When a parent re-partners after divorce, it can be really difficult for the kids. Not only is it a reminder that their parents aren’t getting back together, but it creates a shift in the post-divorce dynamic of the family, often leaving the children feeling displaced.
Elevating the stepparent
Because of the difficulties the kids may have, parents often ignore one of the most crucial steps to re-partnering: elevating their partner to head of household, alongside of them. When a parent elevates the stepparent, he’s making it clear to everyone, including the kids and the ex, that his partner is an important part of his family.
When the stepparent isn’t elevated, a very blurry line is created, and the kids may take this “non action” as a green light to ignore her or be disrespectful, because …
- “dad didn’t correct us so it must be OK”
- “dad hasn’t said anything about things changing”
- “dad does it”
- “dad doesn’t think she’s important enough to stand up for, so I’m going to act out every bit of anger, hurt and resentment I feel – onto her”
A shift in family hierarchy
In many divorced families, the hierarchy of the family has changed. What began in the nuclear family with the parents at the top and the children under them has shifted to the kids alongside one or both parents; elevated to equal status of the parent.
When this happens the kids behave like the parent’s peer (or spouse); taking care of the house, meals, and having equal say in the decisions of the household. Some parents also inappropriately share details about their personal lives or court status. This often places the kids in a position that they’re not emotionally prepared for. It also makes it extremely difficult for them to move back down to “kid status” when the parent re-partners. They’ll likely feel rejected, replaced and resentful towards their stepparent.
How it’s done
The kids take their cues from their parents, so when dad takes responsibility for setting the tone in the house, he tells his kids things like:
- “Yes, I know it’s difficult and strange. But I love you very much and she’s not replacing you. And as my partner, she and I will make certain decisions together. I expect everyone in this house to be respectful of each other.”
- “I love my wife/girlfriend, she’s important to me and she’s not going anywhere. Being disrespectful to her won’t be tolerated.”
- “When you disrespect her, you disrespect me.”
- “If I’m not home and she asks you to do something I want you to listen to her.”
Dads: The children will be OK
When kids know what to expect, they thrive. When things are predictable, they feel safe. So although they may push back initially, as long as you’re consistent in your message (and consequences for being disrespectful), they’ll eventually come around.
It’s also important to remain loving, so when it’s explained to the kids that your partner is now the female head of household and will be making decisions alongside of you, be open to hearing what the kids have to say. Listen empathetically, understanding that it can be a difficult change for them – but do not back down. You want them to know that your door is always open for communication, but not for a bashing session of your partner.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T – Find out what it means to me
Before having this conversation, the couple should discuss what “respect” looks like to them. Does it mean saying hello when you walk in the room? Does it mean using a kind tone of voice? Does it mean making eye contact? You decide. Just make sure you’re clear on this so you can pass it on to the kids. And yes, respect is a two-way street.
Relationship fail or success
A stepmom who doesn’t feel respected by her stepchildren, doesn’t feel respected by her husband. She expects him to do something about it, not just sit by and let it happen. She needs to know her partner has her back. She needs to know he loves her and respects their relationship enough to ensure she’s treated adequately by his kids. When she doesn’t feel this, she’ll likely consider leaving the relationship.
If a parent isn’t ready to elevate their partner, then they aren’t ready to re-partner.
But when a dad ensures this respect by his kids, he will have a blissfully happy stepmom on his hands. She’ll want to do just about anything for him – and his kids! She’ll feel like her relationship (and husband) is the best thing in the world.
© 2016 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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It is easy to be a loving, supportive and kind partner when you are comfortable with how things are going. It’s easy to feel safe and secure when your partner is making parenting decisions that are in alignment with your values. But how supportive are you when he makes a decision with which you don’t agree?
Do you become difficult? Distant? Judgmental? Controlling? Do you feel the need to convince him he is wrong? If so, you are being what I refer to as a fair-weather partner. And it could ruin your relationship.
Why does this happen?
Most of us parent according to our values, and when our values are violated it can trigger a life-threatening feeling in us, causing us to react without thinking. When we feel like our survival is at stake, we try to convince our partner (through any means possible) that he is wrong. It can be a pretty ugly scene.
The problem with this is that your partner has his own values and is attempting to honor them. He has his own reasons for the decisions he’s making—reasons you may never understand. And if you repeatedly challenge him about his decisions, he will feel betrayed.
When a man feels betrayed, he becomes much less interested in meeting his partner’s needs.
What does your partner need?
If you want your relationship to last, your partner needs to know you are on his team even when his team appears to be losing. That’s called LOYALTY.
When you believe in him, even if he hasn’t given you much of a reason to, he often will start to become the winning guy he sees reflected in your eyes. He will trust you. And when he trusts you, he will repay you by making your relationship a priority.
He will be compelled to give you what you need. And he will come to know you as his constant champion—unlike his ex (who berates him when things don’t go her way) or the kids (who get angry when they are not getting what they want) or even his parents (who repeatedly give their unsolicited opinions). As the wife who stands by his side, helping him up when he falls, you will earn his trust and become his haven.
What do you need in return?
You need to make sure you are taking care of your well-being amidst the many things
in your stepfamily over which you don’t have control. If a decision is being made that affects your time or energy, then your partner should definitely be discussing it with you and coming up with a solution that works for both of you.
If he chooses not to include you, then you need to create boundaries in order to protect your time and energy.
For example, if he and his ex decide (without asking for your input) that your stepchild should attend a new school and they expect you to be the one shuttling him back and forth and that doesn’t work for you, you need to let him know you won’t be available and he will need to find other means.
If he makes a decision that indirectly impacts you, like allowing his child to have unlimited screen time which causes meltdowns at bedtime, you can protect yourself by letting him be fully responsible for bedtime rituals or bowing out of attempts to soothe the child. You can be supportive while creating boundaries. I’ve outlined four ways to begin doing that below.
Let him be the father
It doesn’t matter if you have read all the best parenting books or have already successfully raised your own child. If you push your own agenda onto your partner, he will believe that you don’t think he’s a capable parent.
What you can do is ask your partner if he would like help brainstorming possible solutions to whatever problem he is facing. If he agrees, let him know what has worked for you or what you have learned by educating yourself. But if he doesn’t ask for you help, or if he chooses to go a different route, that’s your cue to let it go.
Give up the need to be right
Looking at decisions in terms of right and wrong will set you up for conflict and disap- pointment. Instead, every time you catch yourself judging your partner’s parenting as wrong, try to reframe it and tell yourself he’s just doing it differently.
Remember that just because your partner does not do things the way you would or wish he would does not mean he is screwing up his kids. And even if he does screw them up (because, let’s face it, all parents screw up their kids a little), then that’s part of their journey.
His parenting decisions may not be “right” for you or your child, but they are right for him—even if the results turn out differently than he intended.
Be a partner first, stepmom second
Know that your main job is to tend to your relationship, not to parent your stepkids
or judge and control the parenting of your partner and his ex.
When you feel an urge to control a situation that is not yours to control, ask yourself: Is it more important for us to have a happy, healthy relationship or is it more important that he raise his kids the way I believe they should be raised?
If you’re leaning toward the latter part of that question, you are going to have a diffcult time being a part of a stepfamily and might want to rethink your priorities.
Accept the reality of your situation
The stepmom is the lone family member who is greatly affected by decisions in which she often has no say. This is the truth of stepfamily life and one of the reasons why being a stepmom is so difficult.
It is one thing to have to live with consequences of your own choices but quite another to have to deal with consequences from choices that others have made. Having a partner who understands this and takes his wife’s feelings into consideration is often the difference between being in a happy relationship and a strained one.
At the same time, you must understand there will be times when your partner makes decisions regarding his kids that will negatively affect you. In these cases, he likely perceives that tending to his kids’ needs—in the end—should take precedence over protecting your feelings. It doesn’t mean he is a bad husband. It’s just something he has to do. It is yet another piece of the challenging stepfamily dynamic.
What does being supportive look like?
Being supportive doesn’t mean being a doormat and it doesn’t mean selling yourself out. It also doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the decision you are supporting. It means that you are choosing to respect your partner’s decision. You can show him support by doing the following:
- Once a decision is made, stop bringing it up. Let it rest.
- Don’t keep trying to get him to change his mind on an issue you disagree on.
- Don’t be angry with him. If you truly support him, there is no anger there. There is only respect for his individuality and his right to parent his kids as he sees fit.
- If his decision leads to a negative consequence, empathize versus criticize: “I’m so sorry, honey. I know this is hard. You did your best. You did what you thought was right at the time.”
- Don’t ever say, “I told you so,” or any variation of that. Throwing his failures in his face isn’t respectful or supportive. It’s childish.
- Don’t probe him about the situation. Let him come to you and share when he’s ready.
By being a supportive partner, as opposed to a partner who has to have everything go her way, you are doing your part to honor your relationship and ensure its survival.
You are showing up as a woman who respects her partner by being kind and loving as he grows as a parent and a person. And, most importantly, you are creating a space for both of you to make mistakes within the safety net of your relationship—a safety net that will serve as the foundation of a rock solid romance that will last long after the last child has grown and left home.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE Feb 2015 ISSUE OF SM MAGAZINE
© 2015 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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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?”
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.
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.
- “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
This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Sm Magazine.
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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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Sm Magazine
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I hope you’ll join me on Friday, Oct 25 at 7pm EST for this FREE call where we’ll discuss ways to emotionally support your husband during times of stress. You’ll have an opportunity to ask questions towards the end of the call, or you can email me your questions beforehand.
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This is a comment a divorced dad left on my blog post “Stepmoms, you knew what you were getting into.” He sees his wife’s contributions and sacrifices with absolute clarity and appreciation, and I wanted all stepmoms to benefit from his sentiment. Thanks, David!
First off I would like to thank Jenna for taking the time to share something that should be required reading for anyone involved with a stepfamily. Every member of a stepfamily has their own struggles to deal with, but what so often gets overlooked are the efforts of the stepmom. She has adopted a family that wasn’t her own, but so often has to pickup the shattered pieces of a divorce, wounded kids and distressed husbands, and then carry these broken hearts as if they were her own.
Never knowing what to expect, she ventures into each day frazzled from the day before. Disrespected by kids, exhausted by court battles, clinging to her own sanity and always asking the question, “how did I get to this place in my life, when all I wanted was the love of the man I married.” There was no way you could have known the trials associated with that love, or the depths of strength you would have to tap into just to make it through another day. You are the unsung heros of your family.
I never realized even a fraction of what I was going to put my wife through, even before we got married. At 44 she had never had kids of her own. I had three kids from a previous marriage, all of which had been emotionally abused by their bio-mom. Like the story goes, before we were married, my two younger daughters took to my wife, the younger one even calling her mom a couple of times. But then entered my 22 year old son with a chip on his shoulder, and single handedly turned them against both of us and then blasted my wife for no reason other than to try to rob me of my happiness because he was mad at me for seeing someone new.
Not knowing what to expect, having never had kids, my wife had only shown love to all of them and this was a stab in the heart. Since then we have battled to put things back together again and have had several struggles with my girls, guardian ad litems, custody battles, counselors and senseless court hearings.
Often her sanity has hung from a thread, and not even our wedding day was completely happy because of my sulking daughter. My wife has been through hell and back and still she struggles to do all that she can to understand how to be a better stepmom. I love her more each day for the love and endurance that she gives to each of us, especially since so little is returned back to her. This is a very weak tribute to her devotion and not enough words can be said to honor her efforts. But if nothing else I hope she knows that she is loved.
Stepmoms are very special women that deserve far more than they get, and I am thankful for all of the sacrifices and devotion you make to better the lives that you touch, and the love that you give. God bless all of you!
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We often talk about stepmoms overdoing it and needing to step back from all their responsibilities; needing to take a break from taking care of everything and everyone.
But sometimes it’s not the stepchildren they need to back off from.
Sometimes it’s the ex-wife.
Stepmoms usually start out innocently communicating with mom around things like schedules and logistics. If that goes well, she starts thinking “Great, mom is receptive to me. She’s accepting of me.”
She then takes mom’s receptiveness as an invitation to move into position and start taking the reigns around other aspects of co-parenting.
She also starts to think she can heal the relationship between her husband and his ex. Oops…
What starts out with good intentions on the stepmom’s part, often turns into an ugly power struggle or war between mom and stepmom.
Before she knows it, she’s crossed a boundary she couldn’t see and mom is up in arms accusing her of overstepping and trying to take over. (Cue the barrage of nasty text messages from mom)
The stepmom is often an easy scapegoat. We’re the new kid on the block (even if we’ve been around for years). And it’s so much easier to point the finger at someone else and tell them what they’re doing wrong, than trying to see how their presence could benefit the family and wanting to find solutions.
Stepmoms, when you start getting frustrated about this, remember these four words: YOU CAN’T FIX IT.
It was broken long before you showed up. And as much as you might love your husband and want to make things better for him, you can only do that in your household. When it comes to his ex, it’s HIS job to handle her.
There are some moms who do communicate better with their child’s stepmom and choose to deal with her rather than her ex. For those of you who can make that work, I commend you!
But for all the others…
Your husband has a choice. He either chooses to lay down some ground rules with her or he chooses to continue letting the dynamic be as it is.
Either way it’s his choice.
So what do you get for “getting out of the way”? You get to improve your marriage. What your husband wants is to feel supported by you. By letting him deal with his ex and NOT harassing him about his decisions, or hers, you allow the space to simply support him.
And you get to go about your business focusing on all the things that bring you joy, knowing that whatever stress she brings, you’re more protected from it than you would be if you were right in the line of fire.
This will be a challenge for those of you who define yourselves as control freaks. You might feel like bursting at the seam every time something happens, but eventually you learn to enjoy not having the pressure of needing to know every gory detail of the interaction.
And you might need to fake it ’till you make it. Put notes around the house reminding you to bite your tongue.
Your husband is a big boy, let him handle things in his own way (which I guarantee will be different than the way YOU would handle them).
If it’s something that affects you, then have that conversation with him. Otherwise, learn to let go.
You’re making room for more peace in your life and at the same time showing your husband “ I trust you, I believe in you.” And more than anything, that’s what our husbands want to feel from us.
So stepmoms, do your best to remove yourself from fights that aren’t yours.
Your marriage will thank you for it!
© 2012 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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