ex-husband

One-Way Compassion

Many problems between houses start because someone is actually trying to solve a problem.

A father desperately misses his kids. A stepmom is trying to find her place in a family with lots of history that came before her. A mom feels disoriented, sharing parental responsibilities with someone she doesn't know.

People struggle with their emotions and act in less than helpful ways -- or behavior they think normally doesn't "apply" to them.

And yet... it does... when they're in pain

It's easy enough for us to "excuse" our behavior, because WE know what's at stake for us, what we're grappling with, the anguish we feel in our hearts.

And so we have compassion for ourselves, we have understanding for the difficult time we're having in our lives.

But what about the other side?

Where does your compassion for them begin and end?

Can you see their pain? Can you reinterpret their angry, manipulative, crazy behavior?

A hint...

If you find yourself swinging back and forth on the pendulum of being a hero or victim/martyr in your situation, your compassion might be on too much of a one-way street.

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine

The Power of a Name: Just-A-Stepmoms and Bio-Moms

I sometimes like to think of weird things that might have extremely large numbers assigned to them.

…How many breaths each and every creature that’s ever lived has taken, all together.

…How many times the clouds have passed over the sun as someone looked skyward.

…How many times you’ve eaten lunch.

…How many times your name has been called.

When a family dissolves by divorce, we’re typically not expecting to add any extra names to the list of cast members.

When we marry into a new stepfamily, it can feel vaguely insulting to have the name of the ex randomly interjecting itself into our every day.

And yet, there they are: the unwanted. The new woman.

Even the terms we use for each other are loaded:

The bio-mom.

Just the stepmom.

The crazy ex-wife.

The evil stepmother.

Why do we speak this way about each other?

When our aim is to cut the other woman’s legs out from under her before she even gets started, we should be suspicious of our motives.

Do stepmoms ever refer to their husbands as the “bio-father” or is he simply, “the father?” What about their own mothers (unless they were adopted or raised by someone else)?

Are moms aware of the fact that stepmoms are likely performing most of the hands-on tasks to take care of the children? As women, we already know: how can anything be “just...” about that?

ALL of those ex-wives can’t really be crazy. There’s too many of them.

And why are we STILL living in a culture where the cheap and easy trick for creating a villain in a kid’s movie is to give them a stepmom?

So it’s good to ask....

What might we secretly fear about the other woman?

What power are we attributing to her that we want to take away by denigrating her name?

In what ways might we be totally clueless about who she really is?

And isn't it a shame that we don't have a name to use for each other that acknowledges our familial ties to each other -- and allows for the potential growth of love and affection?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

One woman’s prince is another child’s neglectful father

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On Thursday, Jenna’s post “One woman’s frog is another’s woman’s prince” lit up our blog and Facebook page with massive hits and fascinating feedback. She really struck a nerve.

Most of the feedback was from stepmoms, but her post was important for moms to read too.

We often forget that the men we divorced can indeed change, grow and actually be BETTER -- with someone else.

I take no issue with that point.

Many stepmoms agreed that their husbands are 2.0 versions of their former selves -- and that’s a happy thing for all parties involved.

I know my own ex is a much better match with Carol, the co-author of our book. They’ve even “passed up” the number of years he and I were married, and seem equally committed to each other.

But I did want to highlight one significant aspect of this Frog/Prince dialogue that I suspect some stepmoms may not realize.

In combing through the tangled conflict between stepmoms and divorced moms, it may look to you like there are scores of divorced moms out there who are simply holding on to old issues from the past -- and that’s why they’re angry.

She just can’t let go. She’s emotionally stunted. She doesn’t have the maturity to release her judgments and resentments.

Maybe it’s even assumed that’s she’s still in love with her ex.

But in many cases, there’s actually something very different going on.

Not all, of course, but in many.

Jenna mentioned how, in a healthy marriage or relationship, the partners are happy to be “doing for each other.” This is why so many stepmoms step forward and do a lot of the parenting stuff for the dads.

Because they’re better at it. Because they love their husbands and are trying to make his life easier.

But let me tell you, there’s a very common refrain I hear among the majority of my divorced mom friends: the father’s involvement with his kids often drops dramatically when he remarries -- especially if he has more children with his new partner.

He sees his children less.

He calls less.

He may not be able to “squeeze them in” to his busy calendar.

Outings or gatherings have to be compromised to accommodate new siblings or his wife’s preferences.

Meetings and get-togethers have to be changed, then changed again, then eventually forgotten.

The moms are the ones witnessing the fallout from this with their children.

They see and hear the child’s hurt feelings.

The children feel ignored, unloved, invisible.

And THAT is where a lot of the anger comes from in the moms.

It’s fresh anger.

It comes from new experiences of rejection for their child, piled on top of each other.

They are angry with their children’s fathers for not stepping up, for not even noticing that his children are hurt and feel neglected by him.

They see the negative impact upon their child’s self-esteem.

They fear for their daughter’s future romantic relationships, with the most important man in her life imprinting messages of emotional unavailability upon the child’s impressionable psyche.

Or dooming their sons to a lifetime of trying to “prove themselves” to a man who is forever facing the other direction.

Do the moms also have judgments and anger, their own resolved issues with their ex that are their responsibility to handle?

Of course!

But that still doesn’t negate my point about how so many dads seem to be falling short.

Now, to clarify...

In Jenna’s post -- and in this one -- we’re talking about several “slices” of the pie, several sub-populations:

  1. There are the dads who divorced and haven’t changed. They were disinterested, uninvolved fathers before and they still are.
  2. There are the dads who have become better partners and yet still practice a kind of hands-off approach to fatherhood.
  3. There are the dads who have become better partners AND better fathers.

I’m talking about the second group in this post.

As women, we often step up to the plate without even being asked.

And the stepmoms in this second group who fulfill some of the parenting duties for their husbands out of love and partnership are actually enabling some pretty unhealthy behavior - for the children’s sake -- and for themselves.

And that’s why, when you do things for him as his partner, as moms we reject your kindnesses, your earnest involvement.

It may sound crazy and counter-productive to reject parenting help for our kids wherever we can get it, but moms are thinking, Don’t enable him. Don’t make it okay for him to continue to slack off!

Now, I know there are plenty of stepmoms out there who are trying to get their partners to be more involved as dads.

They’re doing what we moms used to do: cajole, bargain, inform, educate, “set up successes” to happen....

Sometimes, your efforts really do make a difference. Breakthroughs happen between a father and his kids and we thank you for doing this, out of love for your stepkids.

Seriously.

Thank you!

But in other ways, too many fathers get to kick back and let the women -- both women -- do all the grunt work of parenting. We hear from plenty of stepmoms out there in this kind of situation too. Sounds like it sucks.

Just had to get this off my chest.

I’m surrounded by so many single and remarried moms saying the same thing, it breaks my heart. And yet this scenario of "forgotten children" has become so commonplace that I’m not even surprised by it anymore.

When a dad does it differently, it really stands out.

So before you assume that the mom is once again harping on the past for some crazy, illogical reason, consider whether some of her anger is directed at the father of her children -- for a valid reason.

Think of how you might feel if the children you now have with your husband became an afterthought in the future.....

Yes. These dual-families relationships are incredibly complicated, with so many demands on our time, attention and affection that it's sometimes mind-boggling.

But an uninvolved father is a dad that is hurting his child’s feelings and harming their self-esteem and self-worth.

That’s what we’re mad about.

Thanks for reading.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Update: After seeing some of the comments on Facebook in response, I just wanted to add two points.

My intent here is not to "slam" men or the many fathers out there who are doing a great job. In addition to the kids, I'm also concerned about all the stepmoms out there who are putting their marriages at risk by continuing to fulfill roles that are leaving them depleted and resentful. They started out giving from the heart, but now they are expected to continue being the hands-on parent while the dad "coasts." After a while, the stepmom feels trapped. Bad for everyone!

I also think there are gender issues that feed into this issue. As women, we're "givers," and we love jumping in and doing for others before they even ask! It can be a slippery slope....)

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

Top Ten Reasons to Forgive the Stepmom, the Ex-Wife, or Your Ex

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1. Your grievances live inside you long after the event has passed, which feels terrible.

2. Your grudges don’t actually improve the outcome of future problems.

3. You’re inadvertently “leaking” your resentment onto innocent bystanders.

4. It’s possible to forgive... and still create healthy boundaries that protect you from future pain and unhappiness.

5. When you truly forgive another from the heart, forgiving yourself for ways that you might have enabled your transgressor goes hand in hand.

6. You’re modeling compassion and understanding for your children and stepchildren.

7. You are freer to concentrate on the things that really matter in life, like Dancing with the Stars or Charlie Sheen.

8. The Victim Tango broken record from hell stops playing in your brain. Ahh, sweet peace and quiet!

9. Forgiving the other person isn’t like them getting the upper hand, because you’ve actually stepped out of the gladiators arena altogether.

10. Through maturity and humility, you can now admit that you’ve hurt people too -- sometimes by accident and at other times, not. We all deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, while shouldering the appropriate consequences of our actions.

A big shoutout to reader Dina M., who recommended the following excellent article on Facebook, "Divorced? Follow this One-Step Co-Parenting Plan" by Jennifer Mattern, over on ParentDish.

What are your thoughts?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved (photo credit Lusi)

What to expect when you weren't expecting... a stepmom

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Maybe you experienced a long, slow slide towards divorce. The communication dwindled. The awesome sex became lost in the tidal wave of daily life demands. It was always one thing after another with the kids. Or perhaps you were unlucky enough to be blind-sided by the sting of infidelity.

However you found yourself in the Land of Divorce, putting your life back together, reveling in the opportunity to occasionally eat cereal for dinner when the kids were at Dad’s house, I bet you never saw this one coming: another woman in your kids’ lives.

A woman you didn’t know either.

Remember what it was like after a break-up, when you were younger? Maybe you dumped him. Maybe he dumped you. But you bump into him with his hot, new girl on the street, with that air of intimacy about them, and part of your stomach goes, “Wrenk!” It’s just human nature, whether you still want him or not.

Now take that feeling and magnify it by ten when a new woman arrives on the scene with your ex-husband.

Because THIS is the man who fathered your children. THIS is the man who shared your pregnancies, who you spent countless hours talking to about what was going on with the kids. THIS man was supposed to be your future. Your partner stretching out into the years of your family’s history. One half of the foundation, the nest for these vulnerable little beings.

But no more.... It’s done. Over.

And now you’re just a statistic.

And so are your kids.

But hey, people do this all the time now, right? What’s the big deal?!

This may be hard for stepmoms to really, really understand, even when they have their own kids: but when a new woman comes into your children’s lives, it’s just plain weird.

Like someone you’ve never met before plopping down at your table of friends. Like someone getting into your car at a stop light. Like a perfect stranger joining you in the hospital waiting room during a crisis, their brows furrowed with worry.

You look at them and think: Who are YOU?

And why are you now a part of my children’s world?!

Sure, on a logical, practical level, we get it. You’re dating him. He’s dating you. If he’s integrated you into his life enough for you to meet his kids, then he’s probably in love with you and Lord knows, it’s always best when both people love each other.

But it’s the emotional stuff that throws us for a loop, as moms. It’s the automatic “jurisdiction” we don’t get - that sense that you now have a right to have input on how things should be done with our kids, when they made it this far in life just fine without you. (It makes sense for that to eventually happen, but sometimes it comes wayyyyy too early.)

It’s knowing that our children are creating their own bonds and connections with you “off stage,” as it were, outside our view. It’s wondering if you truly want them there, or if you’d rather have him all to yourselves -- if you resent them, just don’t like them or are irritated by the same behavior that irritates us.

It's the fear that yes, there is love there between you. We want that -- but we also don't. Our own experiences as mothers are often so much more conflicted that the cookie-cutter version of motherhood. Our children's love with someone we don't know can cast a spotlight on our shortcomings as a parent. We can feel guilty and anxious, fearful and confused.

It’s the vulnerability that we feel, knowing that a natural part of romantic attachment with new couples is a dissection of past mistakes and mishaps, and this likely includes stories about us that we’d rather have you not know....

In writing about this subject for years now, I think I finally understand how painful and heart-wrenching it must be for stepmoms to often feel like the perpetual outsider, to be exasperated by the ever-shifting boundaries, to be reminded over and over again that important family memories and milestones took place that had nothing to do with you.

I’m not even sure I could do it! And I have the utmost admiration for those of you who do, who keep plugging away in the face of all that pain and frustration.

Please just know that some of the difficult behavior you experience with the moms has nothing to do with YOU personally (although if you trade mutual barbs, it will eventually, sadly).

We would feel this way about any new stranger interacting with our kids, even though you may think our actions are irrational and ultimately destructive. Sometimes they are. We’re not perfect. But we’re also trying to do the best we can to do right by our children....

Think of it like this: in our minds, we are traveling down a long, flat, straight road. We can see miles and miles into the horizon. We once felt secure in the knowledge that we’d be traveling down that road with another adult by our sides: the father. The only other person in this whole world who cares about the kids just like we do.

We may have accepted that he will no longer be traveling down that road alongside us (though some moms haven’t, but that’s another story). Perhaps he’s on the right side of the road now, and we’re on the left.

It just feel jarring and strange, disorienting and illogical to be joined on that road, walking along with someone we don’t know, someone we don’t feel comfortable with, someone who may or may not be on the same parenting page whatsoever.

So please, give us time. Leave the majority of the parenting to your partner, even if you see him fumbling or out of his element. Leave the communications between houses to him. The financial negotiations. The discipline. At least initially....

Don’t take our mother tiger behavior personally. Focus on making YOUR life happy!

And moms, just realize: once you’ve seen the stepmom in your kids’ lives for a while, once you’ve seen her trying and trying, busting her ass and putting in all the same grunt work that YOU do, please, for the love of God! -- cut her some slack.

And reach out to her. She’s taking care of YOUR kids!

You WANT her on your side.

After all, isn’t that the highest sacrifice you could make as a mom? Creating room for another woman, so she can do a good job of loving your children -- with your help?

How is any other choice serving them?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

Further reading:

Moms: you are the crux

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At 46, I’m certainly not one of the greatest rock climbers around, but it’s a obsession I truly love that has changed me on many levels. Just like any sport that attracts die-hard followers, it has its own lingo and insider terminology.

“Beta” are the tips and inside scoop to help you successfully complete a route. If you want to challenge yourself a bit more, you can tell your friends, “No beta please, let me figure it out by myself.” To "dyno" is to actually jump and leave all contact with the rock for one or two brief, but terrifying seconds, as you hurl yourself to the next hold (hopefully).

One of my favorites is “crux,” which means the hardest part of the climb that’s most likely to throw you off the wall like a bucking horse. The crux will likely put you in a place where you think for a few seconds, This is impossible! Or Now I’m going to fall for sure! Or maybe even, I so suck at this stuff....

But when you get through the crux, when you hang in there, even though your forearms are burning and your legs are starting to quiver in an excellent imitation of a sewing machine for just. one. more. second -- even though your fingers are beginning to melt and you know they’re going to fail at any moment -- well, that’s when you feel your best.

It’s amazing. Euphoric. And addictive.

After that, the rest of the climb seems like a cakewalk (mostly).

One of my favorite parts about climbing is the camaraderie you find with friends, new and old. Because of the risks inherent in climbing stories off the ground, because of the fears you are all facing about yourself and your (lack of) abilities, you really end up bonding with your climbing buddies. You're putting your life in their hands and they're doing the same. We cheer each other on constantly.

I’d like to play around with the word crux here, because it has a double meaning. The dictionary defines "crux" this way:

a vital, basic, decisive, or pivotal point

or

something that torments by its puzzling nature; a perplexing difficulty

Back when Carol and I didn’t know each other and we avoided each other like the plague, I felt completely justified in blowing her off. I thought, “Who cares about making it work with her? Screw it. I didn’t ask her to be a part of my kids’ lives. They have two parents already. I’ll be damned if I’m going to make any room for her in our family, split up though it may be. I’m not going to bend over backwards to make life any easier for her, especially if I sense even the tiniest bit of competition from her.”

And there the situation stayed for several years.

I had my own angst to deal with whenever my kids traveled back and forth between houses during the weekends. There were the typical mishaps and misunderstandings. I thought I had enough shit on my own to handle as a single mom, but one day I was set on a path I never could have foreseen.

I saw something in my children’s faces that chilled me. They had just come back from a weekend with their dad and Carol, their stepmom, and they just looked... so... sad.

And strained.

It was as if they were being asked to carry a burden that was way too big for their tiny, little selves. Something that was beyond their understanding or ability to work through emotionally, like adults. They had to segment themselves, like pieces of an orange.

This was life at mom’s house. / And this was life at Dad’s.

Two separate worlds, with a barbed-wire fence down the middle.

It just killed me.

They were going to keep on accepting this reality (what other choice did they have?) like dutiful, miniature donkeys trudging up a hill. I think just knowing this is what made me snap.

Things had to change. This state of affairs could not go on. The problem-solver in me looked around at the external circumstances to see what could be adjusted, like moving furniture. Hmmm, nothing of any value.

The answer was internal. I would have to change the dynamic between our houses. I would have to figure out a way to dissolve the distance, or at least greatly reduce it. I would have to find a way to create a connection, create an even purely logistical, practical sense of partnership with their stepmom, because she spent a lot of time with the girls and did much of the hands-on stuff with them.

The very thought made my stomach clench up with fear.

Moms, did you know that about 75-85% of our readers are stepmoms? They are the ones who comment the most. Who post the most about their attempts to reach out to the mom, only to be rebuffed time and time again.

Are you turning away from the stepmom, as I once did?

You are the crux of the matter here.... In many ways, you are the key to this whole relationship even working at all. Or not.

How well do you know the stepmom? If you don't, why not?

When moms set aside their justifications for increasing the separation between the households, it’s like the damn breaking in a strong river. The current can flow. Wounds can heal. Family nests can be remade. Please think about it. And next time, look a little deeper into your children's faces when they come back from a weekend visit, or when you bicker with the other household.

What do you see?.

© 2011   Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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The Family-Family Meeting Blow-up

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For a while there, whenever our dual-family family was ironing out some major issues—like which kid was living where, and for how long—we'd have these really intense family meetings.

We'd all sit around the kitchen table after dinner, or in the living room, half of us sprawled on the floor... and we'd talk.

One of the adults would bring up the main issue to handle, and at first, it would seem just like a regular business meeting.

Here are the facts. Here are the problems. Here's what I think we should do....

And then another adult might reasonably respond.

And then that's when the bees would start streaming out of their nest. The bats would pour out of their cave at sunset. The fire ants would bubble up from their mound.

Because, of course, everyone felt the need to chime in on their position.

Depending upon their personality and whether they were an extrovert or an introvert, some of us were (cough) a little more vocal than others.

It would get pretty messy.

And sometimes, voices would be raised.

Occasionally, someone would storm off (only to drift back again).

Luckily, we all seemed to recognize when someone had been quiet for too long; conflicting emotions visible in their face, eager to be expressed, yet fearful of being vulnerable, amping up the volume.

Often, there were tears.

During really stellar meetings, every single person in our stepfamily/single-parent family-family would take their turn and cry, their voice rising with confusion, hurt and anger.

You can imagine how long this all took.

And how tired we all were afterward!

But here's the thing....

It was always such a SURPRISE to hear how others really and truly felt.

Really.

I mean, some of this stuff just seemed to come out of left field.

Like, Really? That's what was going on with you? That's what you thought I meant? That's why you were doing and saying this? Because of this other thing that I had no idea about?!

Which is kind of pathetic, in a way....

Why weren't we paying better attention to each other! To all the hidden clues in words and behavior? To facial expressions and little dropped hints? To conversations skirted around?

EVERY TIME we had one of our awkward and tumultuous family-family meetings, we'd get to this point where I'm SURE we all thought, Oh crap. We've really done it now. One, or two, or even ALL of us have dropped so many bombs here that we FOR SURE have blown up whatever connections existed between us before.

We've gone too far.

We've broken this.

We are screwed.

And I know I wasn't the only one who felt this sense of sheer terror, this sense of fear and brain-scrambled, mental overwhelm, this ache in my stomach—like we were a bunch of kids playing with live dynamite in a remote fort tucked into a hill.

Who would find us when it all went off and the ground collapsed over our heads, burying us alive? And why in the world were we doing all this without the help of a trained counselor, a therapist, like normal people???

Somehow though... somehow... we'd keep going. We'd keep talking. Keep cajoling. Keep asking questions.

Keep listening.

And after so many verbal and emotional expulsions (the only word that seems to describe how it felt), something else would finally be detectable in the air.

Hope.... We sensed ourselves actively moving to a better place.

Respect.... For each other and our struggles, our pain.

Resolve.... To treat each other better. To pay closer attention. To do the right thing, even if it was hard.

Awe.... For being able to do this with each other, for being brave enough to look at the raw sloppiness of our inner selves, the stuff we normally hide from others - and show it.

Love.... For each other, for our vulnerabilities, our fears, our tender spots, even for our known and vehemently-denied handicaps.

And finally... gratitude. That we have managed to create something so fragile and beautiful, and yet also strong enough to bear the weight of each other.

Our family-family meetings always revealed the truth of things in all their messy, bumbling glory, in the end.

And with that truth came a new understanding of what was important to each of us... the breakable parts of each other that we must treat with extra care... what our new choices now were for moving forward.

We may not have left those meetings knowing exactly what was going to happen, but it was the clarifying light of that chaotic, but cathartic truth that let the right things unfold in the future, and those problems always ended up eventually "going away."

I can't even remember what most of them were now!

So.... I ask you:

In what ways do YOU feel like you don't understand the truth of other people in your family-family?

What do you think you might be missing?

What do you feel is being kept from you?

What are YOU not telling others when it comes to things you are hurt or angry about?

In what ways might you be blind to some of the biggest priorities and fears of others?

(I love learning about these hidden forces at work in our dual families, so this week, I'll be announcing a new course to share what I know, and to help you create more understanding in your own “family-family” for the new year ahead—even if things are really tough. You’ll have a chance to pre-register soon.)

What are your thoughts? I want to hear from you!!!

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

Are you afraid of being mugged in your own family?

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"...An epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment. This is, if you think about it, quite a radical idea.”

-Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

Okay, so I’m a little late to the party, but I just starting reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and I can’t put it down. For anyone who’s not familiar with the book, it’s about how ideas, trends, and social behavior cross a certain threshold and spread like wildfire.

Like Pollyanna, I’m still stubbornly holding out hope that one day, folks will not only be expected to create a new “extended dual-family” after divorce and remarriage, they’ll essentially know how.

C’mon people, you can do it!

Okay...

So maybe we’re not there quite yet as a society.

Perhaps one reason has to do with the Broken Windows theory I just read about in Chapter Four. During the eighties, New York City was at the height of its crime rate. Suddenly, the crime rate dropped dramatically in the early 1990s.

Why was this?

The theory is that if you have an environment where it LOOKS like no one cares or is in charge (a bunch of random, broken windows), then human behavior follows accordingly. This was illustrated by the prevalence of graffiti and rampant fare-beating on New York subways. Trash was everywhere. The cars weren’t adequately heated or cooled. Lighting was poor. You were taking your life into your own hands just to use public transportation!

Proponents of the Broken Windows theory figured one of the first things they had to do was change the impression that crime was basically “okay.” So... contrary to standard wisdom, two visionaries from the Transit Authority and the Transit Police Dept. focused on eliminating the graffiti and catching fare jumpers, first thing. New graffiti tags were cleaned off trains at the end of their lines, before they turned around and went back out. Gate jumpers were collected, en masse, and made to wait by the ticket gates before being taken down to the station, as a public show that police meant business.

It worked!

There were other factors that contributed to the drop in crime, such as a booming economy, an aging criminal population, and a drop in the illegal trade of crack cocaine, but basically, these two simple steps had a huge impact.

Suddenly, the environment signaled a sweeping sea change—and people paid attention.

And then it occurred to me: many dual-families after divorce and remarriage are also living in a Broken Windows environment, although the broken windows are only figurative.

What are the signs and symbols of this breakdown?

The lack of manners!

The lack of civility.

The lack of common human courtesy.

I’m not sure what created the idea that it’s okay not to say hello between moms and stepmoms, between ex-husband and ex-wife, between stepchild and stepmom, but this is where we find ourselves.

Not to make eye contact.

Not to say please and thank you.

Not to acknowledge extra efforts, not to be a little more flexible, just from a sense of kindness and generosity.

To paraphrase the Talking Heads, how did we get here?

Maybe the divorce created an emotionally negative precedent that the two families never recuperated from? Maybe when the first marriage broke down, that psychic “wrenching away” from each other pushed both exes so far apart that they stayed there, due to overheated and overwhelming, unprocessed emotions?

Whatever the cause, not being treated with kindness or good manners is hugely offensive to most of us. We are social creatures attuned to extremely subtle social cues and are mostly in agreement about the standards with which we are supposed to treat each other.

A store clerk is expected to grunt their way through a “Hello, how are you,” even if they are in the worst mood of their lives. When we stand in line and are not greeted, when the grocery store cashier is more interested in an animated conversation with the bagger, or clearly wishes they could walk off their job that day, we canfeel the slight, because that’s what we’ve evolved to do: to pay attention to the unspoken signals that broadcast intent.

Our caveman brains want to know if someone is, first, friend or foe. And if they’re not an enemy, we still seek further information about status, power, potential camaraderie or mutual benefit, etc.

So... I ask you.....

What’s the state of your dual-family environment? Are you living in a state of broken windows?

Do you feel like there’s a potential mugger around every corner in the form of a vengeful “other woman?”

Are you consistently dealing with rude and ungrateful strangers in the form of cold and angry stepchildren -- or an angry ex-husband?

Is your husband helping perpetuate your feeling of fear and anxiety by not standing up for you when you try to create healthier boundaries with the ex-wife or with your stepchildren?

If you’re one of the exes, are you complicit in creating at atmosphere of rudeness, resistance, and competition?

And you know I have to ask it....

What’s YOUR contribution here?

Can you practice better manners, whether anyone reciprocates or not? Can you be vigilant about saying please and thank you? About saying hello and making eye contact? About maybe even cracking a friendly smile in the face of grumpitude?

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

-R.D. Laing

As we’ve seen from what happened to New York, little changes can add up to big changes. And big changes can come from sometimes just one person, initially. Positive changes can be contagious.

Refuse to do your part in trashing the subway anymore -- and see what happens.

Your thoughts?

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine        All Rights Reserved

Related Posts:

The Fragile Bridge of Trust

How do you reach out to the stepmother or ex-wife in your life?

Top 10 Reasons for a Mother/Stepmother Relatioship Revolution

Cold Hard Facts

New Stepmom? Heading off conflict from the get-go

Who's in YOUR extended family?

Who’s in your extended family? How often do you see them? Who can you call when you’re in a pinch? Most families are spread far and wide these days, so when you need a parent, sibling, grandmother or grandfather to step in, you’re out of luck. But sometimes, the two linked households after a divorce and remarriage fill that function and it can be such a relief.

On Sunday night, I got a very calm call from my ex-husband David from the emergency room. He had cut his hand with a chainsaw (the very phrase makes me feel queasy) pretty badly, but was doing alright after two shots of morphine. I could hear Carol and Jacob (their four year-old) in the background. Since they live about an hour away from Austin, they needed to know if it was okay for Carol and Jacob to come over and hang out while they stitched up David’s hand (nerves, tendons and muscles had been severed).

Of course it was -- they’ve killed time here before while in town. I told David I was willing to do whatever they needed, whether that was watch Jacob, have him spend the night, make dinner, whatever....

Carol and Jacob  opted instead to wait at the hospital, since they didn't know how long it was going to take. I got a report before they left for home and was happy to hear that David had the most positive prognosis possible (trying saying that really fast three times), given that type of injury: no loss of mobility -- only permanent numbness from half his pinky finger on up and perhaps the inability to stick his pinky finger out sideways.

“How’re you going to properly drink tea from now on?” I teased him.

Now imagine what this whole situation might have been like if we hadn’t all gotten along. No easy place for Jacob to stay and go to sleep, if need be. The stress of a strained phone call, where I'd be asked to pass along information to our daughters  -- or even the lack of a phone call altogether.

As it was, I was one of the first people they called because our little dual-family dynamic means that we operate as each other’s extended families.

I’m incredibly grateful for this....

In other blog-related news, there's an interesting discussion about the relationship with the ex-wife going on over at a cool new find, Stepmum of the Year. Check it out!

(Sorry for the picture-less posts - haven't been able to upload an image to Wordpress for the last three weeks! Any advice appreciated.)

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine         All Rights Reserved

Dr. Phil: now taking questions from the audience, as well as video questions

It appears that the mom from the mom/stepmom team that was to appear on the show this coming Tuesday has changed her mind. The show would now like to instead focus on taking questions from both moms and stepmoms in the audience, so you're in luck if you live in Los Angeles or close by, and have a burning question that you'd like addressed. 

Have one?!

They're also looking for questions to be submitted by video, so obviously that can be from anywhere!

If anyone is interested in attending the show and asking a question or sending in a video, they can either contact the show with the subject "STEPMOM/MOM CONFLICT - 11/3/09" in the subject line, or they can send me a message at marine2marine@gmail.com and I'll pass it along to the producer.

We'll still be on and we'd love to see you if you live in the area! 

Thanks!

-Jen

Want to be on Dr. Phil with us AND improve your relationship with the mom or stepmom in your life?

I need your help! Can you help us absolutely plaster the internets with our request?

Carol and I have the opportunity to be on the Dr. Phil show next Tuesday and are doing a pre-interview with a producer today. We're looking for two (update: now only one) stepmom/mom sets of women who can't stand each other who are willing to be on the show with us on Tuesday, Nov. 3rd.

If the show/we can't come up with an unhappy counterpart to "us," then we might not be on either! We're trying to find someone as soon as possible.

I know the idea of baring your soul (and neck) on national television is kind of scary, but it's a real chance at creating some movement and understanding in this relationship, and could potentially help a lot of folks as they vicariously share the experience. Mom and stepmom participants would have the opportunity to get some focused help from him... and us! Also, hotel and airfare for the trip would be covered by the show.

It sure would feel great to help contribute to a breakthrough between people. These relationships can be so painful and fraught, and yet, when you finally make a connection, so incredibly healing and supportive too.

Think about it.... The benefits of a more cooperative relationship between stepmoms and moms, even if it's simply more of a business arrangement, include:

  • a cohesive set of rules between the houses so that the children can't manipulate the adults, escape consequences
  • stronger, more stable marriages with less gossiping, venting, negative focus
  • better parenting; more brainstorming and support from the people who know the kids best
  • happier children who have more of a contained “nest” for them
  • less stress for everyone all around

I'm sure we're all in agreement about how important it is to increase media coverage for stepmom, stepfamily, and dual-family issues (including the single parents) after divorce and remarriage.

Why is hardly anyone talking about the dynamics -- and risks -- of these two-family situations, or better yet, how to navigate them in a healthy way?? With an almost 75% divorce rate for stepfamilies, and a lack of "mended relationship" models for children to internalize (and draw from later as adults), there's a lot at stake! Getting on Dr. Phil would be one way to encourage a larger dialogue.

Interested? If so, drop me (Jennifer Newcomb Marine) a line at: marine2marine@gmail.com.

(Latest update: had a great phone interview and will do a second one later on today too. "A crew" will be coming to our respective houses to shoot some footage THIS Thursday and both Carol and I are terrified!!!)

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

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New stepmom? Heading off conflict from the get-go...

Feeling your way into potential stepmotherhood? Are you dating a divorced man with kids and things are looking promising? Here are a few ideas for setting a healthy course from the very beginning that will make you thank yourself later.

Bond over the good stuff, not the bad.
Don't make a part of your bonding experience with your guy bitching about the ex-wife. Know that part of his motivation in doing this is to prove to YOU that you're the one he's fully choosing. SHE didn't work out because she was simply the wrong woman. And in all honesty, like any human being, he's also probably projecting some of his issues onto her because he's clueless about how to fix them.

While pillow talk often involves an analysis of what went wrong in previous relationships so you can talk about how you want to do things differently now, don't let yourself get sucked into the kind of gossip that only makes things worse in the long run.

You don't need to knock down one person to raise up another (and you wouldn't want him doing this to you later if things ended up not working out, right?). Avoid it. Gossip is a habit and it creates a crappy energy that is cumulative and has momentum. The last thing you need is a growing pile of dog shit in the corner of your bedroom!

Meet her.

Yes, I'm advocating walking into the enemy's camp and introducing yourself, but hey, she was once just a person too -- someone that your partner loved enough to marry. Maybe she's not so bad after all. Be adult enough to form your own conclusions about who she is, instead of simply taking someone else's word for it. And that means talking to her on the phone, or if you live in the same town, meeting her face-to-face. Everyone has a phone. Pick it up and call her!

This suggestion may sound insane, but hey, we live in crazy times. We are SURROUNDED by divorced families and stepfamilies and that isn't going to change. If that's the case, then it's time to start approaching these situations from a brand-new, radical perspective. Let's head off problems pre-emptively, instead of dealing with the same old, same old. Be a revolutionary and muster some bravery!

Set some healthy parameters.
Introduce yourself. Tell her you know this is an awkward situation -- for both of you. Tell her you're not interested in turning the kids against her or keeping any conflict going between she and her ex (and then don't!). Tell her you're committed to staying out of the middle and letting them work through whatever they might need to, without someone gossiping about her and feeding into the score-keeping.

Tell her you'd like to work together to make this the easiest it can be for the kids. Tell her you'd like to be helpful and flexible and hope she will be in return. Who knows? Maybe you can even create a subtle, healthy competition to see who can act with the most consideration, clear communication and good manners. When people are treated with kindness, warmth and respect, they often respond in kind. Be stubborn about acting this way.

Rise above the fray.

If you take the high road, you have the potential to create a real ally in the ex-wife. What's going to raise her ire (and sense of resistance and revenge) is knowing you two are noting every fault and shortcoming of hers. If you make it clear that you are going to refrain from doing that, she'll know she can trust you to act with maturity and foresight.

Part of you may feel like you're going to be letting your BF/husband down if you don't bitch and vent with him about her, but trust me, you'll feel so much better about yourself. You'll create the space and integrity to maintain peace and cooperation between households over the long run -- and that's a huge contribution you can make to your immediate family and to the extended family as a whole.

