Why forcing a child to hug his stepparent is a bad idea

Hug stepparentI’ve heard from more than a few clients that dad (and sometimes stepmom) forces the kids give their stepparent a hug when saying hello or goodnight. I cannot say this enough:

THIS IS A BAD IDEA.

I understand this is born from the best of intentions. Dad is hoping it will help the kids and his partner bond. Or maybe he just thinks it’s a nice thing to do, since he hugs his partner when he walks in the door. But I can tell you that this will backfire.

Making a rule about hugging teaches the child that he’s not in control of who he allows into his personal space. Is that really what you want to teach a child? This might cause him to dread coming over and may actually have the opposite effect of what you intended. It can cause resentment and distance from the child, instead of closeness.

Physical affection is personal and something that should only happen if it’s coming naturally to both parties.

Anytime physical affection is forced, it’s going to evoke negative emotions. Even if the kids and their stepmom get along well, forcing a hug can be uncomfortable. And if their relationship is already strained or awkward? You’re just throwing fuel on the fire.

If this has been the status quo and you’re sensing things with the kids are awkward, go ahead and release them from this requirement. “You don’t have to give your stepmom a hug anymore when you come home or go to sleep. If you want to you can, but it’s OK if you don’t. Saying hello and goodnight are enough.”

If the kids want to hug their stepmom, great! If not, no problem. Giving a warm, verbal welcome can feel much safer to kids than physical affection.

© 2015 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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Why stepmoms need a kid-free zone in their home

Stepmom privacyLet’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 children once in a while, so it’s normal (although not quite acceptable by society) for stepmoms to need a break from kids who aren’t theirs.

Some kids are just … challenging.

So, it’s nice to have a space to retreat to when you start to feel like you’re about to lose your marbles. Is it mean or selfish to want a space that’s all yours? Absolutely not. In fact, you’re doing your family a favor by giving yourself a sacred space where you can recharge. 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 or decompress from a stressful day. 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 time of day? Under what circumstances?
  • 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 is round.

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

© 2015 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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Confessions of a(n) Enlightened Stepmom

Stepmom confessionUpdated 1/2016. This article was first published in 2011 for No One’s the Bitch. 

I 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:

Being right

I won’t get into the details for privacy’s sake, but basically, I was tired of feeling like my husband’s ex-wife was 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 or tell her what I thought of her. 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.…

She’s not interested in what you have to say

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 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 will be the biggest waste of your time and emotional energy and will only serve to sink you deeper into her world.

Acceptance

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 wishing she was different.

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, accept her and focus on the good things in life. I’m not saying it’s an easy choice, but it’s a choice that is ours to make.

Where to start

If you decide this is something you want to try, but it seems like an impossible task, start with baby steps. Think about one incident where you’ve been triggered and take some time to think about it from her perspective. What need of hers was she trying to meet by doing what she did? What was she trying to protect? What was she trying to gain? How was she trying to make herself feeling better?

Once you have a clear understanding of what might have been going on with her, release yourself from the need to correct her or defend yourself. The more you respond to her the more you validate her behavior, so focus your attention elsewhere in a positive way. Leave the house, go for a hike, laugh with a friend, do whatever it is you do to center yourself so you can behave in a way that’s true to who you are and so you can be proud of yourself.

© 2011 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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The High-Conflict Ex-Wife

 

crazy ex-wife

 

 

Join the Stepmom Revolution today and attend the upcoming 2-week Intensive – Dealing with the Ex.

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

They’re the people who might claim they want peace, but then make it impossible to achieve that because they will blame you for everything. 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. They’re not interested in peace.

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. They’re also skilled at projecting their own behaviors and beliefs onto you.

They don’t take personal responsibility for anything in their life. 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 able to see their actual behavior. They’re not being mean or moody, but at this given time in their life, in these current circumstances, they’ve marked you as their “target of blame,” and they’re not able to behave any differently. From what I’ve learned, 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 their words and actions don’t reflect the truth of you or the situation. It is simply the result of a belief they hold that’s meant to protect themselves from the painful truth about themselves. Keep reminding yourself of that. Also, it’s much easier to hold onto your sanity if you don’t allow them access to you, so protect yourself with firm boundaries and don’t let their attacks penetrate your spirit.

For excellent information and tips on how to deal with these difficult people, read:

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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

Healing Stepmom crazy ex wife Korf

I’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. I understand now that she probably needed that image of me in order to cover up her pain and unfinished business with herself.

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 physical and emotional distance. I didn’t have to worry about seeing her car or running into her at the grocery store. No more negotiating – anything. 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 was 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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This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Sm Magazine

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How to protect yourself from your partner’s disrespectful ex

 

Disrespectful 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. 

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

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms, who is responsible for your feelings?

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. 

When 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…. Instead of trying to understand another’s motivations and expecting them to treat you as you wish they would, remember it’s YOUR job to take care of you. And luckily you have complete control over that!

So ask yourself how you’ve been doing in that department lately. Have you been honoring your own needs? Listening to your body when it tells you it needs rest? And remember, you can always 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.

© 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Boundaries in the Stepfamily: Jenna Speaks on Stepfamily Central

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking about the importance of boundaries with Rachelle Katz, author of The Happy Stepmother, on her internet radio show, Stepfamily Central. You can listen to a recording of the conversation here. While you’re there, be sure to check out Rachelle’s other interviews on a variety of stepfamily topics.

© 2013 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved