never formally an intern. I was, you know, what do we call it eight, a counselor and training with them for that little bit, and then transition right into CRO, as soon as I was done with my education? And I mean, it was, it was like, Yeah,

[Jon Dabach] 08:54

it’s amazing. Yeah, a lot of people bounce around, especially the therapists before they either land on their own private practice or in a group that they actually like, that’s an atypical story to just have such a great fit right out the gate. Absolutely. That’s very, very lucky.

[Jackie Dunagan] 09:11

Yeah, and I’ll tell you it’s something that I feel so blessed, I feel like I have I mean, I have like the greatest job so I’m not going anywhere. When I look at how lucky I am. It amazes me. It’s truly amazing.

[Jon Dabach] 09:30

What’s the what’s the typical makeup of what you’re, you know what your caseload looks like, are you doing kind of 40% 50% families and some couples or what’s the breakdown for you?

[Jackie Dunagan] 09:45

So, I’m a marriage and family therapist, which means basically, that you know, I work I can work with individuals, families, couples are considered families. My caseload is I’m primarily a couples therapy. This. So about 60% of my caseload is couples. And then I also have a number of individual clients.

[Jackie Dunagan] 10:10

All it’s all clients, I do tend to also work with a lot of people who are in life transitions themselves, including retirement tends to be kind of an area that that I work in as well. I don’t work with kids unless they’re in a, in a family context. So, I don’t see minors unless they are in that family context.

[Jackie Dunagan] 10:32

But one of the specialty areas that I do work in as I do a lot of work with step couples, which is, it surprised me how few people are? Very, very few.

[Jon Dabach] 10:45

And that’s, I mean, selfishly, that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you is I obviously, it’s come up in lots of my own sessions. And there’s not that much out there in terms of training and education. It’s not as well researched or documented. What’s your approach? Do you have a modality that’s formal? Or is it something you’ve had to kind of learn on your own? I’m I am, I’m like, chomping at the bit to learn more.

[Jackie Dunagan] 11:11

So, so I am, I’m trained in in my couples practice, I’m trained as a Gottman therapist, and as Emotionally Focused therapist. Through my step family work, I’ve really, you know, I’ve done some stuff, family work, of course, as part of my master’s program, but I’ve really leaned into Patricia paper nails.

[Jackie Dunagan] 11:34

She has the five challenges that step couples and step families face. And so, I’ve really leaned into that. And so the way I work is a little bit of a blend, it’s informed by Patricia paper now work of with regards to step families and their challenges, and then using the models from Gottman and EFT to actually kind of bring it in and do the work. But yeah, it’s a lot of lot of shifting,

[Jon Dabach] 12:05

you have to kind of get to borrow the term from the EFT world, you have to do the dance, you have to kind of dance between your own processes to kind of get the transformation that you want, or that they want rather, you know, in the in the relationship.

[Jon Dabach] 12:20

 What do you what do you see as some of the big struggles and big obstacles that blended families come in dealing with, for people who aren’t in a blended family and aren’t aware of them? I think it’s a kind of a nice opportunity to kind of peel back the curtain a bit.

[Jackie Dunagan] 12:38

I totally agree. First of all, I have to say I have a blended family myself. So I’ve also lived a lot of this stuff. But there, there are some differences. And so whenever we talk about a blended family versus what we call first family, a first family is a family where children came out of children came after the relationship.

[Jackie Dunagan] 13:02

 So, they came either other relationship, but they came on on board afterwards. So there’s a natural hierarchy that just kind of falls in with that. But anytime you have a blended or a step family, then the children preceded the romantic relationship that shifts just about everything.

[Jackie Dunagan] 13:27

 Yeah, it changes things. Whenever you know a person when you’re a person who is entering into a partnership with somebody who has children, and they may have children themselves, you have to realize you’re entering an existing system.

[Jackie Dunagan] 13:44

 You’re not really just creating a system. So so it’s a lot different. But most people don’t consider that there. They’re just thinking they’re in love and they’re happy and you know, everything’s gonna move forward. And there’s lots of blended families.

[Jackie Dunagan] 13:59

 So, they’ll figure it out. And, and many of them certainly do on their own. But there’s, there are five unique challenges that they run into, and I gotta tell you, I’ve seen it in every step couple of recipt family I’ve worked with, I’ve seen it in my own family, where these, these five challenges will come in.

[Jackie Dunagan] 14:27

And the first one is that you know, anytime you’re talking a is a blended family, and by the way, we tend to use the word clinically step family so I know I’m bouncing back and forth, but step is probably a little bit more accurate to describe because blended sounds nice and neat.

[Jackie Dunagan] 14:47

 And just like we mix it up and it’s a smoothie and it’s all good where there’s a lot of different steps in there. But the first the first challenge is every every step family comes out of loss. And kids are dealing with a lot of losses. And they’re oftentimes dealing with what we call loyalty binds where they have this sense that if they are connected or happy with this step parent, that they’re being disloyal to their parent.

[Jackie Dunagan] 15:23

So sure, it gets a little tricky. Yeah. And, and so from that standpoint, you know, we have to navigate that, because here’s one of the things that shocked me. I will say it just this totally shocked me. When I found out that the remarriage and re partnering is harder for kids than divorce. Oh, wow.

[Jon Dabach] 15:52

Yeah, that’s shocking.

[Jackie Dunagan] 15:55

It is because we can learn to Well, I think

[Jon Dabach] 15:57

as an adult, you, you know, I think the reason as an adult, it’s shocking, is because, obviously, divorce is the hard part. And the remarriage in your mind as an adult is the fun part. But as a kid, I bet if I asked that for kids, I bet if I asked, you know, my 11-year-old, what would be harder?

[Jon Dabach] 16:14

It wouldn’t be he’d be able to answer quicker than us like, another dad and other mom. No, thank you. Yeah, sure.

[Jackie Dunagan] 16:23

Right. And it’s basic family systems that we know the hardest time for families, or whenever we take people out, and whenever we bring people in, because we have all this roll adaptation that has to happen.

[Jackie Dunagan] 16:36

And when you think of it, divorce, which is very commonly the loss that the First Family will encounter. It’s not so much a taking out in most cases. I mean, there are times whenever a parent is completely absent, it really is more of a restructuring.

[Jon Dabach] 16:57

You know, it’s interesting, I had I had a, a while back an issue where there was a lot of jealousy. And I’m sure you’ve seen this a bunch, but it was for me at the time, I didn’t quite know how to handle it. And I’d like to pose the question to you in terms of your own training.

[Jon Dabach] 17:16

So, the, the mother was coming in with, with no previous family, into a family where the husband had a child. And they started their own family, which was her first family, but already had a child from his. And the jealousy on her side was something that she couldn’t quite get over.

[Jon Dabach] 17:38

And, you know, who does he love more? My kids are this kid? And it? Was this reframing of you know, I was trying to get them to, well, they’re all your kids, your you know, but it was a big emotional hurdle. And how would you deal with something like that? Is there a process in the in? I didn’t write down the name Patricia Paperman? Is it?

[Jackie Dunagan] 18:01

Paper now? Paper now?

[Jon Dabach] 18:04

So, is there does she just go over the the obstacles? Or are there suggested ways to kind of deal with them?

[Jackie Dunagan] 18:13

There are suggested ways and by the way, you’re hitting obstacle number two. So

[Jon Dabach] 18:20

jumping ahead, sorry.

[Jackie Dunagan] 18:22

Well, actually, you’re right on time, that was perfect, because I think it kind of blends the first two together, is that you have this issue of insider, outsider. Step parents oftentimes feel like they are the outsider. And remember, they are joining an existing an existing system.

[Jackie Dunagan] 18:43

So, in this case, the woman that you’re talking about she’s joining, I take it this a heterosexual couple, I think from what you said, so her, her husband has children, even if they don’t all live together, there’s already this system that pre shifted the couple, and then they had their own child as well as that, right.

[Jackie Dunagan] 19:05

And so, she is very likely to experience being the outsider, which she kind of is

[Jon Dabach] 19:16

for the preexisting system.

[Jackie Dunagan] 19:19

And there’s a lot that comes with that. It’s a really difficult feeling. And oftentimes the person who the parents who is the quote unquote, insider, they have a hard time empathizing with that person who feels like the outsider and he can bring a lot of shame, which of course can show itself and resentment can show itself in anger.

[Jackie Dunagan] 19:43

There are some, some interventions that you can use that kind of mix up the system where you what you want to do is put put her in a position where she becomes more of the insider and basically artificially create that to let them start clearancing it.

[Jackie Dunagan] 20:01

But one of the things that people have to realize is that whenever you have this joining where she came into this already existing system, even though she is when he is corporate speak here, but she’s in a leadership position here by being the stepmother.

[Jackie Dunagan] 20:21

 This system pre-existed her. And it’s a little as if you had this kind of person come in, if you think it’s the corporate world, if you have somebody who’s in a leadership position come in, from the outside, people question them, they wonder, are you what are you going to do here? You know, one of the other challenges is, every family has this existing culture.

[Jackie Dunagan] 20:44

So, they’re coming in, and they’re bringing a new culture with them. And they have to reshape things. So yeah, the biggest thing is people have to realize when they come into an existing system, it’s going to come with some challenges, they have to adapt to a system.

[Jackie Dunagan] 21:02

And they’re going to bump up against some pieces when they come into that. And, you know, and the truth of the matter is one of the reasons why, you know, step versus blended clinically tends to be considered a little more accurate is because, you know, and I’m a, I’m a parent, and I’m a step parent, there is a difference, you know, as much as we want it all to be just all the same.

[Jackie Dunagan] 21:29

 Life gets a little easier in a step family, when you start recognizing that you are, you know, you are, there’s parent, there’s a step parent, there’s, you know, the different the different roles there because, because it’s hard enough.

[Jon Dabach] 21:46

Yeah, I have four kids myself hard enough, definitely rings true.

[Jackie Dunagan] 21:53

Yeah, for us,

[Jon Dabach] 21:55

was four is we call the fourth one or the second to me. So well, do you recommend? I mean, obviously, I’m a big proponent of therapy and counseling, but is, is Patricia paper. Now is books, something that parents could read, or is it a bit clinical.

[Jackie Dunagan] 22:15

So, there’s, there’s one that is more of a clinical version, and I will tell you, I’ve had a lot of people because it was out for a few years before the other one came out.

[Jackie Dunagan] 22:26

And it’s Surviving and Thriving in, in, I think, in a step family is I think, a name of it, okay. And it is a clinical book, but it’s not overly clean. It’s not like reading a textbook, I’m going to say that. Then she came out with another book, that is the step family handbook.

[Jackie Dunagan] 22:50

So, I like these nice simple names, or she wrote that jointly with somebody else, that one is written more for the public. And the great thing about that book as it goes through, and it really does start it from the time of okay, or you’re really it starts from kind of divorce, and taking it forward to when to start dating, and the whole host sequence that goes through there.

[Jackie Dunagan] 23:18

And of course, not all stepfamilies come out of divorce, you know, we need to be clear about that. It’s just that’s the

[Jon Dabach] 23:24

most common probably, for sure. Yeah. Wow. There’s a lot to unpack there. Do you find that the length of treatment tends to be on par with normal kind of couples counseling?

[Jon Dabach] 23:38

You know, like an EFT? It’s usually 10 to 20 sessions. You know, same with Gottman about 10 to 20. I mean, do you? Do you find it to to add time in terms of learning the tools? Or is it a kind of on par?

[Jackie Dunagan] 23:53

That’s such a good question. Um, I love to say it’s on par. Here’s the difference is that we go through all of these stages, and sometimes they’ll some families, it is going to be on par and couples and family therapy is always considered short term therapy. But sometimes, that can still go on for years.

[Jackie Dunagan] 24:17

But what oftentimes happens with many of my stuff, couples that I work with, will go through several different stages and layers. And so they’ll kind of get through one thing, but then we’ll have another kind of maybe bump in the road or that comes up and things will change.

[Jackie Dunagan] 24:38

And you know, one of the things to one of the challenges is that exes are still part of the family and so sometimes that dynamic people either become more accepting or sometimes they get into some more legal battles along the way. So, there’s some pieces with step families that it can come mean the ebb and flow?

[Jon Dabach] 25:03

For sure, I mean, we’ve all seen that in our lives, whether we’re counselors or not, you know, we have friends and families with blended families and step families where someone takes someone back to court for something that never saw coming and happens, where people want to move states or cities, and it kind of is disruptive.

[Jon Dabach] 25:20

 Sure. There are these kinds of real things that come up that you need to learn how to deal with and process, right. Well, I mean, this has been super insightful.

[Jon Dabach] 25:32

 I have some reading to do, because I it’s, it’s another book on the nightstand, I’m definitely going to get where do you guys serve? Is it just in your state? Or are you guys licensed in multiple states?

[Jackie Dunagan] 25:44

So um, so that’s a good question. So the practice I work for is, is grow counseling, and we’re in the metro Atlanta area. We have four offices. I work out of our alphabet office, which is in northern Atlanta. Then our main office is in Buckhead. And then we have one south of the city and one more east of the city.

[Jackie Dunagan] 26:10

But all in the suburb areas. I will say most of my work right now, I see clients mostly still, since the pandemic, I still see clients virtually because they’ve kind of expanded and moved out. And they’ve just chosen that it’s not that I’m refusing to see people in person.

[Jackie Dunagan] 26:28

And I do work on a limited basis, in person in Alpharetta, as well. So we serve. Really, I can say all of Georgia, because we haven’t moved. But a lot of our people are in the offices we actually have about. I think we have almost 50 counselors and therapists

[Jon Dabach] 26:48

isn’t big practice

[Jackie Dunagan] 26:51

It’s grown it was it was nowhere near that size when I first started, but it is a great group. But then we also have, we have some counselors and therapists who are licensed in multiple states.

[Jackie Dunagan] 27:05

And we also have what we call the Grow counseling network so that if somebody contacts us and there, we just we can’t serve them. We don’t have availability, or they’re in a different state.

[Jackie Dunagan] 27:16

We’ve got connections that have been vetted, that we can get people in touch with other people

[Jackie Dunagan] 27:25

that work wherever least you want to direct people to the right place. Well, I mean, I think whether it’s regular couples counseling, or if you’re, you know, specific with Jackie’s issue of having a step family, I would highly recommend you reach out it. This has been enlightening for me, and I’m sure that you’d be able to help just about anybody who can go and kind of benefit from this. So, it’s grown counseling.com Is that correct?

[Jon Dabach] 27:52

Yes, right. Please reach out. If you are, if you’re someone who’s dealing with these issues. You don’t have to do it alone. You don’t have to figure this out all by yourself, and asking for help. I always like to remind people, there’s no shame in it. We all need a little help once in a while, a little guidance and getting a neutral third party who has expertise in this like you do being part of a step family yourself, I think is a brilliant way to kind of take that shortcut to figuring it out. Thank you so much.

[Jackie Dunagan] 28:26

Thank you, thank you. Yeah, it doesn’t have to be that hard and you don’t have to go it alone. And the challenges are normal. That’s also

[Jon Dabach] 28:33

good to tell people and remind them that they’re not it’s not a typical to have these challenges these struggles for sure. Sometimes it just makes us feel normal to realize, oh, this is par for the course.

[Jackie Dunagan] 28:45

Right for sure. Well, thank you John. I really am honored that that you that you considered me and you took the time and I’ve really enjoyed it. That’s been great.


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