Stepmoms: why your husband can’t say No

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

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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, 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.

They’ll always have an excuse or justification for their behavior, while attacking you for yours. And projecting their own behaviors and beliefs onto you is a way of life for them.

They’re also incapable of taking personal responsibility for anything in their life. Yet they will insist 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 a perfectly delusional story of how it’s all your fault. One that they believe with every fiber of their being.

There is no getting through to these people. There is no rationalizing or reasoning with them. And they do not see themselves like this. In fact, they’re not capable of seeing themselves like this. They’re not capable of seeing their actual behavior. They’re not being mean or moody, there is legitimately something wrong with them.  From what I’ve read, these people usually have a mental disorder or at the very least, a personality disorder.

This is why I always advocate to protect yourself from these people. Let them live in their own conflict-filled bubble while you remain happy and healthy.

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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How to set boundaries with the ex

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

ID-100128222Dear 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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Stepmom Burnout: What to do about it

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

Stepmom BurnoutBurnout is unfortunately very common among stepmoms. It happens when your emotional (and sometimes physical) tank is on empty and you just have nothing left to give, which is why the littlest things are suddenly enough to set you off.

You know you’re burned out when you’re snarling about things that typically wouldn’t bother you—the kitchen cabinet left ajar, the lone sock in the hallway, the stepchild innocently asking you what’s for dinner. You feel more sensitive than usual and get upset at the drop of a hat. You feel like you are doing everything. You’re shuttling the kids to and from school, helping with homework and after-school activities, preparing dinner, keeping the house in order and working a full-time job. Things are feeling very unfair.

When you get to this point, the scales of responsibility are usually heavily imbalanced. You feel angry, resentful, hurt and exhausted. You’re mad at everyone. In addition, your self-confidence may have plummeted because you’ve put all of your needs aside in order to meet everyone else’s.

Most women are pretty bad at saying no because of the fear associated with it. We’re afraid our partners will be mad at us for placing more responsibility on their shoulders. We’re afraid of alienating the kids. We fear that our families will look down on us and that society will judge us. And on top of that, we have this false belief that other women are handling everything perfectly. We may feel like we’re failing but what we really need is a break.

Most men, on the other hand, are really good at taking time for themselves. Have you noticed they make time for their hobbies and projects? And they do it without the guilt! It usually pisses us off because we don’t understand the concept of putting our needs first— we call it selfish. But in reality, we could take a lesson from them in this department.

The fact is, the more you do, the less everyone else does. So, if you think you’re burned out or are on the verge of burnout, here are some steps to help you recharge.

1. Stop. The bottom line is you’ve taken on too much responsibility. It’s time to give some of that up. Start with choosing one thing (or more if you’re feeling daring) that could easily be handed over to someone else and then let your partner know you need that to happen.

2. Delegate. Take an inventory of all the household chores and who actually does them. Then reassign the chores so they’re more evenly distributed. Kids of all ages can take on varying levels of responsibility, so don’t let their young ages deter you from this. At the same time, be prepared for things not to get done exactly as you would do them— and learn to be OK with that. If you live by the saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” you’ll never recover from burnout.

A lot of stepmoms get frustrated at this point because the kids and partners don’t always step up. It can take patience and a lot of self-control to not fall back into old patterns, but that’s how you reached the burnout phase in the first place, so stand your ground and find a way to be comfortable with stepping away even if others are refusing to be responsible for themselves. The house may be messier, but the world won’t stop spinning.

3. Communicate. Let your partner know you’ve reached your limit and need a break. Explain that in order to be a better wife and stepmom, you need to start taking better care of yourself and that this might mean stepping away for a bit. Reach out to friends, family, the daycare center and carpool groups for help. Start thinking outside the box in order to find help if it’s not readily available to you.

4. Rediscover your passions. Everyone needs something stress free and fun to focus on. Start thinking about activities that nourish your soul and energize you. What brings you joy? What activity captivates you and brings a smile to your face? Now commit to that activity at least once a week!

5. Let go of guilt. Self-care is as important as breathing, so stop feeling guilty about making yourself a priority. Understand that, when you agree (or insist) on doing everything for everyone else, you are doing them a great disservice. You’re robbing your partner of the chance to step up and be a better father, and you’re robbing the kids of the pride that comes with responsibility.

The happiest women are those who make time for themselves. They value themselves enough to put their well-being at the top of their priority list, knowing that it will result in them ultimately being happier wives, moms and stepmoms. They have a circle of friends with whom they communicate on a regular basis. They feel entitled to take care of themselves and engage in activities they love, so they’re in the best possible shape—physically and mentally—to be positive, loving and willing participants in their families.

 © 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms, what does self-care really look like?

Self-care for stepmomsThis article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of Stepmom Magazine

Many women aren’t sure what self-care is, so they mistakenly think it means being selfish, and they feel guilty when they attempt to do something for themselves. One reason for this is because it wasn’t modeled for us as children. Most of our moms sacrificed everything for us, so we never saw our moms take time out for themselves or enjoy hobbies— especially not at our expense.

When I recommend self-care to stepmoms, I’m recommending they do activities that achieve two goals:

1) Give them a break from their daily stress

2) Refill their emotional tank/feed their spirit/bring them joy

We all have things that do this for us, but we often forget them because we let life get in the way. It could be dancing, painting, walking the dog, going to the gym, cooking, reading, getting a manicure, etc. You might have to think back to when you were a child to find out what you really enjoy doing.

As far as things that all stepmoms should do, you should carve out time, at least once a week, for this activity. This shouldn’t be thought of as a “nice-to-have.” It should be a non-negotiable “must-have.”

It’s important that you spend time away from your source of stress. You can’t recharge when you’re surrounded by the same environment that adds to your stress. Even if family life isn’t stressful at the moment, this should be something you do with friends or alone, because if you’re with people you either feel obligated to take care of or even want to take care of, it’s defeating the point.

I know there are women out there who are convinced they just have NO time for this. I often say that something needs to change if this is the case. Dad needs to step up or they need to reach out to family and friends for support. But in these cases, just five minutes alone in the bathroom can make a difference, even if it’s short lived.

Stepmoms with young stepdaughters are important role models who can teach them what it looks like to value themselves. Boys are naturally pretty good at doing what they want for themselves, but girls often struggle with this. (Think of all the people-pleasing women you know.)

When you’re taking good care of yourself, you gain a sense of confidence that carries over into other aspects of your life. When you’re feeling good about yourself, you’re more likely to feel good about others and less likely to take things so personally. And when you return to our family more patient, less stressed and more peaceful, everyone wins.

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Why your husband says “Yes” to his ex

Why your husband says yes to his exThis article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Stepmom Magazine

Do you hate it when your husband’s difficult ex asks for something and your husband jumps on the yes wagon? Or, even worse, when she wants something seemingly unreasonable – and even though you can tell from a mile away that he’ll regret it – he still complies? You’re probably wondering, why on earth is he still being kind to her? Why is he still doing things for her after the way she treats him? Well, you might be surprised to find that in most cases, men are not being wimpy or sac-less. They’re being driven by their instincts.

 

Here are six possible reasons your husband says yes to his ex when you think he should be saying no:

  1. To protect you. I know it seems counter intuitive and you don’t feel protected, but your husband has been dealing with her for years and really wants to keep the conflict out of your house and away from you. His way of doing that is to pacify her. Giving in to her may seem like no big deal to him because in his mind if he can keep her wrath away from you, it’s well worth it.
  2. He doesn’t think he can win. Alison Armstrong, creator of Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women, suggests that for most men, if they don’t think they have a 90-95% chance of winning something or succeeding, they won’t even try. It’s their instinct to conserve their energy for wins. This means if he has a history of losing court battles or being involved in long, drawn out conflicts with no resolution, he might just be too emotionally exhausted to bother. To him, it’s just easier to say “yes.”
  3. It’s his instinct to provide for her. Yikes! Ouch! What?! Yes, I know, this is a hard one to hear. But it’s the truth. This is one of those instincts that may be misguided because it’s in direct conflict with protecting and providing for you, but nevertheless it may exist. Women often have trouble understanding this, because we don’t have the same instincts as men. We have an especially hard time understanding this if the ex has been high conflict, participating in alienating the kids from their father, engaging in court battles, harassment, and other behavior that, as women, we would never tolerate.
  4. It’s a habit. In some cases, it really is that simple. Seriously, after a man has been providing for a woman for so long, it can be a really hard habit to break. It’s very similar to him and his ex’s dysfunctional habit of fighting, which you’ve probably witnessed. That dynamic can take years to change or undo.
  5. He feels that he’s providing for his kids through her. He may be willing to do something she requested or demanded if he thinks it will benefit the kids. This benefit may be direct, what she’s asking actually is better for the kids, or indirect,  simply by avoiding conflict with her he’s protecting them.
  6. He’s afraid of losing his kids. This is a very real and valid fear that some fathers have. Moms hold a lot of power, and it’s easy for us as stepmoms to want our men to fight for their rights instead of giving in. But he may not feel compelled to do this (refer to #2) or he may not be financially able to fight for his kids, if it should come to that.

So what’s a wife to do? 

  • Stop calling him a wimp and stop giving him a hard time every time he says yes to her. When you complain, all he hears is criticism, which only serves to create or perpetuate conflict between you two. It doesn’t compel him to change his behavior. He sees your complaints as his failure to make you happy, which causes a large amount of shame and discomfort in him, resulting in his shutting down.
  • Recognize that it usually takes a big violation on the ex’s part, something that he considers unforgiveable, to get him to start saying “no” to her. This is something he has to learn and experience on his own, it’s not something you can convince him of or push him into.
  • Brush up on your communication skills and learn how to make requests, not demands. You’ll have a much better chance of him being receptive to your request if he doesn’t feel criticized or bullied. An example of this would be “Honey, I know you had a good reason for agreeing to x, but I feel really anxious about y, so next time do you think we can look into some other potential solutions?”

Remember that he’s mostly functioning from instinct, which is hard as hell to temper. Try to appreciate his intentions and that ultimately he wants you to be happy, which means protecting you from something he’s had to deal with for way too long.

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms, who is responsible for your feelings?

So many of us have been under attack for so long (by an ex-wife, stepchild, boss, co-worker, etc… ) that we forget one very important fact: It’s not their job to take care of us – it’s ours. 

Self-careWhen you’re wondering how someone could behave the way they do or how they could treat you so poorly, it’s because they’re trying to take care of THEMSELVES the best way they know how – and that is often in conflict with taking care of YOU. It might be an irrational, dysfunctional or unhealthy way – but their end goal is still to make themselves feel better – not you

When you’re wondering why they haven’t apologized or how they can be so hurtful, remind yourself that it’s not their job to behave in a way that ensures your comfort. It’s not their job to be kind, respectful or healthy. If it was, the world would be a perfect place. Not going to happen.

Soooo…. Stop trying to understand other’s motivations and expecting them to treat you as you wish they would. Instead, remember it’s YOUR job to take care of you. You can care for your well-being with boundaries and forgiveness.  Boundaries to protect yourself (block them from attacking you) and forgiveness in order to free yourself from toxic effects of the anger and resentment you have towards them.

You have to have your own back, because they don’t and won’t have your comfort, security or safety in mind. They have their own.

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved