Once upon a time, there was a mom and stepmom, stuck with each other in their lives, like a splinter in their thumb that couldn't be removed. Thumbs get used a lot, so this was a bad thing, this constant, wincing reminder of the splinter as they went about their days.
It was a pretty typical situation in that they couldn't stand each other. It was also pretty typical in that they both felt mistreated and put upon.
The mom bristled at having to unwillingly "share" the parenting of her children (children that came from her own body!) with a perfect stranger. She took her leftover anger at her ex-husband for his uneven parenting, mixed in a little jealousy, fear, confusion, defensiveness, and the stomach-curdling knowledge that all her private secrets had been lain bare between the two new partners and probably laughed over - and focused her parenting irritation on the stepmom as well.
She didn't mind making life harder for the husband and stepmom. Weren't they always trying to undermine her as well? Tit for tat, as they say. Maybe one day they would come to their senses and realize how their poor behavior was only emotionally damaging the children and would change. But she wasn't going to hold her breath.
For her part, the stepmom bristled at the unwanted presence of the other woman in her life. It was worse than having the world's worst boss, this looming spectre of the mom (lording her sanctimonious, "maternal" preferences all over them!). At least with a boss, you could go home and escape, but here, their troubles with the other woman were still evident everywhere - in the children's lack of self-control, in her husband's haphazard approach to discipline, in their dangerous marital fights over the children's bad behavior and hurtful rejection of her.
She didn't mind making life harder for the mom. Wasn't she always trying to undermine us as well? Tit for tat, as they say. Maybe one day she would come to her senses and realize how her poor behavior was only emotionally damaging the children and would change. But the stepmom wasn't going to hold her breath.
One day, the stepmom was tooling around online when she heard about a book on conflict resolution* that seemed to hold the promise of creating more peace in her life, or at least help her understand why things were so bad between their two houses.
She was tired of all the stress, the subtle (or sometimes overt) struggles for power between ALL the adults, between the kids, between herself and her lower and higher impulses.
Something had to give.
She spent the next several days devouring the book, during breaks at work, while stirring a pot on the stove, and alone in the bedroom in the evenings, forgoing TV -- even, my stars, Facebook.
The following ideas held a part of her attention captive as she went about her daily routine, motivated by the sense that she was onto something big and potentially life-changing.
- When we have problems with someone else, we turn them into an "Other," a cardboard cut-out of a human being.
- It's easier to accuse and blame someone if they're not a nuanced, flesh-and-blood person.
- When we are battling another, we exaggerate their wrongdoing, the damage they have inflicted upon us, our sense of victimization and our justifications for our own sometimes poor behavior.
- We seek agreement from others to back ourselves up and "prove" that it's the other person who is wrong.
- When we are at the height of conflict, we are simply seeing things in the most limiting, childishly basic terms -- we cut ourselves off from new ideas; the powerful energy of good intentions and our ability to blast through logjams and debris; the stretchy, open, expansive nature of possibility.
An idea was forming in the stepmom's mind.
What if... she reached out to the mom? What if she just basically said, Hey, look -- can we talk? Not as arch enemies, but just as (gulp) two people?
What if she was able to say, I know you don't like me and probably think that I don't like you either, even though I barely know you. And sure, I guess I actually HAVEN'T liked you, off and on, over the years. But---
Do you have a moment? Would you be willing to try and set all this stuff aside, so we can try and work together on some of the more basic stuff?
I mean, it sure would be nice being able to talk to each OTHER about some of this stuff, don't you think? Instead of always having to go through my husband? I mean, your ex. I mean--their father.
It's not like we need to shoot for becoming best friends or anything, but wouldn't it be nice to at least feel like we could work together on some of the simpler things?
What do ya think?
She felt her stomach drop considering the thought, like she'd driven over a sharp hill with a sudden dip on the other side.
Her friends would think she was fricking nuts, especially after all the stories she'd told them, how pissed off they'd gotten on her behalf. May as well walk through the fields past enemy lines, take off all your clothes, set your hair on fire, and dance around until you were pulverized by machine gun fire!
Come to think of it, her husband might not take too kindly to the idea either. Her face flushed with guilt.
But she thought back again to an image that was coalescing in her psyche....
She could see the two of them having a cup of coffee, knees shaking under the table, maybe laughing over something stupid.
Could they laugh over something stupid?
It would be the closest she'd ever actually got to the woman, having the chance to stare at her face, absorb her personality, sit back and observe.
Would she get her head bitten off? Would her efforts be seen as an admission of guilt, inferiority or worse, acquiescence? Ha, wouldn't that be just like her? She thought back on all the conflict between them, the silent tension, the scary legal hassles, the harsh words.
Wouldn't this be insanity, trying this?
She picked up the phone with a pounding heart, and dialed the mom's number.
(Read on for Part Two!)
*The Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute
© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved