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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You might also enjoy:
- Stepmoms, always the outsider
- Why it’s vital for stepmoms to take better care of themselves
- Stepparenting and the expectation of unconditional love