Have you ever had a difficult situation with your stepchild and thought to yourself “Well, I shouldn’t really complain. It’s harder on my partner because it’s his child, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut”? Like somehow you weren’t allowed to be upset because you’re not the mom or dad? If so, you’re not alone.
When there’s a serious situation going on with a child – mental or physical illness, addiction, serious behavioral issues, etc… – stepparents’ feelings are often invalidated or ignored because they’re “just” the stepmom – or dad’s girlfriend.
Sometimes this is truly how others are treating us, sometimes it’s just our perception of how others feel about us and other times it’s our own self-imposed “rule” we didn’t even realize we had.
It’s Not a Competition
There seems to be a belief that because you’re not the biological parent, you can’t possibly be suffering as much as they are, therefore you should just keep your chin up and mouth shut.
I believe in most cases this isn’t an intentional diss by others. In fact, it can be quite subtle. It can be in the way that an extended family member might ask you how your partner is holding up, or states “it must be so hard for him,” but doesn’t ask how you’re doing with it. Not acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, it’s been difficult for you too.
And sometimes it’s our own beliefs that prevent us from acknowledging our pain. Our internal dialogue telling us to be strong and supportive, that now is not the time for us to acknowledge or process our feelings. And then before we know it, the crisis is over and we’re moving on to the next.
Honoring your experience
Just because someone else’s pain seems to be more intense or they are biologically closer to the person having/causing the issues, it doesn’t mean your experience doesn’t matter. Maybe their suffering is for their child, and yours may be a combination of pain for what their child is experiencing, but also for the effect it’s having on your life; the intrusion, the upheaval every time he has an episode.
You may not even realize you’ve been holding it in, until one day someone sits down with you, looks you in the eye and says “Wow, that’s got to be incredibly difficult for you. How are you holding up?” And then it hits you, “Um… yeah, actually, it’s been horrible.” And you realize no one has ever said that to you before.
Your experiences and emotions are real. And they deserve to be acknowledged and processed in a healthy way. Even if your partner is too busy with his own pain to be there with you in yours, at the very least take some time alone for this. Or find a good friend (or community) who understands and can be there for you as you express your resentments, anger, pain, hatred, etc… without invalidating you by stating that the parent’s pain must be worse.
Sharing your experience with your partner
Although he may not have the bandwidth to handle it while in crisis mode, when the dust settles, have a conversation with your partner and let him know that you just need him to listen to your experience of the situation and how it affects you. Because it does. If there’s something he can do to make it better for you, ask him for that. If not, tell him you just want him to listen. Remember, his default thinking is probably “how can I fix this?” So if there’s no fixing to be done, let him know that.
For example, “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you and I’m happy to talk about that. But right now I’d like you to listen to how I experienced the situation – what it was like for me. I understand you may not want to do anything differently and that you’re doing the best you can – but I at least need you to have this information.”
If you don’t take the time to really work through your emotions and process your pain, you’re basically invalidating your importance and you run the risk of repressing powerful emotions that need to be released. And we all know those repressed emotions like to surface at the most inopportune times. A dirty dish at a holiday dinner ends up eliciting a reaction that’s really the result of all the crises you’ve endured in the past few years.
How to Honor and Move Through Emotions
There are many ways to acknowledge your feelings and experiences. Below are a couple of ways I’ve found that work really well for most people.
- Journal. Write down all your thoughts about the situation. Write down everything, even the thoughts you’d be too ashamed to speak. If you’re worried about someone finding your journal, burn it afterwards. What’s important is to let out what’s been festering inside of you. And of course be gentle with yourself. No judgments here. There’s no good or bad, just honest thoughts and feelings.
- Notice your emotions. Are you angry? Sad? Frustrated? Resentful? All of the above? Let the emotions flow. If you need to hit a pillow, do so. If you need to cry until you have no more tears left, do it. Those are healthy expressions of healthy emotions. Then bring your awareness to your body and notice how and where these emotions show up. Maybe a pit in your stomach, a headache, a backache, an aching in your chest, a lump in your throat. Then gently place one hand on that spot and take a breath. Imagine you’re breathing into the tension where your emotions are sitting. Do this until you feel the lump/ache start to dissipate. You can do this for as long as you wish.
What’s important here isn’t that others are validating your feelings (since we can never control that), but that you are validating and honoring them.
It’s great to be a supportive partner, but you must find the balance between supporting others and supporting yourself. Regardless of what any outsider thinks, you ARE affected by the actions of everyone else in your family. And your experience deserves to be acknowledged and tended to with love.
© 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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If you’re in the midst of planning your wedding and find yourself feeling guilty and anxious more often than excited, you’re not alone. Why? Because, if you’re like most couples, you’re likely trying to please everyone around you. Stepmoms, in particular, do more compromising and sacrificing during the lifetime of their marriages than they ever imagined possible.
So, it’s really OK to take this one special day and make it all about you and your partner.
Trading In Your Dream Wedding for Child Support
Stepmoms can feel as if their dreams have been dashed now that they’re marrying a man with kids and who has likely already been there and done that. If you’re taking on the financial burden yourselves, instead of going the traditional route of having the bride’s parents pay for it all, money you thought you’d be spending on your dream wedding is likely being sent to the ex—in support payments—on a monthly basis. Ouch! After you’ve cried it out and punched a wall or two at the injustice, relax and know that there are ways to still have a wedding you’re both completely happy with (albeit on a budget). You’ll just need to think outside the box.
Enroll your friends and family to brainstorm DIY ideas and less expensive routes to the altar. From flowers and gift bags to the wedding cake, the possibilities are endless for having a beautiful wedding without the high cost. (Pinterest is a great place to start.) Even the kids can help with this. Put them to work filling gift bags or making homemade treats. If those end up being ugly or tasteless, people will see that as “charming”—since they were, after all, created by the kids.
At the other end of the spectrum, maybe you really just want to elope. Expect to have family and friends chattering in your ear about how rude that would be to the rest of the family. Then go for it anyway! Some people really prefer an intimate, let’s-get-this-done-and-get-on-with-the-marriage sort of deal. Honor your preferences and do what feels right. Remember: This day is for you—not them!
The Ceremony: Kids or No Kids?
Some women view weddings as purely romantic events. For them, the thought of involving kids feels very… wrong. Other women truly believe that when they marry their partner, they’re also making a vow to love his kids. That’s great, if that works for them. But many stepmoms-to-be don’t feel this way.
If you’re not head over heels for your stepchildren or are dealing with a lot of conflict where they’re concerned, don’t feel bad about not including them in the wedding ceremony. If making vows to them feels inauthentic, don’t do it. However, if your own kids have a part to play in the ceremony, you really do need to incorporate your stepchildren, too. Including your own children while excluding his will label you an evil stepmom quicker than you can say, “I do!”
If you didn’t have plans to include his kids in the ceremony but it’s important to him, try to find a satisfying middle ground. Is there an alternative upon which you could agree? Could you involve them in a pre-wedding ceremony so they feel special and he feels good about it? Perhaps the kids can come up and light a candle during the ceremony. Something like that can be meaningful for one of you and still noninvasive for the other. Sit down and talk about what’s really important to each of you. Then come to an agreement with which you’re both happy.
The Wedding Party: Brace Yourselves
Talk about being destined to disappoint! There will be folks you hope will be involved but who will refuse. And there may be folks who you don’t want touching your wedding with a 10-foot pole but who will just assume they’ll take center stage. Boy, can this be awkward. If the groom’s friends or family aren’t interested in participating because they already took part in his first wedding, it’s the bride’s duty to not take it personally. You might feel hurt or judge them as being rude, but they get to decide what’s right for them. Their decision doesn’t have to mean anything negative about you. It doesn’t have to mean that they prefer the ex or that you, the bride, aren’t good enough. (Admit it: You know you went there.) It just means they’re choosing not to do this again.
But what about those who want to be involved? How do you turn down people who expect to be a part of your wedding? There’s no easy way to do this. Their feelings will be hurt. But, again, that’s because they’re making it about them and taking it personally. If they haven’t been supportive of you and you don’t feel particularly close to them, why should they be involved in such an intimate event and play such a large role in it? Because society says they should? Because they’ll be angry if you don’t include them? You can kindly let them know that you’re involving your oldest friends and family or that maybe you’ve just decided not to have any bridesmaids or groomsmen at all. It also might lessen the blow if you can think of a less direct way for them to be involved. Is there something you need help with that might help them feel important?
A Familymoon Is Not a Honeymoon
With first families, the couple usually bonds first and then has kids. Stepfamilies don’t have that luxury, as the kids predate the new couple. A honeymoon is the perfect time to celebrate your new marriage and solidify your own bond. Quality time and connection is the goal here. You might feel pressured, by those around you, to include the kids in your honeymoon. Maybe dad isn’t comfortable leaving the kids for a few days. Maybe his family (or even your family) is looking at you like you’re a monster for wanting some alone time with your new husband. That’s because they don’t understand the intricacies of a stepfamily. They don’t know that it’s actually better for your family if the two of you spend quality time together.
Then again, maybe you have no other options. If this is the case, just know that bringing the kids on your honeymoon will completely change the dynamic. Instead of a honeymoon, you’ll be on a familymoon—otherwise known as a family vacation. In this case, consider going to a place that offers kid-friendly options where the kids get to do fun things and are basically babysat for a good portion of the day. It might even be worth it to delay the honeymoon for a bit, but don’t delay it indefinitely. Make a commitment to plan a time in which the two of you get that honeymoon you so deserve!
Some kids won’t understand why their parent and stepparent left to go on vacation without them, not grasping the goal or tradition of a honeymoon. They may feel left out or rejected, especially if they’re being raised in a kid-centric household. It’s their parent’s job to simply explain that this is “a trip just for the adults” and that sometimes adults do things without their kids. Explain that it doesn’t mean they’re not loved and cared for. It’s really OK and healthy to tell your children, “No,” once in a while.
Decide for Yourself
It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you to follow your heart, even if that means you may hurt others people’s feelings. But you know yourselves, your friends and your families best. If you think they’ll feel snubbed and they’re known to hold lifelong grudges, maybe it’s not worth it to exclude them or the kids. Decide for yourselves what the lesser evil will be: Looking back on a wedding day that wasn’t exactly what you hoped for? Or dealing with family members who hold onto their hurt for years to come? Just know that if you decide to sacrifice what you really want for the happiness of others, you must embrace that choice and let go of any anger or regret you might have about it. You’re not allowed to be angry with them later.
While planning to tie the knot, you will likely receive well-intentioned but misguided advice from family members and friends. It will probably be something along the lines of, “Don’t be so selfish” or, “You need to do things differently because now you’re a family!” Except, in this case, it’s unlikely they’ve ever been in your shoes. They don’t understand that it can take a stepfamily several years to integrate to the point where everyone is feeling and behaving like a family. Stepfamily relationships develop slowly over time. Choosing what’s right for you, in regard to your wedding, isn’t going to hinder that.
Showing each other and your children (biological or step) kindness and respect every day is more important than whether or not you include them in your wedding ceremony or take them along on your honeymoon. In the end, what’s most important is your marriage—not your wedding.
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This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of sm Magazine.
© 2015 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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I can’t help but be surprised at the number of stepmoms who are thinking about leaving their partners (or have left) because of his ex. It’s not that I don’t understand why these women would want to run and never look back, but it saddens me that their situations became so bad that they felt it was the only option.
So for those of you who remain but find yourself challenged by the ex on a daily basis, here are some ways to prevent her from having so much power over your life.
She can’t call the shots for your family
Mom probably hasn’t adjusted her vision to include you – in any aspect – even though the reality of the situation is that you are very present. Therefore, there will always be conflict where she’s concerned. Because you are a part of your partner’s and stepchild’s family, you and your partner have to be the one calling the shots for your family. If you let the ex dictate what should happen in your home, then you’re letting her manipulate her way into your house and relationship. The couple is in charge of their household and must stand in their power.
Acknowledge that these are extraordinary circumstances
If you’re kicking yourself for getting so wrapped up in the negativity of the ex, quit it. Stop thinking that this should be as simple as other relationships you’ve had. It’s not like having a toxic coworker or friend that you can remove from your life if you choose. You’re not blood related to her, so there’s no positive history with her or unconditional love to fall back on. And you didn’t choose to have children with her, so you didn’t get here (directly) by your own choice. You’re faced with her because of choices made by the man you love. Yet you’re paying the price for his choices, which can feel very unjust.
It’s easy to obsess about the unfairness of it all, but that’s just one more way you’re giving her power. So give yourself a break and acknowledge that this is one of the most challenging types of dynamics you’ll ever encounter. In fact, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re still standing.
Close the door on no-win situations
Some situations are just impossible. And by impossible I mean that no matter what you do or how hard you try, there’s no appeasing the other household. You know the type of situation I’m referring to. It’s as if you’re standing there telling someone that the sky is blue and they’re yelling at you to “stop saying the sky is red!!!” It doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing rational about it. And there’s nothing you can do to change it – because it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Yet, inevitably, that will be the situation you end up spending all your time and energy on. That is a mistake. When you’re able to see that you’re backed against a wall with very little chance of resolution – shut it down by disengaging. Don’t validate her absurd accusations by responding to them. Instead, turn your attention elsewhere.
Take responsibility for letting her in
If the ex is causing conflict between you and your partner, it’s because you and/or him have let her. Think about it, regardless of what she’s doing or saying, it can only cause conflict if you choose to react to her by turning on each other, instead of supporting one another. If your partner lets her do things that are clearly disrespectful or threatening to you, or if you obsess about her, engage her when she acts out, or get angry with your partner every time he makes a choice you disagree with, then you’re giving her a power she wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s up to you and your partner to keep your relationship intact and keep her on the outside.
Additional ways to minimize her impact
- If you must discuss her, set aside a fixed amount of time to do this. Set a timer, and once the timer goes off, put her away.
- Create boundaries around talking points. It’s vital that your partner create these boundaries. The focus should be the kids. If she tries to veer off into the personal, your partner should remind her that he’s not interested in discussing those topics. If she continues, he should leave the conversation.
- Retrain your brain. Get out of the habit of thinking and stressing about her. Focus on what’s going right in your life, don’t ruminate about the past. Stop reliving every awful thing she’s ever done to you. My favorite method is to add a helpful mantra as an event to the calendar on my phone and then set it to alert me 3 times a day. For example, “I am peaceful and in control of my life.” After about a month you’ll have a new habit of NOT thinking about her drama.
- Remember that whatever is going on with her – you can’t fix it. Even if you were correct in your assumptions and knew the perfect thing to say to her, you are the one person she is unable to hear it from.
- Whenever you find yourself getting upset about her, stop yourself and use that energy to do something nice for your partner. The goal is to focus more on cultivating a stronger relationship and less on things that steal your happiness.
- Find humor where you can. I’m the last person to think any of this stepfamily drama is funny, but after you’re repeatedly called a liar, from someone who consistently lies, even when she’s under oath, you just have to laugh at the absurdity. Find the funny in the ridiculousness of it all.
In order for your relationship to survive the difficulties of someone so intimately connected to your family, you and your partner must support each other. You must listen to each other and be kind and forgiving when missteps are made. You must maximize the strength of your marriage and minimize the ex’s effect on you. Your family is counting on you.
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This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SM Magazine.
© 2015 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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