When Indiana Jones threw sand out into the precipice, suddenly revealing an invisible bridge, he found the magical solution to quickly getting across, away from his enemies. But… he still had to actually cross the narrow bridge without falling off.
Trust between you and the stepmom or mom is like that same skinny bridge made real by the sand.
Sometimes you can't see it, but you can sense the fuzzy edges, suspended there in mid-air.
It's ever-present, but still requires a leap of faith. And even if the bridge is there, shining under a spotlight, it may require balance and nerves of steel to get safely to the other side. It's scary!
Plus, you know... look how far down the ground is.
There's the link of trust, but there are also many different levels of connection.
There's the functional, logistical trust you have with people you work with. The simple, surface trust between you and acquaintances. There's the underground river of trust between you and your closest friends, the ones who know all your dirt and still love you.
As the level of mutual need and dependency goes up, so does the risk.
That’s because both parties need something from each other.
Stepmoms need to know that the mom will respect her way of doing things. That she has every right to establish rules and principles in her home, guidelines that are just as valid and important as the mom's. She needs to know that her responses and emotional reactions to the children, whether good or bad, are just as valid as anything either parent might be feeling -- they're not just "pasted" onto the family unit bubble like something "extra."
Stepmoms sometimes need space from the whole chaotic jumble that is a stepfamily, since this is probably not what she originally imagined for herself when she envisioned having a family.
She wants respect. She wants closeness. She just wants to be appreciated for who she is, what she brings to her family, and not treated like a permanent outsider.
Moms need to know that the stepmom is not in secret competition with her and will not be subtly working to undermine her, to turn the children against her. She needs to know that, while the children now have a different world to immerse themselves in after the divorce, their old one is still treated with respect and held in a certain esteem. Moms need to know that she's not being blamed for behavioral issues that are just a normal part of development.
She needs to know that her instincts to protect her children won't always be chalked up to lingering issues with her ex.
She wants respect. She wants closeness. She wants to be appreciated for who she is and not treated like a permanent threat.
When one or both parties first attempt to reach out to each other, to risk a little something of themselves and work together, it can actually be terrifying.
Even if it's over something as simple as helping little Jane transport her art supplies from house to house without always losing something, or keeping Mark the man-child from continually sneaking out of the house and into trouble.
Here's the biggest fear: what if the other woman slaps you down?
What if the ex-wife or stepmother is just waiting in the lurch for a show of weakness and then, she goes in for the jugular?
And how the hell do you trust someone you don't like anyway? And what if she's already given you plenty of reasons never to trust her again?
Well, it's true—stepmothers and ex-wives typically have very different agendas, different end goals. But they're both working with the same fears and that's actually a good thing, here. They're in the same boat.
Use that commonality to help you!
Neither wants to be further tackled when she's down. Neither wants to reach out for the olive branch and then have it yanked away at the last minute, humiliating her. Neither woman wants to leave the door to the ammunitions room open overnight.
All I can say is it takes time. And repetition.
Two things we hate hearing.
Time makes it sound like you could be at this for years and years, getting nowhere. And repetition has about as much appeal as doing scales on a violin when you're just learning how to play and can only make screeching noises.
Start out small and see where it gets you.
If you get nowhere, take a breather, then try again.
If you still get nowhere, take another breather and regroup. Monitor your self-talk: is it the stuff of drama and tragedy, or a shrug and "Enh, moving on…"? Can you put yourself in her shoes and imagine what she might be feeling?
Where is it you're trying to go?
How high up on the scale of cooperation are you shooting for? What would you consider a success?
It's going to be different for everyone. Movement for some might be an exchange of tight grimaces at the front door, whereas before, no one ever even got out of the car for a kid pick-up, they just laid on the horn with anger. Improvement for others might be a heartfelt talk on the phone about Lily's grades, Timmy's depression, Sarah's pot-smoking.
What would be progress for you?
And if it's hard and doesn’t go well, what will you do with your residual feelings? Will you handle them responsibly? Can you address any inconsistencies in your boundaries without trying to rub the other woman’s face in it?
Even if you get somewhere, don't be surprised to find that you and the stepmom or ex-wife aren't always on the same page. I remember, early on, thinking Carol (the stepmom) and I (the ex-wife) were doing pretty well, only to hear from David (my ex-) that she was upset over something inconsequential (I thought) I'd said weeks before. It would take several awkward conversations to make things right, but we did, and then we plowed ahead….
It takes a certain kind of humility to keep reaching out, to keep trying to cross that bridge of connection. You've got to set aside the score-keeping, your ego, and all those vague voices in your ear that belong to friends and family, making the other woman wrong.
Have you ever truly forgiven someone who's hurt you, I mean truly forgiven them? Same kind of softness required here.
The payoffs for developing trust, even a semblance, are many.
Less stress between the two of you.
Less stress thinking about her when you're alone. More partnership and collaboration (what kind of cake should we make for so-and-so's birthday?). Less bitching with your partner. New ideas when brainstorming.
And let's not forget how important it is to create a virtual wall of parenthood in the face of children's bad behavior!
Lucky for you, and maybe, surprise... you're not in control. It's not only your show. That is, a lot of stuff happens off stage without your input, permission or direction. Which means, some very good things… might… just… happen—all on their own.
It just takes YOU to get the train rolling with a little push. And before you know it, you'll be on your way to developing some threads of trust between you and the stepmom or ex-wife that might turn into something strong and weight-bearing.
Best of luck!
© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved