You may have read in Friday's post about how Carol (the stepmom) and I (the ex-wife) went from cringing in each other's company to cackling happily over coffee. As promised, here are some (long-ass!) tips for creating such a bridge yourself — and reducing some of the angst and anger in your own ex-wife/stepmom relationship by following seven steps. Though it may seem counter-intuitive and hard to believe, the power to stop hating the other woman actually lies in your hands, not hers.
(Before we jump in, a disclaimer. Situations involving child abuse or substance abuse, or instances of clearly-delineated mental illness are obviously beyond the scope of this site. There are tons of free and low-cost resources out there for such challenges. Take advantage of them.)
What's at stake here for all these divorced/recombined families out there? Levels of both stress and cooperation amongst the adults; the quality of the parenting; the permanence of the secondary marriages or partnerships (60% divorce rate for remarriages), and most importantly, the happiness and security of the children.
But you already knew that, didn't you?
So without further ado: seven steps.
1. Change your focus 2. Own your own role 3. Decide 4. Strengthen your coping skills 5. Determine your walls 6. Take baby steps 7. Communicate and act with accountability
Change your focus Usually, in relationships where it's not going well, the focus is on the other person. And with stepmothers and ex-wives, the situation is just ripe for feeding the fires of conflict as both sides vie for territory and control. So… question for you: do you tell regularly tell horror stories about "the other woman" to friends and family? If so, you'll benefit greatly from this step, though you'll likely miss the drama and sympathy.
Bottom line, you're going to have to change your focus back to yourself. It's one of the few things you can control here — obviously, you can't control HER. If you could, you'd already be doing it. And don't tell me you haven't tried!
But wait! you say. SHE'S the reason I'm so unhappy — it's what SHE'S doing, not me! If I didn't have her in my life, I'd be just fine. The only reason I'm unhappy and I can't stand her is because it's her fault, not mine. Why make ME do all the work? Make her do it! Make HER stop being such a lunatic, giving all women a bad name! Why should I have to suffer even more, doing self-analysis and self-improvement and self-contortions when she's pulling such unbelievable crap ALREADY and getting away with it?
Well, put it this way….
If you were stuck in a prison in a foreign country for ten years and no one knew where you were and there was no chance of getting out until then; but you had a little window and a tiny cot and the chance to move around inside your little cell and were relatively unscathed, all things considered… you'd FIND a way to create happiness. You'd have no other choice but to work on your thoughts and emotions and you'd do your best to craft some sense of purpose and meaning and order for your days.
Lucky for you, you're only having to deal with a pesky (or granted, perhaps worse, but we'll get there in a moment) ex-wife or stepmother, not a 6X6 dirt floor in a prison cell. So make the best of it and work with what you have, which is mainly YOU in this situation.
As Buddha once said, "Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us be thankful."
If you still find yourself still wanting to point out to an imaginary judge that this is all still basically her fault, then you're perfectly primed for the yowza! of the next step.
Be honest about your role Next, take an honest at what you're bringing to the table that doesn't work.
Do you intensely dislike this other person? Maybe you're jealous. Do you feel competitive? Do you imagine scenarios in which you come out ahead and she's metaphorically face down in the mud (or worse!)? Do you feel vengeful, vindictive, intimately acquainted with the finer nuances of schadenfreude?
Perhaps you're surprised by your own newfound ability to concoct complex, passive/aggressive machinations in which she's doomed to fail. The idea of her continued antics fills you with despair. You're furious with her. You feel a cold, sharp hatred towards her that alarms you, or scares you in its intensity.
So be it. Just admit it, if it's true.
What if you can't really tell how much of this is her fault or yours? What if looking at this stuff so close-up just horribly depresses you?
Just do your best — pretend you're confessing to your best friend or an understanding little old lady down the street who's seen and heard it all. If you whitewash this part, then trying to create peace here will be like lying to the car mechanic when you take your car into the shop. You can't fix what's hidden. And getting down to brass tacks here is where the juice is. Own your own dirt and your motivation goes up; your resolve. Telling the truth energizes you.
Decide Decide to make things better between you two. Just decide, whether her behavior changes or not.
Accept that you're the only person you can really influence here. And decide to take complete and total responsibility for the situation you're created inside your own head and heart and brain.
Seriously, where else could you possibly start?
Decide that you're going to improve this situation, even if it's only for you first, then for your marriage or partnership (if you're in one, you may be single, dating or remarried). Then, do it for the kids, because you're the adult and you're the one who's supposed to be acting with maturity and consideration for the long-haul.
But what if she keeps doing crappy, unhelpful, manipulative things? I can't trust her to be fair and to make an effort, like I'm making! It's not fair!
Decide to end the war. Just decide. Even if the ex-wife or stepmother in your life is actively doing everything in her power to hurt you, your significant other or the children, see if you can make a decision from a clear place, your highest self, to do what's necessary to secure practicalities (more about those in a moment) then… move on from there.
This is like releasing a car with its wheels spinning. If you "try" to fix things without really, honest-to-go making this decision first, you'll still be looking for reasons to blame her and make it her fault when it doesn't work. There's no "Who's Better?" contest anyone's going to win here. There's no judge, no finish line, no trophy and no one's paying attention anyway (aside from all the complaining).
Now that probably sounds easy for me to say, given the problems I've outlined with Carol above. The worst I ever had to deal with was being threatened by a custody situation that never even came to pass. I'm sure many readers are having to bear much worse; outright lies, manipulation and deceit and substantial amounts of money involved.
Nevertheless, YOU'RE the one inside your own head. YOU'RE the one who shapes your reality. You're the one keeping up your own mental dialogue - you're both the organ grinder and the monkey, chattering away upstairs - defining and characterizing and categorizing. You decide whether things are good or bad, hopeful or hopeless.
So it's up to you.
Yes or no?
Just like with any long journey, you're going to require provisions. Which leads us to the next step.
Strengthen your coping skills Now what can you do today, right now — to create more peace inside your own heart and mind? What can you do to calm the waters of your thought processes? No one else is in there besides you; again — no matter what the other woman is doing.
What can you do to dissolve stress, to relax? What can you do to discharge negative emotions? Can you meditate? Exercise? Journal? Do you have any therapeutic processes you can fall back on to transform difficult feelings and situations?
If nothing else, you can take a deep breath. And then another one. And follow that up with several more.
Face it, being stuck with the other woman IS stressful — a lot of the control that would normally be in your hands isn't; it's the nature of the beast. Problems are going to occur, even disasters will happen. A few doozies might even come your way this year, or next. Unfortunately, we're all stuck with the constant chatter of our monkey minds, feeding kindling to the fires of discord.
It's in your best interest, and the interests of your partnership and kids to get better at this, as a matter of fact, to learn how to be even AMAZING at this. Make it a goal: get really, really good at reducing and managing stress.
Take a deep breath and get cracking! Explore, learn, research, ask around. Use the internets, my friend.
And know that if you're feeling a little too vulnerable right now, the next step should help.
Determine your walls Walls. We all have them. Some folks are tough nuts to crack. Others may as well have walls made of cheese. But definitely, walls, also known as boundaries, can be a good thing. I liken being "stuck: with an ex-wife or stepmom in your life to having an uncomfortably close relationship with a relative you might not necessarily like. (At least in the beginning….)
YOU didn't ask for this woman to be in your life!
But there she is, her name popping up at every turn. There are some ways in which you do NOT want her involved in your life, some areas that are off-limits. Determine what your healthy walls are.
You might want to think of this in terms of two walls.
One is strong and fairly impermeable because it protects you from hostile, unhealthy elements, such as acts of reckless irresponsibility, outright deceit, and parental neglect. If you're dealing with some of the really big issues, like substance abuse or suspected child abuse, get help.
You can figure out your walls based on values. What's important to you? What's nonnegotiable?
The other wall is more permeable and that's okay. Where are you willing to open up around the other woman? Where can you drop your defenses and not strike back when you feel like you've been offended? Where can you give a little?
Or even forgive?
Feel like this is overwhelming and puts too much of the responsibility in your corner? On the contrary, healthy walls need to be there and you should know what yours are. If they're murky, take a look, and see if doing so will help you troubleshoot ongoing problems and make some progress
Once you feel clearer about boundaries and protection and a semblance of safety, you're ready for the next step.
Take baby steps You can change your innards, but you may also be able to change the outer dynamics between you and the other woman if she shows even the smallest willingness, however teeny and miniscule.
Do you feel the slightest inclination to reach out to her? Not everyone will be receptive, and not everyone will respond to your olive branch with grace, understanding or vulnerability. For some women, it may just be one more opportunity to gain power or the upper hand, but often, people respond to genuine warmth with at first hesitation or confusion, and then… curiosity and then…. a fearful sort of openness. If all goes well, that can turn into a kind of melting between two people. You know what I'm talking about — you've seen it in movies, I'm sure you've experienced it in other areas of your life.
But what if she bites my head off? You may be thinking, I have absolutely no interest in making myself vulnerable to this crazy bitch!
Well, you're the only one who knows your situation. Just remember, one fuel that keeps a feud going is feeling like the other side hates you and the odd sense of shame and embarrassment that elicits. Are you hating her because you feel her hating you and you want to hate her back? Are you still trying to play "gotcha"?
That's why I'm recommending baby steps. Give her a gift, say something nice, apologize, do something surprising and kind. Change has got to start somewhere.
Experiment and adjust accordingly.
Communicate and act with accountability This involves the day-to-day ins and outs of living. How do you do things with the other woman? Are you flaky? Are you on time? Do you use your manners, even if you don't like her? Are you ever rude? Do you set her up?
Do you make it a point to keep her up-to-date with all the various details about school and dental visits and colds and lost notebooks and stuffed animals and whatever else is going on in the children's lives?
If you've got something to change or improve upon, do it.
Why should you if she doesn't have to? Why should YOU do everything with fairness and then just let yourself be pooped on?
It's the best way to keep a relationship running nice and clean, just like at work. You often have to work closely with folks you're not crazy about there — does that mean you're off the hook when it comes to doing a good job? Nope.
Plus, bonus! There's nothing to feel guilty about if you live this way, although — watch out that you're not doing it from a competitive space.
It's possible to act with accountability even in the face of some pretty non-reciprocal behavior too. Imagine for a moment that you're a saintly nun talking to convicts. A nun would be calm, patient, clear, even in the face of deceit, lying, manipulation, anger, etc. Go back to your de-stressing techniques if you need to after dealing with her. The whole point is to keep your own insides clean and organized and make your outer life reflect the same. And you don't have to be a saint either. Just put some effort into it and it'll make a difference.
There you have it.
Now… you can either be grim about the tasks before you, or you can dive headlong in with a shrug and a prayer and sense the company of the many other women around you, all struggling with the same issues. Buddhists call it Big Mind. Knowing you're in fine company helps you not feel so alone and can be a huge source of comfort and inspiration.
Earnest intention has its own awesome power. I wish you good luck!
© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved