Why stepparenting is harder than parenting

ID-10063597A common expectation from divorced dads is that their partner will step in and parent their children. They might think that if their partner spends more time with the child, a bond will occur quickly and they’ll be a “real” family. But this can often backfire as there are many challenges a stepparent faces that usually don’t exist for the parent; challenges that make it exhausting, and sometimes impossible, to “parent” another’s child, especially early on in the relationship.

The relationship between stepparent and stepchild will take years to develop and forcing it may actually delay things, or prevent it from ever happening, as negative feelings and resentments build.

But since a lot of dads don’t know this, they get frustrated when their wife wants a break or is resistant to parenting their child. The fact is, there are some very good reasons why it’s often harder to stepparent than it is to parent.

  1. Children are more forgiving of a parent than a stepparent. Parents might learn as they go as too, especially first-time parents, but the cost is less. There may already be so many negative emotions around having a stepparent, that one wrong move might cause the child to hold a grudge, making it impossible to ever get close to him. Stepparents often live in fear of misstepping, especially when they don’t know what that might be until it’s too late.
  2. A parent has a higher level of tolerance for their own child than the stepparent has. The stepparent didn’t go through nine months of carrying the baby in their womb. They (usually) didn’t have those very precious first few years with the child where they bonded. The child is not an extension of the stepparent. It’s just natural to have more patience for something that’s yours, than something that isn’t. The mess, the noise, the tantrums, the stress – I don’t believe any parent loves these things, but they tolerate it because, well, that child is theirs. Something happened when that baby was born that gave them unlimited ability to put up with anything and everything the child throws at them. Even when they do need a break or get angry, their love for that child never wavers and they’re ready to get back in the saddle in record time. Most stepparents don’t have this super power and it can often take a long time to trust the child again or have positive feelings towards them.
  3. A stepparent never knows when they should speak up. A stepparent is always worried about stepping on toes, getting backlash for something she said, or even something she didn’t say – something that was misinterpreted by the ex or incorrectly passed on to the ex by the kids. And because of #1 above, there’s always a fear of her stepchild not liking her anymore. What an awful existence, living with someone who doesn’t like you – but often holds so much power in the house. It’s exhausting to be so unsure of oneself. And walking on eggshells for an extended period of time will wear out even the strongest of spirits.
  4. The child wants to be parented by their parent, not their stepparent. Children are craving time and attention from their parent. They don’t see their stepparents as authority figures, meaning the child doesn’t see them as someone they have to listen to. If they feel resentment that they even have this extra person in their life, listening to and respecting them as an important person in their life isn’t at the top of their to-do list. And even if the relationship is decent between them, it can still feel an intrusion when a stepparent tries to intervene.
  5. Children naturally want to please their parents, not so with stepparents. Children don’t look for the approval of their stepparent the way they do their parent. There’s not a natural sense of wanting to be accepted by them. Don’t get me wrong, we all want to be liked, but what I’m referring to is happening on a much deeper level. In fact, sometimes they want to make things as difficult as possible for them, hoping on some level that maybe they’ll just leave and the child can have their parent all to themselves again.
  6. A parent has unconditional love for their child, whereas a stepchild can feel like a foreign entity to a stepparent. People love to judge a stepmom who doesn’t automatically fall in love with her stepchild. But the reality is these are basically two strangers who didn’t choose each other, now finding themselves part of the same family. Research shows it takes 4-7 years for a stepfamily to feel and function like a family, so those first years are an adjustment, to say the least, for everyone. A child doesn’t automatically think of their stepparent as a parent – or of any importance to them at all. That bond will take years to develop. And sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
  7. There might be an unhappy ex in the mix, discouraging the kids from having a relationship with the stepparent. When a parent places a child in a loyalty bind, the child thinks “If I like my stepparent or have fun with her, it will hurt my mom.” Therefore the child may resist a relationship with their stepparent, or even worse, start acting out against her. Research shows that the more a child actually likes their stepparent, the worse he may act towards her. The guilt he feels may be too overwhelming, as he thinks he’s betraying his other parent.

Dads: If you want to be your wife’s hero, listen to her when she says she’s having hard time trying to parent your child or when she’s asking you to do more of the heavy lifting, that is rightfully yours. It’s not because she “doesn’t like” your child, it’s not because she doesn’t care for you. It’s simply because this is the nature of stepfamily dynamics and sometimes it’s just impossible for her to be what you expect.

The development of the stepparent/stepchild relationship doesn’t happen overnight, so If you want to preserve the space for that relationship to happen, honor the process by letting it evolve naturally, at a pace everyone is comfortable with.

Well, stepmoms, what have I left out? What have your experiences been?

© 2015 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms, it’s okay to create a kid-free zone in your home

Stepmom kid-free zoneLet’s face it, even in the best of circumstances, kids are not easy to be around 100 percent of the time. Even biological parents need a break from their own children once in a while, so it’s normal (although not quite acceptable by society) for stepmoms to need a break from kids who are not hers.

Some kids are just … challenging.

So, it is nice to have a space to retreat to when you start to feel like you are about to lose your marbles. Is it mean or selfish to want a space that’s all yours? No. It’s actually kind of you. What do you think is better for your marriage and relationship with your stepkids—you as an uptight person about to explode at the next family member who looks at you funny or you as a happy, recharged, peaceful person who wants to be around others?

There are many reasons for a kid-free zone. It’s not all about the kids. Maybe you had a difficult day at work and just can’t be emotionally present for the kids at that time. Maybe you need a few minutes alone to compose yourself. Maybe you had an argument with a close friend or family member and you need some time to process it without interruption from well-intentioned little ones. Your emotional health is important, and you deserve a place where you can tend to it.

I was lucky enough that my husband provided me with two rooms I could call my own. The first one we called the J-Cafe. It was a little alcove directly off the living room. It had a small sofa, bookshelf and coffee table, and everyone knew it was my space. The second room was the bathroom. My husband decided that since we had two full bathrooms, one should be a girls’ and one should be a boys’. It was his way of protecting me from having to share a bathroom with two teenage boys. And, yes, he used the boys’ bathroom as well. That was a gesture I will never stop appreciating!

How to Create a Personal Sanctuary

There are no rules here. If you have a very small living space, you might only be able to claim a corner of a room, but that corner will provide you with a sense of comfort if it’s all yours. If you are lucky enough to be able to use a whole room, great! Display items that are meaningful to you and bring you joy and comfort. The goal is to be able to enter the space to decompress and be yourself without any input from the outside world.

If you are unsure of how to create your personal space, the following questions can help get you started:

  • When do you most often need time to yourself?
  • What room in the house protects you the most from noise and foot traffic?
  • What activities help you recharge? (Painting, music, meditation, watching TV, etc.)
  • What personal items of yours hold the most value?
  • What do you most need in order to calm down and feel more like yourself?

Creating a kid-free zone is a great way to preserve your sanity and sense of self. It provides you with a place to retreat from the noise, drama, stress and responsibility while enabling you to recharge, regroup and find inner balance. And since it’s a kid-free space, you don’t have to worry about it being riddled with the kids’ messes. There’s really something different about cleaning up your own mess, isn’t there?

The idea of a kid-free zone may not be popular in the eyes of outsiders, but, hey, neither was the idea that the world was round.

This article was originally published in the Jan 2015 issue of Stepmom Magazine.

© 2015 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms, it’s not personal

AuthenticWhen someone is threatened by your wit, intelligence, beauty, capabilities, skills, amazing personality, or any other one of your beautiful traits, they’re going to treat you like crap.

When someone is threatened by you, it’s because they haven’t quite learned how to love themselves yet. Or in some cases, even like themselves. When someone is proud of who they are and truly values their self, they don’t get mad at others for being what they perceive as better, or having more. When they love themselves, they can be happy for other’s success and support their growth. They can appreciate positive qualities, without making it mean that they are less than. They don’t need to put others down to elevate themselves. They don’t need to make others wrong, to feel right.

I’m not referring to having a bad day every now and then (although don’t you feel better about others when you’re feeling good about yourself?).  I’m referring to those who have a deep emptiness where self-esteem and self-love should live.

By the way, if you’ve ever done the work entailed in increasing self-esteem and self-love, you’ve experienced the before and after of who you are and how you behave. It’s pretty amazing…

This is why it’s not about you when someone is being awful to you. And this is why you’re not going to change others; their struggle is with themselves.

Your job is to continue being your incredible, authentic self. Don’t hide or shrink to make them more comfortable. Just don’t worry about them at all. They are not your concern. Spend your energy on people who you feel good around, who want the best for you and whose actions reflect that. That is how you choose peace for yourself.

© 2015 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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Confessions of a(n) Enlightened Stepmom

This article was first published in 2011 for No One’s the Bitch. 

Enlightened StepmomI consider myself pretty successful in my transition from single girl to stepmom and I’ve always had the best of intentions when it came to my husband’s ex-wife.

And yet, I’ve made some moves that seemed right at the time, but weren’t.

Here’s one of them:

I won’t get into the details for privacy’s sake, but basically, I was tired of my husband’s ex-wife supposedly pointing her finger in our direction for everything gone bad in her household, so I spoke up. Rah-rah, good for me, right??

I even did it in a way that was diplomatic. I didn’t call her names, I didn’t tell her what I thought of her or where I’d like her to shove it. I simply sent her an email giving her some really great advice.

I told her the truth; that until she took responsibility for her own life she would never be happy.

Then, thinking that I could enlighten her even further, I proceeded to explain that if she continued to blame others for her situation, she’d never have a healthy relationship and her unhappiness would continue.

All the while, I’m thinking, ‘This is great advice! These are the things her friends should be telling her!’ After all, read any book by Deepak Chopra or other spiritual leaders and you’ll find the same advice. She simply had never heard such wise words and once she did, she’d see the light. It worked for me in my life, so I’d be selfish not to share such knowledge with her. Right?

Yes, I actually believed I was being helpful.

Oh, how naïve I was.…

To put it mildly, she wasn’t “thankful” for the unsolicited advice, she wasn’t “enlightened,” and she didn’t suddenly see (what I perceived as) the error of her ways.

After a few days, I had some realizations and sent her an apologetic email. These were my thoughts:

  • Each one of us is living in our own reality. Me and my husband’s reality is VERY different from hers.
  • Nothing I could ever say or do would or could convince her to see the situation from our perspective.
  • She’s viewing life from her own childhood experiences, life experiences, her own values, her own lessons learned. And we’re viewing them from ours.
  • We cannot tell someone else what their truth is.
  • Even if I was spot on with her truth, the last person she’d be receptive to hearing it from is me.

No matter how right we think we are, no matter how much we think we have life figured out, even if we’re convinced we are holding the key to happiness in our hands and want to share it with the world, it’s really only the key to OUR happiness.

So before you waste one more precious moment fretting over the other woman, realize that no matter how justified you think you are, how wronged you think you’ve been, trying to change her is something worth letting go of.

To do this we start by trying to accept that she is who she is. It doesn’t mean we have to like her, be okay with her actions, respect her as a person, or even have contact with her, it just means we say goodbye to expending our energy on her.

It means we take back our power by redirecting our energy onto ourselves, our marriage, and our family; where it belongs and where it will benefit us most.

In the end, we can either spend years fighting her, or we can let go and accept her. I’m not saying it’s an easy choice, but it’s a choice that is ours to make.

If you decide this is something you want to try, but it seems like an impossible task, start with baby steps. Take one incident where you want to react and stop yourself. Remember that you’re here because of your partner. Decide what will serve you and your family best. Check your ego at the door. Leave the house, go for a hike, laugh with a friend, do whatever it is you do to center yourself and turn your focus back on you.

And just like that, you’ve begun the process.

© 2011 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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Stepfamily Expectations

ID-10044319Many couples forget to actually sit down and talk about their expectations for their stepfamily and each member’s role in it. They believe everything will just work itself out, because after all, they’re in love.

But it’s not too long before reality sets in and they realize they’re not on the same page and nothing is as they expected.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, it’s never too late to have this conversation. Some things you want to discuss with your partner include yours and his expectations in regards to:

  • How involved you’ll be in the various aspects of your stepchild’s life. Your partner may want you to be very involved, while you’re happy standing on the sidelines. Be specific here, discuss areas of school, after-school activities, transportation, discipline, bedtime rituals, transition day rituals, holidays, communication with the ex, etc…
  • Household responsibilities. Do the children have chores? Who makes sure they actually do their chores? Which household responsibilities specifically are each family member responsible for?
  • How do each of you expect the household to run? If you were raised differently, you likely have different expectations here. What do you both need to be comfortable in your home? Where are you both willing to compromise?
  • Meal planning and cooking
  • Finances
  • Your stepchild’s visitation schedule
  • Boundaries with his ex
  • The kids. Your expectations of the kids are likely different than your partner’s. Discuss discipline, responsibilities, bedtimes, meals, homework and any other situations relevant to the kids.

Those are just a few areas that can cause conflict if you and your partner aren’t on the same page. Be sure to go into this conversation with an open mind, understanding that the goal is to have a win-win, where everyone feels their needs are met.

Every member of the stepfamily is thrown off kilter when joining families and everyone will need to make sacrifices. Changes are more successful when they occur slowly, over time, so work on changing one thing at a time, giving everyone time to adjust.

If you’d like help in figuring out what your role as a stepmom is, check out module #1 – “What is my role?” 

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

 

 

Stepmoms: why your husband can’t say No

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Stepmom Magazine.

ID-100105082

Dear Jenna,

Why do some men have such a hard time saying “no” to their exes? What advice do you have for a stepmom who feels like her partner will ask “How high?” whenever his ex or kids say, “Jump?”

I Explain:

If a man is having a hard a time saying no to his ex-wife or kids, it’s possible that he’s just afraid of the blowback. But more often than not, it’s because men are wired to provide for others. A man’s basic instinct is to provide and protect. Of course, all men are different and there’s a spectrum of just how strong that instinct is, but the bottom line is that it’s not even something most men have to think about. It’s just instinctual for them to say, “Yes.”

It’s Natural to Be Upset

While a man’s natural instinct is to provide for others, a woman’s instinct is to mostly want her partner’s attention on her, not elsewhere. This isn’t just plain insecurity or jealousy, as one might assume. Our reactions stem from our caveman days when we relied on a man for our survival to protect us from real threats, like tigers. If his attention was elsewhere, that meant we were vulnerable to attack. And although we’ve evolved, our instincts really haven’t. So if he’s busy providing for someone else (his ex, his kids, the neighbor, etc.), instinctually we feel like something life-threatening is going on, even though intellectually we know it’s not. Throw in the fact that the person he’s providing for may be someone we have an adversarial relationship with—his ex!— and we also experience a feeling of betrayal.

He Never Says No to His Kids

You may feel like your partner is spoiling his kids when you see him doing so much for them. But if you keep in mind his role of natural provider, you’ll see that it actually takes effort for him not to give them so much of his time and attention. We may believe our partners are robbing their kids of opportunities to learn responsibility and life skills, but they’re also showing their love and doing what comes naturally to them. Similarly, when your partner’s ex-wife calls and unexpectedly asks him to take the kids for a weekend, you may feel he’s being taken advantage of.

We can get very protective of our partners. But the fact is, most dads are more than happy to get as much time as possible with their kids. Unfortunately, our husbands don’t always think about how this may affect us. That plan for some intimate adult time you were looking forward to for the past month? It just got nixed without any warning.

What to Do?

Because men aren’t the only ones with protective instincts, ask yourself if you’re upset because you think his tendency to say yes to others takes away from his time with you or if it’s because you feel like he’s getting walked on and being taken advantage of. If you discover you’re feeling neglected, evaluate how much together time you need per week and communicate that to him.

On the other hand, if you discover you’re really just being protective of him, then it’s time to let that go. It’s up to him to decide whether he feels taken advantage of and whether he wants to do anything about that. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it’s more important for him to see his kids than put up a fight.

Change Your Perspective

Instead of looking at the situation and seeing what you’re lacking (his time and attention?) try to see the benefit of him being a natural provider and protector. How many people have you seen him help with his good will? A stranger stranded on the side of the road? A neighbor who needed an extra hand? The little league team who needed another coach? Your husband may have a special talent or skill and when he sees that it’s needed, he can’t help but step up. I call that sexy.

The benefits of his instincts could range from improving someone’s day to helping others actually become better people. I’ve seen my husband teach kids (who weren’t even his) how to use a bow and arrow, skate a skateboard ramp, use a boomerang successfully and greatly improve their lacrosse skills. I’ve also seen him help out random strangers in need. Even if you end up feeling a bit neglected, the truth is we need more men like this in the world.

Take an Inventory of Your Quality Time

Think about your average week and write down how much quality time you and your partner actually spend together. This is going to be important when you address the situation with your partner because a lot of men feel connected to others just by being in the same room. They don’t have to actually be doing something together or even talking. But women usually need to be interacting with their partners to feel the time is quality. Now think about how much more time you need with your partner to feel safe and connected. This is what you’re going to ask your partner to give you.

Express Yourself

The good thing about your partner being a natural provider is that, well, he wants to provide for you, too! So, if you can let him know in a loving way that you’d like some extra time together, he’s likely to oblige. Let him know exactly what that extra time would do for you.

For example:

  • “Honey, I’ve been missing you lately. A date night would really help me feel closer to you.”
  • “I know that you love spending time with the kids and I think it’s great when you get extra time with them, but sometimes it really throws me off if I had expected for us to have some alone time. Before saying yes next time, can you try to remember to run it by me first, just in case I had something planned for us? Knowing a change of plans in advance helps keep me balanced.”

It’s important you support his extra time with his kids so he knows that you’re on his team. That’s not to say your needs should be completely neglected. But you can ask for additional time outside of his time with the kids. Maybe he can sacrifice an outing with his friends or some other event in order to make up for the missed time with you.

The key is to find the balance between supporting your partner and his role as wonderful, masculine provider and protector of all things and making sure you’re getting enough time together so you feel safe and connected to him.

Remember, if you support him, he’ll want to support you.

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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What does a difficult ex-wife look like?

Difficult ex-wivesI talk a lot about dealing with difficult ex-wives, mainly because that’s usually the #1 complaint of my clients and well, no one else is really addressing the issue. So, what exactly do I mean by difficult?

This is what I mean:

They only have one story; a story where they’re the victim and you’re the attacker. And their story only has one ending: them winning and you losing.  They’re not interested in a win-win. In fact, they’re not even capable of it.

Bill Eddy, author of It’s all your fault: 12 tips for managing people who blame others for everything, describes these people as HCPs (High-conflict personalities). He says they lack the skills for dealing with conflict and have no awareness how their behavior increases the conflict. He says “instead of sharing responsibility for solving problems, they repeatedly lose it and increase conflict by making it intensely personal and taking no responsibility.”

He goes on to explain “the hardest thing to get about HCPs is that they lack an awareness of how they contribute to their own problems. They honestly view others as causing the way they feel and the way they act… They feel they have to lie and manipulate because of unmanaged fears within themselves that they are not aware of.”

In my experience, they’ll always have an excuse or justification for their behavior, while attacking you for yours. Their also skilled at projecting their own behaviors and beliefs onto you.

They don’t take personal responsibility for anything in their life. Yet they believe that they do – usually while blaming you for something. They will make you responsible for every single bad thing that has ever happened to them. They will blame you for every bad choice they’ve ever made and every bad consequence they’ve ever experienced. They will tell you their story of how it’s all your fault.

You can’t rationalize or reason with a high-conflict person. They’re not capable of seeing their actual behavior. They’re not being mean or moody, for whatever reason, their personality just causes them to behave this way.  From what I’ve read, these people usually, but not always, have a mental disorder or at the very least, a personality disorder.

The good news is that it is possible to be the target of blame of a high-conflict person, and still remain happy and peaceful. It’s not easy, but it’s possible, because it’s likely that their words and actions don’t reflect the truth of you or the situation. It is simply the result of a belief they hold. You just need to remember that. Of course, it’s much harder to hold onto your sanity if you allow them access to you, so protect yourself and don’t let their attacks penetrate your spirit.

For excellent information and tips on how to deal with these difficult people, read It’s all your fault: 12 tips for managing people who blame others for everything. 

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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From Hell to Healing: My journey with my husband’s ex-wife

This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Stepmom Magazine. 

ID-100214128I’ve been with my husband for six years, and I recently noticed that for the past few months I’d been describing those years as “hell.” “The hell we’ve endured.” “The hellish stress.” “The years of hell she’s put us through…” Because even though my marriage to my amazing husband has been wonderful, it was often overshadowed by my hellish experience with his ex-wife.

The stress with my husband’s ex-wife was present from the beginning and I was completely unprepared for what I encountered. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doomed from the start and destined for never-ending conflict with a woman I had never met.

I entered the relationship with my husband with positive preconceived notions of his ex based on what I had seen growing up in my own family; My mom and stepmom getting along fabulously. So my confusion began early on when I expected her to treat me neutrally or better – not like the enemy. It was as if, before ever meeting me, her mind created this horrible person and she placed that image, like a mask, onto me. Years later it would become obvious that nothing I could ever do or say would change her image of me.

Protect yourself at all costs

Looking back, the one thing I wish I would have done differently was completely deny her access to me. I should have refused all contact with her, but I kept thinking of a million different reasons to leave myself open. I’d get a glimpse of normalcy and use that to hold out hope for the future. I kept thinking that eventually she’d understand me, she just needed time. That she’d see me for who I am instead of the person she believed me to be. I tried to be compassionate and patient. I tried explaining myself, correcting her misperceptions, etc… But all that did was keep her engaged and allow her to keep dumping her aggression onto me. I would block her from email periodically, but never consistently. And this was my mistake – allowing her back in over and over again.

When someone is aggressive towards you and is completely stuck in their own reality with no willingness or ability to see you in any other light, the only way to protect yourself is to stop giving them access to you. But so often we’re unwilling to take action that will actually keep us safe. I don’t really believe in regrets – and so much good has come from this experience – but if I could go back to 2008 I would have stopped having contact with her after her first hostile email. Granted, there was no way I could have known what I was in store for. I just couldn’t have imagined such persistent and skewed perceptions existed in that manner.

So how do you know when you should cut off contact? Check in with your body. Assault on your psyche will take its toll. Emotional abuse is traumatic. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real and can occur after being exposed to continued harassment. When an email or a text would give me anxiety for days, that was a huge red flag that something was very wrong. When the simple sound of a text message notification caused my heart to skip a beat, that was my cue that I should have been protecting myself better. Our bodies aren’t meant to be on high alert for extended periods of time.

You might think it’s impossible to block contact with someone completely when you share custody and your husband counts on your help, but it’s not. My husband had 50/50 custody, with the boys going back and forth almost every other day. But if I could have seen the future, I would have lovingly told my husband he needed to figure out how to make this work without me ever having contact with his ex. I’d be glad to drive them and help out, but in no way will I have anything to do with her. And he would have. You have to let the main players take responsibility for what’s theirs while you keep your boundaries intact. Otherwise, years down the road, you and your family will suffer.

The Healing

I was 5 years into stepfamily life when me, my husband and stepkids moved 3000 miles away from his ex and I was finally able to get some emotional distance. I didn’t have to worry about seeing her car or running into her at the grocery store. I finally blocked her completely when the iPhone made it simple and complete: Block all numbers and email with one button.

Ten months later, although 3000 miles away, I was still feeling the effects of her assault on me. I couldn’t hear her name without feeling like I had just been punched in the gut. I found myself angrier than ever at her treatment of me over the last six years. My husband didn’t quite understand why I was still so upset when things were currently good. The ex is far away and I have no contact with her. Why couldn’t I relax and be happy? I was stuck. I realized if I can’t let go of the anger and injustice when I’m 3000 miles away and fully protected – I’ve got a problem. Some healing from the trauma needed to happen.

I was lucky enough to find a retreat center within 45 minutes of my house and very reasonably priced. So I signed up for a “healing retreat” which included 4 days of solitude for self-reflection and daily 90-minute sessions with a counselor.

There’s something very healing about stepping away from your usual environment and taking the opportunity to see things in a new light. Getting away from your home is crucial, because you’re removed from the usual triggers. You have a blank slate and time to reflect without the stress of everyday life. You’re not having to worry or provide for anyone but yourself. You can experience a sense of calm that you just can’t get at home. The bottom line is it’s extremely difficult to heal while in the environment that is causing the trauma.

The third morning of my retreat I was enjoying my coffee and reflecting on something the counselor and I had discussed – that you can’t experience the light without the dark. And it hit me: The darkness is behind me. The darkness of the past six years is over and I’m living in the light. Right now, my life is 100% awesome. I knew that I would never again allow my husband’s ex access to me and that from here on out I would be safe. So it was time for me to let go of anything I was holding onto from the past. After a 20-minute cathartic cry, I was free from the anger, resentments and pain I had been holding onto. I felt light, peaceful and open.

Now I can hear her name or talk about her without the emotional intensity I felt for so many years. I don’t feel it in my body anymore. She’s just another person. One that I won’t welcome into my home or share another family dinner with, but also one whose name or voice no longer has any physical or emotional effect on me.

You’re probably thinking that you can’t achieve this level of healing because you’re still in the thick of it. And you’d be right. As far as I can tell, you can’t heal a trauma as long as it’s ongoing. But you can find strategies and boundaries that work to minimize its effects on you. My number one recommendation is to cut all ties. Take the necessary steps to completely protect yourself from the offending behavior. If you’re not willing to do that then find other alternatives that protect you to the best of the their ability.

How did we get here?

We spend every day just trying to survive the stress, that we don’t take an inventory of what it’s really doing to our systems. Are we more depressed? Short tempered? Less fun to be around? We don’t acknowledge the seriousness of what’s happening to us. Maybe because it’s like any change that occurs over time, you can’t really see it until you wake up one day and find yourself miserable more often than not. We justify, call her crazy or dysfunctional, but we never really open our eyes to the seriousness of the effects of being treated so disrespectfully. We’re also afraid to stand up and say no because that will make things more difficult on our partners or the kids. But we have every right to protect our well-being and we owe it to ourselves and our families to do so.

I eventually turned this experience into something positive by becoming a certified stepfamily coach and helping other stepmoms through their difficult times. So if nothing else, at least the pain of this experience was not wasted on me.

It’s not her job to care about me

Before I was freed from my anger, I was in the midst of another frustrated thought wondering how it is that she has never apologized to me or owned up to her behavior, when another realization hit me: it wasn’t actually her job to care about my feelings or treat me respectfully. Her job isn’t to ensure that I’m comfortable. That’s MY job. Her job is to take care of herself, which is exactly what she doing. She was doing what she needed to make herself feel better. And I should have been doing the same. It was my job to make sure that I was comfortable and safe by being inaccessible to her. A job I’m finally taking seriously.

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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How to set boundaries with the ex

This article was originally published in the October issue of Stepmom Magazine.

How to create boundaries with the ex-wifeDear Jenna,
Dealing with my partner’s ex-wife is one of the most upsetting and aggravating aspects of being a stepmom. She calls the house at all hours, sends disparaging text messages and emails and makes harassing and insulting comments. I know I need to set some boundaries with her, but I don’t know how. Help!

I Explain:
It’s a strange phenomenon, this lack of common courtesy and basic manners when it comes to ex-wives and stepmoms. Some ex-wives feel entitled to express themselves, no matter how inappropriate or just plain mean – simply because their kids are involved. I could list many reasons for such behaviors, but in reality those reasons are irrelevant. It doesn’t actually matter why she’s behaving this way. What matters is you, how you respond and how you take care of and protect yourself.

The most effective way to protect your time, space and emotional well-being is by creating healthy boundaries. A boundary is a limit you create to identify what behavior of others is acceptable around you and what isn’t, as well as how you would respond if someone violates that limit. Boundaries help us take back control of our lives by minimizing the negative impact of others. They work because they don’t depend on the other person. They only depend on you and your consistency.

You can make requests of people, but you can’t make them comply. This is where boundaries come in. You’re basically informing the person how you’ll respond if an unwanted behavior continues.

  • “Will you please stop calling my cell phone 50 times in a row if you can’t reach one of the children? If you don’t stop, I’ll block you from
    my phone completely.”
  • “Would you mind not calling me a homewrecker, or some version of that, every time
    you see me? If you continue to insult me, I’ll rearrange my schedule as to avoid all interactions with you and you’ll have to find another person to help you with the kids.”
  • “You know what I’d really appreciate? You not walking into my home uninvited, screaming at the top of your lungs for the kids. If it continues, we’ll be keeping the door locked and you can wait outside until we send the kids out.”

What Type of Boundary Is Right for You?
In regard to the ex-wife in your life, the level of conflict and type of impact her behavior is having on you will determine what type of boundary you will want to create. For example, if you have a cordial relationship with her, but every now and then she broaches a topic you’re not comfortable with—like her opinion of your husband—then your boundary might be, “I’m not comfortable talking about my husband with you. The next time you bring him up I’m going to end the conversation/hang up/walk away, etc.” On the other hand, if every interaction with her consists of insults, harassment and disrespect, the boundary will need to be more extreme: “I don’t feel that our communication is healthy for me. From now on I won’t be responding to your texts/emails/calls. All communication can be between you and my husband.”

You can’t stop her from calling or insulting you, but you don’t have to answer and you can become inaccessible to her. In both of these situations, as with all boundaries, you’re telling her what you will do.

Stick to Your Guns
The toughest part about boundaries is being consistent. Just like trying to instill a new behavior in a child, you need to enforce the boundary every time the unwanted behavior is exhibited. If you say you’re going to walk away every time your husband’s ex-wife starts to insult him, but then you feel awkward or scared so you let her continue her attacks, all you’ve done is teach her that you’re not serious and her behavior is, in fact, acceptable. By sticking to your guns, you’re showing that you mean business. You’re teaching people how to treat you and you’re showing respect for yourself.

You can create a boundary for almost every situation that makes you uncomfortable, but it takes guts. You’re basically standing up and saying “No!” to something that doesn’t
feel good. That can be scary, especially when the other person will likely pushback. The behavior may even get worse before it gets better. But if you’re consistent with your
boundaries, what you will find is freedom. Freedom from feeling like you’re getting beaten down and walked on. Freedom from feeling like someone else is in control of your life. Freedom to live your life in peace and be in control of what you allow in your space and what you don’t. 

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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