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 husband who understands this and takes his wife’s feelings into consideration is often the difference between being in a happy or a strained marriage.
At the same time, you must understand there will be times when your partner makes decisions regarding his kids that will negatively affect you. In these cases, he likely perceives that tending to his kids’ needs—in the end—should take precedence over protecting your feelings. It doesn’t mean he is a bad husband. It’s just something he has to do. It is yet another piece of the challenging stepfamily dynamic.
What does being supportive look like?
Being supportive doesn’t mean being a doormat and it doesn’t mean selling yourself out. It also doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the decision you are supporting. It means that you are choosing to respect your partner’s decision. You can show him support by doing the following:
- Once a decision is made, stop bringing it up. Let it rest.
- Don’t keep trying to get him to change his mind on an issue you disagree on.
- Don’t be angry with him. If you truly support him, there is no anger there. There is only respect for his individuality and his right to parent his kids as he sees fit.
- If his decision leads to a negative consequence, empathize versus criticize: “I’m so sorry, honey. I know this is hard. You did your best. You did what you thought was right at the time.”
- Don’t ever say, “I told you so,” or any variation of that. Throwing his failures in his face isn’t respectful or supportive. It’s childish.
- Don’t probe him about the situation. Let him come to you and share when he’s ready.
By being a supportive partner, as opposed to a partner who has to have everything go her way, you are doing your part to honor your relationship and ensure its survival.
You are showing up as a woman who respects her partner by being kind and loving as he grows as a parent and a person. And, most importantly, you are creating a space for both of you to make mistakes within the safety net of your relationship—a safety net that will serve as the foundation of a rock solid romance that will last long after the last child has grown and left home.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE Feb 2015 ISSUE OF SM MAGAZINE
© 2015 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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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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