The Power of an Apology

ex-wife apologyI will never again say never. Wait. What? Nevermind.

Something unexpected and beautiful has happened that felt surreal for a while, but now that I’ve had time to process it I’m ready to share.

After about 5 years of conflict and 1.5 years of basically no contact, I recently received an apology from my husband’s ex-wife. It contained no justifications, no excuses, no blame, nothing but a pure, sincere apology and a request for forgiveness for every “angry word and hurtful message” she ever sent to me.

“Stunned” doesn’t begin to describe what I felt at that moment. Shock, relief, gratitude, dumbfounded… that was some of it.

And a surprising feeling of being freed from a burden that I didn’t know I was carrying. It felt like a ton of bricks had just been removed from my heart. Only I didn’t know they were there, until they were gone.

I thought I had done a good job of forgiving her without an apology, but I couldn’t have known how differently I would feel after actually receiving one.

The thing about an apology is it’s an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. With that gift in hand (and I DO see it as a gift) I immediately softened, lowered my guard and was able to look back at our situation with a new perspective, with more compassion and a clearer picture of how difficult things were – for everyone – at that time. It’s not an excuse, just an explanation.

For those of you who don’t know anything about my experiences, you can get a glimpse here.

With every change (even positive change) we experience a loss

After the initial feeling of shock and elation started to wear off, a feeling of uneasiness crept in. It took me a while to realize what it was: a feeling of loss – which really confused me. I should be feeling nothing but happiness, right? Then I finally figured out exactly what I felt I was losing: the certainty I had about her. The predictability of her behavior and who she was in our relationship. With certainty, I had put her in this box of being “high-conflict” and being incapable of ever changing.

But with that apology, all of the things I thought I knew about her and our situation flew out the window. It left me feeling very confused. After all, I had written a book about how to deal with the conflict. I work with stepmoms on a daily basis to help them cope with such situations. Does this invalidate all my past work?

Do circumstances matter?

I have no idea what prompted the apology. Why now? I can make assumptions all day long, but in the end it’s none of my business and it doesn’t really matter.

I do, however, believe circumstances must have played a part. I’ve always believed at any given time we’re all doing our best. All of us are different people in different situations at different phases in our lives.

So if everything aligns just so to create the perfect storm, our best might be a 3. But when circumstances change for us, we have the opportunity for our best to be a 10.

Boundaries

As I’ve said, I may never know what brought upon this change. But I do know for sure that for my husband and I, not communicating with his ex for over a year was extremely helpful. It forced an interruption in an unhealthy pattern and gave us all a chance to reset.  Perhaps needs that were getting met through the conflict were forced to get met elsewhere.

Hindsight

Not because of the apology itself, but because of the space the apology created within me, I’ve been able to use everything I’ve learned (professionally and personally) since then to explore the ways in which certain things could have been handled differently. How my husband and I could have approached situations in a different way that might have led to more collaboration and peace instead of more conflict.

We couldn’t have known that then – but when you know better you do better, right? So I’m grateful to be able to use my knew insights to help other stepfamilies who are having their own difficulties.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s a funny thing, the timing of this apology. I had just completed a new coach training where they teach that we should elevate everyone. And although I love that in theory and it really resonated with me, I felt conflicted about it because of my experiences. And then I received the apology. It was like the Universe’s way of saying “Told ya so!”

Now that I’ve had some time to sit with it, I’ve gained some clarity on the things I was unsure of:

  • The past hasn’t changed.
  • Everything I’ve written on the subject still stands.
  • Thousands of women (and men) are stuck in high-conflict situations and the work I do with them and the tools I teach are still not only valid, but crucial for finding inner peace when faced with conflict.

But now there’s also… hope? And the belief that seeing the conflict as separate from the person could really serve us.

There’s also a knowing that anything is possible.

The past remains, but now our future will surely be different. And words can’t express how thankful I am for that.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms: being stuck on the outside

Stepmom stuck outsiderHave you ever answered the phone and your stepchild says “Is my dad there?” instead of “Hi (insert your name here), how are you? Is my dad there?” Or maybe every single time the child asks a question or tells a story he only directs it to dad, as if you’re invisible. My personal favorite is when my husband and I were on the sofa and from the kitchen my stepson hollers “Dad! Want anything?”

Chances are, as a stepmom you experience this on a pretty regular basis, especially if your stepkids were older when you met them. If you don’t understand the why behind it it be can pretty painful. After all, who the hell ignores someone sitting RIGHT THERE?!

Why do I feel like such an outsider?

Patricia Papernow, PhD says that in nuclear families it’s normal for the kids to alternate who they prefer to go to for answers and comfort – sometimes mom, sometimes dad. The parent who the child prefers at that time is called the “Insider.” But in stepfamilies, it’s always the parent (at least initially) and not the stepparent, so she refers to this dynamic as the Stuck Insider (parent)/Stuck Outsider (stepparent).

Because the family of origin doesn’t include you, kids don’t have the instinct to say your name first or go to you for answers or comfort, or, in some cases, even say hello when they call. And being a stepchild, I can vouch for this. I did it all of the time, without ever noticing, until I became a stepmom and realized, “Oh crap! I never addressed my stepmom!”

It’s important you understand that it’s not about being malicious or purposefully rude to you. And it’s not about anything you’ve done (unless you really did so something awful), it’s more about instincts and the nature and dynamic of the stepfamily.

I’m not making excuses for bad behavior, and in fact I wouldn’t even call this bad behavior. A child can address only their dad and not be disrespectful to you. I’m not referring to eye-rolling or ignoring you when you speak to them or blatant disrespect. Those things need to be addressed in a conversation about manners, but not directing questions to you or not instinctively coming to you first is not something that needs to be addressed directly with the child.

What can I do?

  • Tell your partner to leave… for a few minutes: You might have seen the research that on average it takes 4-7 years for a stepfamily to feel and function like a family. That can be a LONG time to feel ignored. What you can do is create opportunities for you to be the Insider.

One of the best ways to do this is to get some alone time with your stepchild. Because as long as their parent is around and available, you’re stuck on the outside. But as soon as they leave, guess who moves up in rank?! You move to the inside, at least until dad comes back.These moments don’t have to be long, even a few minutes of connection will serve to increase your bond as time goes on. These moments should be fun, shoulder to shoulder activities where there’s very little pressure to interact directly, but you do interact somewhat.

Having a conversation about how school is going might be fine, but what would be better is to do something together that you both enjoy. For example, baking. Since you’re actually doing something, there’s not the pressure of sitting across from each other, making eye contact and being forced to come up with things to talk about. Instead you’re focused on the task at hand. The interactions are about the baking. If small talk naturally creeps in, great.

  • Don’t lose your identity: One of the fastest ways to lose your self-esteem and feel like crap is to give up everything you enjoy. Stepmoms often change their entire routine for their new family, thinking that it will somehow serve them. But that often backfires. Your new family cannot replace your oldest friends and the activities that nourish your spirit. So keeping doing the things that make you YOU.

Don’t lose hope

One of the biggest mistakes stepmoms make is thinking that how things are now is how they’ll always be. Because your family will take years to integrate, and because kids grow up and people and circumstances change, you can’t know what your future holds. I know plenty of stepmoms, myself included, who have arrived at the place where the kids finally call out our names first or come to us for support or questions.

And take comfort in that the little everyday interactions you have with your stepchild will likely serve to grow you closer as a family. But it takes years, so relax, take a breath and enjoy the ride.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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The one step that will ensure kids respect their stepparent

respect stepmomWhen a parent re-partners after divorce, it can be really difficult for the kids. Not only is it a reminder that their parents aren’t getting back together, but it creates a shift in the post-divorce dynamic of the family, often leaving the children feeling displaced.

Elevating the stepparent

Because of the difficulties the kids may have, parents often ignore one of the most crucial steps to re-partnering: elevating their partner to head of household, alongside of them. When a parent elevates the stepparent, he’s making it clear to everyone, including the kids and the ex, that his partner is an important part of his family.

When the stepparent isn’t elevated, a very blurry line is created, and the kids may take this “non action” as a green light to ignore her or be disrespectful, because …

  • “dad didn’t correct us so it must be OK”
  • “dad hasn’t said anything about things changing”
  • “dad does it”
  • “dad doesn’t think she’s important enough to stand up for, so I’m going to act out every bit of anger, hurt and resentment I feel – onto her”

A shift in family hierarchy

In many divorced families, the hierarchy of the family has changed. What began in the nuclear family with the parents at the top and the children under them has shifted to the kids alongside one or both parents; elevated to equal status of the parent.

When this happens the kids behave like the parent’s peer (or spouse); taking care of the house, meals, and having equal say in the decisions of the household. Some parents also inappropriately share details about their personal lives or court status. This often places the kids in a position that they’re not emotionally prepared for. It also makes it extremely difficult for them to move back down to “kid status” when the parent re-partners. They’ll likely feel rejected, replaced and resentful towards their stepparent.

How it’s done

The kids take their cues from their parents, so when dad takes responsibility for setting the tone in the house, he tells his kids things like:

  • “Yes, I know it’s difficult and strange. But I love you very much and she’s not replacing you. And as my partner, she and I will make certain decisions together. I expect everyone in this house to be respectful of each other.”
  • “I love my wife/girlfriend, she’s important to me and she’s not going anywhere. Being disrespectful to her won’t be tolerated.”
  • “When you disrespect her, you disrespect me.”
  • “If I’m not home and she asks you to do something I want you to listen to her.”

Dads: The children will be OK

When kids know what to expect, they thrive. When things are predictable, they feel safe. So although they may push back initially, as long as you’re consistent in your message (and consequences for being disrespectful), they’ll eventually come around.

It’s also important to remain loving, so when it’s explained to the kids that your partner is now the female head of household and will be making decisions alongside of you, be open to hearing what the kids have to say. Listen empathetically, understanding that it can be a difficult change for them – but do not back down. You want them to know that you’re door is always open for communication, but not for a bashing session of your partner.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T – Find out what it means to me

Before having this conversation, the couple should discuss what “respect” looks like to them. Does it mean saying hello when you walk in the room? Does it mean using a kind tone of voice? Does it mean making eye contact? You decide. Just make sure you’re clear on this so you can pass it on to the kids. And yes, respect is a two-way street.

Relationship fail or success

A stepmom who doesn’t feel respected by her stepchildren, doesn’t feel respected by her husband. She expects him to do something about it, not just sit by and let it happen. She needs to know her partner has her back. She needs to know he loves her and respects their relationship enough to ensure she’s treated adequately by his kids. When she doesn’t feel this, she’ll likely consider leaving the relationship.

If a parent isn’t ready to elevate their partner, then they aren’t ready to re-partner.

But when a dad ensures this respect by his kids, he will have a blissfully happy stepmom on his hands. She’ll want to do just about anything for him – and his kids! She’ll feel like her relationship (and husband) is the best thing in the world.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Why Aren’t I Comfortable Around My Stepchild?

Stepmom CertaintyHave you struggled with not feeling 100% comfortable around your stepchild? I’m not talking about when you first meet and things are awkward, I’m talking about years after you’ve met, even if you really like or love your stepchild, when they’re in the house you can’t fully relax?

I’ve written previously about many possible reasons: lack of reciprocity, general difficulties of being a stepparent, you’re an introvert, etc… But here’s another possible reason. Let me explain something first.

The Six Human Needs

In Robbins-Madanes training we learn that there are 6 universal human needs – and every action, belief or feeling is an attempt to meet one or more of those needs. The 6 human needs are:

  • Certainty – comfort, knowing, structure, safety, avoidance of pain, pleasure
  • Uncertainty/Variety – stimulus, adventure, excitement
  • Love and connection – feeling connected to others or being loved and loving
  • Significance – feeling important, unique, worthy of love
  • Growth – intellectually, emotionally and mentally developing, learning
  • Contribution – contributing beyond yourself

You can try to meet these needs in positive ways, such as building a business, donating to charity or meditating or in negative ways such as causing drama, having an addiction, overeating, overspending, etc…

Most people usually value two of the needs more than the others. As you can imagine, someone whose top need is Certainty will live a very different life than someone whose top need is Uncertainty/Variety.

Take a moment here to think about which are your top two needs.

Your Top Needs Determine Your Experience

Now, back to your stepchild. Let’s say for example that your top two needs are Certainty (safety, structure and comfort), and Love/Connection. If Certainty is more valued than Love/Connection – even by a hair, you’ll find it very difficult to give Love/Connection until your Certainty need is met. Herein lies the problem.

Because for many stepmoms living with a stepchild is anything but certain and comfortable. We watch what we say, how we dress, what we do. Maybe the kids don’t clean up after themselves, adding to your uncomfortableness in your home. Maybe the schedule is flexible and you never know when they might drop in. Maybe they’re difficult and you never know how they’re going to behave.

So as long as Certainty is valued most, and since stepfamily life is always Uncertain, your actions won’t convey Love or Connection, because usually we have to have our top need met before the others can be met.

When Love is More Important Than Comfort

But if you decide to put Love first- or if by nature you’re a lover but have unknowingly been putting Certainty first, suddenly the game changes. And I’d guess, from all the women I’ve met and worked with through the years, that love IS actually most important to you.

When Love is first, your heart is open. And when your heart is open you want to give. You want to say “yes” more often. You want to be more kind and loving. To be clear, this doesn’t require you to love your stepchild, it just means your actions are coming from a place of love – from an open heart. And you’ll find that loving or giving – without expecting anything in return – will actually fill you up.

And then you know what happens? Something very paradoxical. You won’t need the clean and/or the quiet house to be comfy, because that’s no longer your number one priority. Suddenly, you’re comfortable around your stepchild anyways! Because you’re meeting your most valued need of Love and Connection by giving it.

Here’s an Example – Shifting Priorities

Here’s an example of how this might play out. Let’s say your teenage stepchild wants to have a sleepover. His friends are good kids, but of course bring an added element of “uncertainty” (uncomfortableness) to the house: think noise and messes. So when you’re valuing Certainty more than Love (especially if Uncertainty/Variety is VERY low on your list), your initial instinctual reaction will often be to say “no” to the sleepovers, because sleepovers definitely DO NOT meet your Certainty need. But you might every once in a while begrudgingly say “yes”  – because you’re not a total jerk.

But when Love is first, your default is “yes” because your heart is open, you want to give and you want your stepchild to be happy. You’re also not thinking about meeting your need for comfort because Love is more important to you. You may say “no” once in a while if you’re extremely tired or had a bad few days, but the “no” will be coming from a different place and will have a different energy behind it.

Evaluate Your Needs

If you feel consistently resistant to new people and experiences or if you’re often on edge because you’re watching everything your stepchild does – or even anticipating his next move, you’re likely trying to meet one of your needs – which isn’t Love and Connection. Which need is it?

The thing to remember about love is that it’s not about getting, it’s about giving. If you focus on that first, you’ll find the resentment, uncomfortableness and annoyance sort of just… disappear.

Now think about what your top two needs are. How have they determined the course of your life? What would change in your life if one of them changed? What effect would that have on your relationships? On your happiness?

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepparenting and the Expectation of Unconditional Love

 

I’ve seen some really unhelpful and damaging advice given by parenting “experts” instructing stepparents to simply “Love the kids as your own, unconditionally.”

The advice, or rather, instruction, that you should love a child as your own is bad enough, but the addition of “unconditional” is just preposterous.  If most stepparents were actually capable of unconditionally loving a child who isn’t theirs, don’t you think they would? Life would be SO much easier with unconditional love!

Unfortunately, for most stepparents that’s just not possible.  (Yes, there are a few stepparents who claim to love their stepchildren unconditionally – and that’s GREAT for them and their stepchildren. Obviously this article isn’t for them – it’s for the other 99%.)

To expect someone to have the ability to love another’s child unconditionally, whom they’ve just met, and may or may not even like, is unrealistic.

Have you ever tried to love someone who is disrespectful to you? Who ignores you? Who your personality totally clashes with? Who lies about you? Who tries to push you away? Who wishes you didn’t exist? Good luck with that.

Even with a child you actually like and get along with, love can take years to grow, especially if the child is older. Unconditional love is something usually reserved for the parents who created the child.

There are certain exceptions, such as adoption, but I believe that’s because the whole purpose is to have the child as your own – as opposed to stepparenting where the purpose is marriage and the partner happens to have a child- who often already has two active parents.

I guess the real problem with this advice is the word “should.” It insinuates that if you don’t or can’t, you’re doing something wrong and bad. “Should” makes it seem like it’s the “right” thing to do, therefore if you don’t unconditionally love your stepchild, you’re wrong. Which is total BS.

Many stepparents who are told they should love their partner’s child unconditionally feel like failures when reality sets in and it doesn’t happen. This expectation also puts undue pressure on the child. The child doesn’t love you unconditionally either – how can they? They’re still getting to know you. They didn’t choose you and you didn’t choose them – you chose their parent.

So to all you stepparents who feel like failures because you don’t love your stepchild, never mind unconditionally, I’m here to let you off the hook. I’m here to tell you that it’s nearly impossible to do so and that you can still have a fulfilling, amazingly close, wonderful relationship with your stepchild – with or without the love.

Without the unrealistic expectation of having to love another’s child unconditionally, you’re allowed to be yourself. It takes the pressure off of everyone and gives the relationship space to evolve naturally over a matter of years. Remember, stepfamilies start to feel like family in terms of years, not months.

So forget the expectation of (unconditional) love. Instead, go for like. Go for respect. Go for compassion and understanding. Go for having fun and enjoying them. Go for finding things in common and cultivating a positive relationship with them. After all, positive relationships are created by everyday, little interactions and acts of kindness. Love, if it happens, is just the icing on the cake. Nice, but certainly not necessary.

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Guest Post: What Stepkids Wish You Knew

StepkidsIt’s not easy being a stepkid.  I know – it’s not easy being a stepmom or stepdad, either. But as much is often written for and about stepparents, an integral part of fast-growing blended families isn’t always truly addressed – the kids themselves.

As an only child but with nine step and half-brothers and sisters – who grew up in four blended families, with four different “father” figures – I’ve had a front-row seat to stepfamily scenarios.  I don’t know if anyone really realizes how powerless a stepkid can feel.  That’s what led me to create the first-ever stepkid anthology, Hey, Who’s In My House?, published by Motivational Press this past October.

It’s an incredibly odd experience for a kid (or for parents, too, probably!) to think “Hey, Who’s In My House?” Stepkids across the country answered my call for submissions. They had a LOT to say!  Some were hurt, some were happy. Some felt torn, displaced or ashamed. Some felt alone and some felt grateful. Some felt hopeful, and some felt helpless. Brave enough to share their vastly different stories, most, surprisingly, had these three things in common.

Little Things Mean a Lot

A new bed, a moved bed, or no bed because new furniture has been ordered. New foods, different foods, spaghetti sauce that’s different than mom makes. Fake vs. real Christmas tree traditions challenged. New rules about television before bedtime. Homework areas that become the hub of other people’s clutter. It’s not easy. And things will change when a blended family begins, adjusts and grows. But parents can acknowledge the little things and maybe go the extra mile to make sure some of a stepkid’s favorite things remain unchanged.

Stepfamilies Are a Strong Part of Their Identities –For Better or Worse

“I believe I am more open-minded since my mother’s remarriage,” writes 20 year-old Meghan Shenefeld, Hey, Who’s In My House contributor.  “I have learned to live with people who think differently than I do and accept things I cannot change.” Even in an abusive situation with her stepfather, contributor Hollie Gremaldi-Flores, decades later, recognizes her difficult days living in a blended family as a teen made her part of who she is today (which, by the way, is a strong stepmom to others!).

They’re Stronger

Contributor Rochelle Amour, age 27, is slowly orbiting back toward her mother after years struggling to grow up in a tumultuous blended family situation, with a trying stepfather and a feeling she belonged “nowhere.”  She hasn’t seen her real father in six years.  “Looking back, I have many feelings of anger, sadness and fear,” Amour reveals.  “But I do not have any regrets.  My childhood was lonely, but I was resourceful.  It was harsh, but I was strong.  It was overwhelming, but I matured early.  In the isolation that defined my childhood, I got to know the most important person in my life very well and early on:  myself.  I finally get to write a story of a hero that does exist – my childhood self.”

I hope the insight stepkids share will make an impact on blended families everywhere, so perhaps stepparents and parents can make some happy memories, and stepkids can know they are not alone.

Guest Post by Erin Mantz, Editor and Contributor, Hey, Who’s In My House? Stepkids Speak Out (Motivational Press October 2015)

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A Stepmom’s Guide to Being a Supportive Partner

Stepmom Support husband**Join us for the Stepmom Sanctuary Retreat 2016! 

It is easy to be a loving, supportive and kind partner when you are comfortable with how things are going. It’s easy to feel safe and secure when your partner is making parenting decisions that are in alignment with your values. But how supportive are you when he makes a decision with which you don’t agree?

Do you become difficult? Distant? Judgmental? Controlling? Do you feel the need to convince him he is wrong? If so, you are being what I refer to as a fair-weather partner. And it could ruin your relationship.

Why does this happen?

Most of us parent according to our values, and when our values are violated it can trigger a life-threatening feeling in us, causing us to react without thinking. When we feel like our survival is at stake, we try to convince our partner (through any means possible) that he is wrong. It can be a pretty ugly scene.

The problem with this is that your partner has his own values and is attempting to honor them. He has his own reasons for the decisions he’s making—reasons you may never understand. And if you repeatedly challenge him about his decisions, he will feel betrayed.

When a man feels betrayed, he becomes much less interested in meeting his partner’s needs.

What does your partner need?

If you want your relationship to last, your partner needs to know you are on his team even when his team appears to be losing. That’s called LOYALTY.

When you believe in him, even if he hasn’t given you much of a reason to, he often will start to become the winning guy he sees reflected in your eyes. He will trust you. And when he trusts you, he will repay you by making your relationship a priority.

He will be compelled to give you what you need. And he will come to know you as his constant champion—unlike his ex (who berates him when things don’t go her way) or the kids (who get angry when they are not getting what they want) or even his parents (who repeatedly give their unsolicited opinions). As the wife who stands by his side, helping him up when he falls, you will earn his trust and become his haven.

What do you need, in return?

You need to make sure you are taking care of your well-being amidst the many things
in your stepfamily over which you don’t have control. If a decision is being made that affects your time or energy, then your partner should definitely be discussing it with you and coming up with a solution that works for both of you.

If he chooses not to include you, then you need to create boundaries in order to protect your time and energy.

For example, if he and his ex decide (without asking for your input) that your stepchild should attend a new school and they expect you to be the one shuttling him back and forth and that doesn’t work for you, you need to let him know you won’t be available and he will need to find other means.

If he makes a decision that indirectly impacts you, like allowing his child to have unlimited screen time which causes meltdowns at bedtime, you can protect yourself by letting him be fully responsible for bedtime rituals or bowing out of attempts to soothe the child. You can be supportive while creating boundaries. I’ve outlined four ways to begin doing that below.

Let him be the father

It doesn’t matter if you have read all the best parenting books or have already successfully raised your own child. If you push your own agenda onto your partner, he will believe that you don’t think he’s a capable parent.

What you can do is ask your partner if he would like help brainstorming possible solutions to whatever problem he is facing. If he agrees, let him know what has worked for you or what you have learned by educating yourself. But if he doesn’t ask for you help, or if he chooses to go a different route, that’s your cue to let it go.

Give up the need to be right

Looking at decisions in terms of right and wrong will set you up for conflict and disap- pointment. Instead, every time you catch yourself judging your partner’s parenting as wrong, try to reframe it and tell yourself he’s just doing it differently.

Remember that just because your partner does not do things the way you would or wish he would does not mean he is screwing up his kids. And even if he does screw them up (because, let’s face it, all parents screw up their kids a little), then that’s part of their journey.

His parenting decisions may not be “right” for you or your child, but they are right for him—even if the results turn out differently than he intended.

Be a partner first, stepmom second

Know that your main job is to tend to your relationship, not to parent your stepkids
or judge and control the parenting of your partner and his ex.

When you feel an urge to control a situation that is not yours to control, ask yourself: Is it more important for us to have a happy, healthy relationship or is it more important that he raise his kids the way I believe they should be raised?

If you’re leaning toward the latter part of that question, you are going to have a diffcult time being a part of a stepfamily and might want to rethink your priorities.

Accept the reality of your situation

The stepmom is the lone family member who is greatly affected by decisions in which she often has no say. This is the truth of stepfamily life and one of the reasons why being a stepmom is so difficult.

It is one thing to have to live with consequences of your own choices but quite another to have to deal with consequences from choices that others have made. Having a husband who understands this and takes his wife’s feelings into consideration is often the difference between being in a happy or a strained marriage.

At the same time, you must understand there will be times when your partner makes decisions regarding his kids that will negatively affect you. In these cases, he likely perceives that tending to his kids’ needs—in the end—should take precedence over protecting your feelings. It doesn’t mean he is a bad husband. It’s just something he has to do. It is yet another piece of the challenging stepfamily dynamic.

What does being supportive look like?

Being supportive doesn’t mean being a doormat and it doesn’t mean selling yourself out. It also doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the decision you are supporting. It means that you are choosing to respect your partner’s decision. You can show him support by doing the following:

  • Once a decision is made, stop bringing it up. Let it rest.
  • Don’t keep trying to get him to change his mind on an issue you disagree on.
  • Don’t be angry with him. If you truly support him, there is no anger there. There is only respect for his individuality and his right to parent his kids as he sees fit.
  • If his decision leads to a negative consequence, empathize versus criticize: “I’m so sorry, honey. I know this is hard. You did your best. You did what you thought was right at the time.”
  • Don’t ever say, “I told you so,” or any variation of that. Throwing his failures in his face isn’t respectful or supportive. It’s childish.
  • Don’t probe him about the situation. Let him come to you and share when he’s ready.

By being a supportive partner, as opposed to a partner who has to have everything go her way, you are doing your part to honor your relationship and ensure its survival.

You are showing up as a woman who respects her partner by being kind and loving as he grows as a parent and a person. And, most importantly, you are creating a space for both of you to make mistakes within the safety net of your relationship—a safety net that will serve as the foundation of a rock solid romance that will last long after the last child has grown and left home.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE Feb 2015 ISSUE OF SM MAGAZINE

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Tips for the introverted stepmom

Introvert stepmom aloneThere are many stepmoms struggling to fit in and find peace in their families, not because they don’t get along with their stepchildren, but because they’re introverts in a family of extroverts.  And introverts and extroverts often have conflicting ways of being in the world.

According to Psychology Today, introversion is a personality trait defined as someone whose energy is drained by social interactions; they give energy away when interacting with others.

Therefore they need recovery time, which usually means solitude, to recharge and refill their energy tank. Whereas an extrovert gains energy when they spend time with others. Therefore they feel energized after spending an evening socializing.

Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking“ addresses the misconception that introverts are shy by noting, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

She also explains that “Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Other common misconceptions about introverts are that they’re:

  • antisocial
  • boring
  • stuck up
  • lazy
  • selfish

These make sense when you look at them from an extrovert’s mindset. Extroverts are energized by being around others, so someone who thrives in solitude can seem uninterested or uninteresting. But it’s not so.

Introverts can be social and chatty and thoroughly love going to a party, but those activities will drain their energy leaving them with an empty tank.

Different degrees of introversion

There are plenty of people who fall in the middle of the introversion/extroversion spectrum. Some introverts really thrive in quiet spaces and are very quiet, whereas I’m a pretty chatty introvert. There are no hard and fast rules and introversion can look differently depending where you are on the spectrum.

But the one constant is that we all have our energy drained when interacting with others and require solitude to recharge.

For those who fall clearly on one end of the spectrum, living with family members on the opposite end of the spectrum can be challenging.

In regards to how introverts spend their time, most prefer:

  • small groups to large social events
  • reading a book to going to a party
  • quiet to loud environments
  • meaningful conversation to superficial small talk

Can you see how introversion really isn’t conducive to being around kids most of the time?

Parenting/stepparenting is an extrovert activity

The nature of the parent/stepparent – child relationship is often one way; very give – give because kids are self-centered and require a lot of care. Depending on the age of the child, a large amount of interaction with them is required; chatting, playing, etc… but they have very little to give in return, especially to a stepparent who usually doesn’t receive the love and affections that are afforded to parents.

Since an introvert’s energy is such a precious commodity, they prefer to engage in activities with a “high rate of return,” meaning they get something meaningful from the interaction, such as connection. This is why they prefer deep conversations to superficial ones.

So you can see how caring for kids can be an activity that is extremely draining to an introvert – with a pretty low rate of return. The introvert stepmom will give and give and give during her caretaking time with the child and if her tank is low to begin with, it’s sure to be empty by the time she’s done.

And since an empty tank can breed resentment, depression, anger and exhaustion, taking the necessary time to recover and recharge is crucial to an introvert’s well being.

How to educate your family about introversion.

Most people aren’t educated about introversion and extroversion personality traits, so they usually take offense when an introvert wants her solitude.

If your stepkids are extroverts or if their mom is an extrovert and that’s what they’re used to seeing, your introvert ways are going to seem foreign to them. They might think you don’t like them or that you’re boring because you prefer reading a book to entertaining the neighborhood kids. Laying this issue out on the table for all to see can be a real eye opener for everyone involved. 

  1. Have the whole family take this online quiz to see where everyone is on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. http://www.quietrev.com/the-introvert-test/  It can give your family a better understand of how each of you function differently.
  2. Have a conversation about introversion. Depending on their age,  you can use a battery analogy. They probably have a cell phone or gaming device that they can relate to, so explain that when they use the device the battery gets lower and lower until they need to charge it. And if they don’t charge it, the device will run out of power. Liken their usage of the device to your interacting with others.
  3. Have a discussion about how each family member’s introversion or extroversion traits show up. For example, you need to go to your alone zone after a school event where you had to interact with other parents. Or maybe your stepson or partner really thrive when the house is loud and full of people. You can even create a light-hearted way of acknowledging each other’s traits, such as saying “your introversion is showing” or “I see your extroversion is in full force.” This can serve to help family members stop taking the behaviors personally, and instead just calling it out for what it actually is: simple differences in personality.

Introverts need a plan

Introverts need to plan for recovery time because our society really isn’t introvert friendly. It’s assumed if you’re not going, going, going, then there’s something wrong with you. And if you take a time-out, then you’re obviously selfish and/or lack the skills to hack it. By being intentional and planning for solitude, you’re sure not to get caught up in society’s (or even your family’s) unrealistic expectations of you.

Here’s how:

Start by making a list of all the daily extrovert activities you engage in. By being aware of your inventory and energy requirements, you’ll be able to plan for recovery time appropriately.

Your list of extrovert activities might include:

  • kids’ sleepovers at your house
  • after-school activities where you have to interact with the parents
  • birthday parties
  • family dinners with partner’s family – or your own
  • your job

After you have your inventory, think about how much energy you’ll need to get through the activity without feeling like you’ve been run over by a bull dozer. Then schedule in time for solitude before that activity.

For example, if the kids are having a sleepover, let them know that the sleepover will be starting a little later in the evening. If your partner doesn’t support that, then make sure you go to your alone zone with headphones on. Once you feel recharged, you can make an appearance.

If you can’t find solitude before the activity, make absolute sure you plan for some afterwards. This is  non-negotiable.

You’re an adult, in control of how you spend your time. Learning to stand up for what you need will serve you greatly in these situations.

When you create your inventory, take into consideration the following:

  • The length of time of the event. If the event is longer than you’re comfortable with, can you make an early exit? If not, you may need to plan for extra recharge time before or after.   
  • Who’s involved? Will you be interacting with people you’re close to where you might experience a high rate of return? Or will it be mostly strangers and acquaintances, providing you with a lower rate of return?
  • How much interacting will be required of you? For example, an award banquet will require less social interaction than a party and therefore be less draining. 

These will help you determine whether the extrovert activity will yield a higher or lower rate of return. The higher the return, the less recovery time you may need.

A word about work

One of the most common areas introverts might not realize they’re extroverting is at work. Does your job require you to have face-to-face meetings throughout the day? Are you on the phone making calls all day long? Giving presentations? Interacting with people throughout the day? Most jobs require extroverting, so you’re going to be exhausted and need recovery time when you get home.

But then you get home and the kids are there and you’re expected to immediately jump into caretaker role, making dinner, watching the kids etc… Let your partner know that you need some recovery time before you jump into your stepmom role.

If you’re finding that’s impossible, then take a few extra minutes in the car on your way home.  Be creative and make it happen. No one benefits from you attempting to function on a low or empty tank.

How to live comfortably with extroverts

When it comes to living comfortably, everyone will have to do some compromising, since extrovert and introverts are in such conflict with what energizes them. Here are some suggestions that will help everyone get their needs met:

  • Each family member should have a place they can recharge. A quiet space for the introverts and a noisy space for the extroverts.
  • Instead of allowing kids to have sleepovers every weekend, try every other. Or they can sleep out.
  • If the rest of the family (majority) wants to watch TV or play loud video games, you can go to your quiet zone. Or if a single person wants to play a loud video game, he can use headphones.
  • On the days you have the kids, think about limiting your other extroverted activities. For example, can you schedule less face-to-face work meetings on those days?
  • Have a set time for extrovert activities that take place in the common areas of the house. “OK kids, you can play video games (noisy) for an hour , then I need you to put the headphones on.” That’s what a compromise looks like.
  • Always have an escape route. For example, if I’m going to a social function where I’ll be surrounded by either strangers or acquaintances, I know I’ll be good for 1- 2 hours and then I’ll start to get exhausted and will want to leave. Whereas my husband might want to spend more time there. So I might drive separately or he’ll plan to find another ride home,  so I won’t be stuck there after I’ve reached my limit.

Bonding with extroverted kids

When it comes to bonding with your extroverted stepkids, it will help for you to engage in activities that don’t completely drain you. It’s more important that you’re able to show up and be present for the kids to the best of your ability for a shorter length of time than it is for you to be “on” for hours but in an exhausted, depressed or resentful state.

Shoulder to shoulder activities can be great because they require less direct, face-to-face interaction. These might include cooking, teaching how to knit, coloring, watching a movie or going on a walk. It’s also okay to let the kids know that you’re happy to play for 30 minutes but then you need an adult time out.   

It may seem silly or even ridiculous that you have to plan for recovery time, but you can only benefit from doing so. Most people never think about introversion and extroversion being a reason for conflict or tension, but it often is. Being aware of these differences and having open communication on a regular basis with your family about them can ease some of the tensions and remove the misconceptions about each other.

When we stop taking behaviors personally, we’re free to respect and appreciate each other’s differences. And that makes it so much easier to live in harmony with those who are different than us.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE Aug 2015 ISSUE OF SM MAGAZINE

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Tips for becoming a full-time stepmom

Full time Stepmom HelpI couldn’t have imagined that 3 years after marrying my husband who had 50/50 custody, we’d be moving 3000 miles away, gaining full physical custody of both boys (then 14 and 17), while mom stayed put. Nope, I did not see that one coming.

The thing with stepfamily life is you never what’s going to happen. You marry a man with kids who sees them half of the time and you assume it will always be that way. But nothing stays the same.

In my case, we moved in hopes of giving my older stepson a fresh start. So when I was faced with the move, I didn’t think twice, because I knew it needed to be done. But that didn’t mean I was prepared for it.

Going from part-time to full-time custody is one of the most difficult changes you can experience.

Some stepmoms love spending the majority of time with their stepchildren and truly miss them when they’re gone. For these stepmoms, going full-time won’t be as big a challenge – they may even welcome the change. But if you’re one of the many stepmoms who are childfree by choice and/or do the happy dance when the kids go to the other house, transition to full-time stepmom could be extremely difficult for you.

I was one of those stepmoms. Not because of anything having to do with my stepkids, but because I was childfree for a reason.

  • I loved my alone time in my house.
  • I loved that I could clean it and it would stay clean.
  • I loved that my sense of responsibility could shift to myself when the kids were gone.
  • I loved the alone time with my husband.

So if you’re like me in that respect, be prepared to sacrifice all of that.

As a side note, some people believe if you don’t want your own kids then you shouldn’t marry a man with them. I’d have to disagree. I’ve seen a lot of good come from my relationship with my stepkids – even though I never wanted my own.

And many women who didn’t want their own children make wonderful stepmoms. They’re caring and compassionate and can easily model a peaceful existence and healthy adult relationship for the kids – because they’re not looking to fulfill a fantasy of motherhood through their stepchildren – and it doesn’t make them jerks just because they do a celebratory dance when the kids leave.

We dance because we can finally relax.

Break? What break?

One of the most exhausting things about having the kids all the time is that you don’t get a break from being “on.” Many stepmoms don’t feel 100% free to be themselves when the kids are home. Watching what you say, what you wear, what you do – and most of all, that feeling of being responsible for a child – these are always present.

Sure, ultimately the child is your partner’s responsibility, but I believe we have an instinct to be on alert at all times when a child is in our home.

I tried to explain this to my stepson. Him being a well-mannered and very well-behaved 16 year old, can’t understand why I feel a sense of responsibility for him when he’s home – regardless of whether or not my husband is home. But I’m always on alert. What’s he doing? Where is he? What’s that noise? Is he cleaning up after himself?

He’s the most responsible teenager I’ve ever met, and yet I still have those thoughts running through mind, pretty much all the time.

You never know what’s going to happen

Remember when I said everything changes? Even if you have everything planned out, even if it’s written in a custody agreement, things don’t always turn out the way you planned.

Mom’s visits that were supposed to happen every so often stopped happening.

My oldest eventually moved back when he turned 18, but my youngest loved our new home and his visits back to his mom became few and far between (negotiated between him and mom) – which meant my husband and I got even less alone time than expected. And I got even fewer breaks than I had planned on.

It became more important than ever that we carve out the time to connect as a couple.

How can I prepare?

All the preparation in the world won’t fully prepare you, because you can’t know all the road bumps you’ll encounter until they happen, but there are some things you can do ease your transition.

  • Have a discussion about house rules – Talk about what roles and responsibilities all members of the family will have so that everyone is contributing. No more letting kids off the hook because of guilt or any other reason. The full-time gig will only work if everyone is willing to pitch in. And if the kids are resistant, your partner must stand up for you and enforce the rules.

Try this: Go through a typical day from morning to night and think of all the situations that can occur and what challenges might pop up. For example, do the kids usually put up a fight at bedtime, dragging it out for an extended period of time, exhausting everyone? You won’t have the bandwidth to go through that every night, so this is a situation that needs to be addressed and rules enforced around it.  But if your partner refuses to enforce a rule around this, then he can be the one to deal with the child while you put yourself to bed.

  • Plan for your alone time – There may come a time when you think you’re going crazy and just can’t take the pressure. In order to prevent that from happening, you need to be taking care of your own needs. You need to be seeing your friends and doing things you enjoy. This is non-negotiable. Have a plan for your own alone time and self-care. If you’re an introvert, meaning social interaction drains your energy and you need alone time to recharge, your self-care will be even more crucial. 
  • Schedule alone time with your partner – This should be as routine as the kids’ after-school activities and is another non-negotiable. If you and your partner don’t make time for each other, to reconnect and honor the intimacy of your relationship, you will start to emotionally separate. If that happens, your entire situation will go downhill because you won’t have the the strength of your relationship to support you through this.
  • Have a family discussion about what changes will occur and what it might be like to be with each other all of the time, with no break. Ask the kids if they have concerns. I remember light-heartedly saying to my then 14 year old stepson,“Aren’t you a little afraid to live with me full time, with no break?!” He looked at me, shrugged, and said “no.” And that was the end of the conversation. It was clear that I was the one with doubts. But it’s good for kids to know the door is open for them to talk about their fears and expectations. If your stepkids don’t typically open up to you, your partner may need to talk to his children alone to get their real feelings about the move.

Living full-time with a stepchild who exhibits extreme behavior

If the change in custody means living full time with a troubled child, for example one experiencing drug addiction or one who has mental health issues, you might find it very difficult to be around this child, finding every excuse to leave the house.

Do what you need to preserve your sanity.

Find supportive friends, see a therapist or coach who can help you manage your feelings and provide you with tools to survive this.

Your partner needs to understand that if it’s difficult for him to manage his child, it will be 1000 times harder for you. I actually got a second job just to get myself out of the house for the majority of the day.

If you have your own children, you might feel guilty that you’ve placed them in a difficult situation. Ask yourself what can you do for them.

How can you protect them?

Is it better for them to stay at the other house while you have visits with them outside the house?

What other options do you have?

And of course, never stay put if you think your stepchild is a danger to you or your kids. Depending on the severity of your situation, you may choose to live separately from your partner until he does what he needs to do with his child.

It’s not ideal, but it can save a marriage.

What does this mean for my relationship?

A change this drastic can make or break your relationship. There’s potential for separation, but also for closeness. As you know, the dynamic between you and your partner is quite different when the kids are present.

In order to preserve the romance and connectedness, you need time alone. And I’m referring to fun, stress-free time, doing things you enjoy, laughing!  Even if it’s just going out to dinner once a week – it’s vital to your relationship.

It’s easy to make excuses why you can’t get alone time with your husband like you planned to. But it’s more important than ever that you stick to these commitments.

We started having my stepson go to his grandma’s house every few weeks, just so we could have one night alone. He resisted at first as he’s a homebody as much as I am,  but I explained to him that all adults need alone time. And once he was there, he quite enjoyed himself and the spoils that came with it.

Aside from the fun date-night stuff, try to commit to having regularly scheduled time, just the two of you, where you can discuss the happenings of the household. Has something come up that isn’t working for you? Is conflict increasing between you two?

The goal is to stay ahead of any potential relationship wreckers.

You do this by making time for open and safe communication. Safe communication means allowing each other to speak honestly without getting defensive and instead, listening for what your partner is requesting. 

What is he/she asking for?

What isn’t working and how can you work together to help change that?

You must give each other the benefit of doubt and trust that intentions are good.

You’re not complaining for the sake of complaining. Each of you is simply saying that something isn’t working and are asking for each other’s help in finding a solution.

For the Kids

If the child is moving away from the other parent, it’s important to continually encourage a relationship between them and their other parent. Remind them to call or Skype. Depending on their age, how often they contact their parent will eventually be up to them, but it’s important they know you and your partner always support that relationship.

Equally important is that the child still have alone time with the parent they’re living with. This is the perfect opportunity for you to practice your self-care and have your own alone time.

The child may also be fearful of such a huge change. It might mean a new school, new city, new friends, etc… Allow them to express their feelings without any judgement from you. Empathize with them without trying to “fix” things for them.

Consider having them see a counselor if they seem to have trouble adjusting. Sometimes they just need a safe place with a professional who can help them process their feelings.

In the end

Although going full time has the potential to be extremely stressful, it also has the potential to be a gift.

For me, the upside is that my marriage survived the turbulent time with my older stepson and now I get to enjoy my younger one. And I have to say we’ve become pretty darn close.

He shares details about his life without any prompting (what teenager does that?) and I get to watch him grow as a person by leaps and bounds.

My husband and I are teaching him how to drive and have encouraged him to get his first job, so at 16 he became certified lifeguard. He’s becoming very social, independent, has a great network of friends and is becoming an amazing young man.

While I imagine it must be difficult for his mom to hear about these milestones that are occurring in her absence, I feel incredibly lucky to be present for them.

These are memories my husband and I will have forever. These are experiences my husband and I will be looking back at with pride for years to come saying “Remember when…?” 

These are the years that (I believe) are bonding my stepson and I for the rest of our lives. And for a woman who never wanted her own kids, that’s a wonderful, unexpected gift.

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of SM Magazine

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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