  • What did I leave out?
  • What's your experience been?
  • Who's had some successes along these lines and what worked for you?

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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Dudes and daddying

Our meeting for moms and stepmoms at BookPeople was small, but impassioned, and one of the things we kept circling back to in conversation was... the dads in the picture. We talk a lot about the friction between the moms and stepmoms on this site, and sometimes allude to conflict with the kids... but what about the menfolk? And are they wearing britches?! (A morning is not complete without menfolk and britches in the same paragraph.) A common specter looming in conversations of late:

  •  dads who don't back up the stepmom with the stepkids
  • dads who back up the stepmom, but are then seen as betraying the stepkids
  • dads who are reluctant to enforce rules and consequences because of guilt over the divorce and lack of time with the kids (sometimes even if they're the custodial parent!)
  • dads who drive the moms crazy because their words and actions are all over the place, as they struggle with feeling caught in the middle between the two women

I've written here on this site before about how my ex, David, and I had to make some big changes as parents and get on the same page to save his marriage with Carol. So it's a subject that intrigues me: How many of you would say you're happy with the way your ex or your husband parents?

  • If you're the stepmom, do you feel the two of you create a united front? Do you leave the discipline to him? If so, does that make you feel powerless, or less stressed out?
  • If you're the mom, what's parenting like now with your ex? Can you come together to meet common goals with the kids in mind? Or is the situation between you reminiscent of your struggles while married? Have things gotten even worse after the divorce?

One interesting take on the father's perspective: a dad who came into his own as a father after he and his wife split. PBS producer and NYT essayist Joel Schwartzberg has just written a book chronicling his journey and explores "how divorce reinvents relationships with kids and improves one's evolving sense of Dadhood" called The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad. I've been asked to do a review of the book and have also lined up Joel for an interview.

What would you like to ask him? What would you like for him to know as far as what YOUR experience has been like as a mom or stepmom? He's remarried, so he's living this stuff too!

Send me your interview questions at marine2marine (at sign) gmail (dot com) and we'll pick his brain.... Listen to your... radio-o-o Carol and I were up late last night, sitting on the phone together in darkened rooms, miles apart at twelve-thirty at night.

No, we're not secretly starting to see each other (ha, now that would be super-weird) -- we were simply being interviewed by CJAD/CFRB, Toronto's largest talk radio station. It's kind of hard to be "up" and coherent when part of your brain doesn't understand why you're not currently wrapped around your pillow like a lamprey, but I think we pulled it off. One thing that's nice about radio interviews is the hosts usually sound (and feel) like they've had about twelve cups of coffee, so it's easy to get sucked into their energetic orbit.

I'll put a link up later so you can hear us babbling like idiots and begging to be allowed to go to bed.

In other radio news, we're very proud to be interviewing with The Social Work Podcast tomorrow -- it's the largest podcast for social workers in the country! From the site:

Although the intended audience is social workers, the information will be useful to anyone in a helping profession (including psychology, nursing, psychiatry, counseling, and education).

Then next week, we'll be going into the studio for an interview with Radical Mothers' Voice on KO-OP here in Austin.

Fun stuff!

The Fragile Bridge of Trust

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

Do you make these mistakes with your ex-husband?

problems between ex-wife and ex-husband Relationships between ex-husbands and ex-wives are minefields fraught with potential explosions.

Toss a few kids, a stepmother or second husband, and plenty of strong opinions about the way "things should be" into the mix, and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be doing lots of tiptoeing through the tulips.

Or cowpies….

Even in the most amicable of situations, it can still be weird.

I get along extraordinarily well with my ex, but nevertheless, have my moments.

For instance, our two families will be out to dinner, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, I’ll find myself feeling self-conscious. Do people think David has a harem? Do we just seem like relatives, hanging out? The kids all look like us, or some combination thereof. As I interact with their son (I’m an honorary aunt!), the lines begin to blur….

Who, or rather, what, are we?! I’ve even had some acquaintances ask, artfully or directly, if I still hold a torch for my ex, because I make such an effort to keep him an active part of my life.

What follows are some of the most common, damaging mistakes ex-wives make with their former partners. If you’re a stepmom, take a look and see where your mate seems to be on the scale with his ex-wife. Or hell, ask her yourself for the conversational gambit of your life!

Holding a grudge

We all have our treasured stories, our old war wounds; the ones we repeat over and over inside our heads, bitterly listing the ways we’ve been done wrong. Every time you regurgitate your tale of woe about your ex-husband, you get a little hit of self-righteousness; a flash of indignation; and the pot starts to simmer allover again.

Keeping your resentments alive can feel really good, though people are loathe to admit it. What’s even better is when a new juicy event takes place and now you KNOW the other person has been proven to be a real asshole! You get to feel superior, to pull up the warm blanket of victimhood around your neck, and hunker down.

But think about it, how is doing this REALLY helping you? How does harboring long-standing grievances and resentments ever get you anywhere? You’re the one doing the feeling, you’re the one suffering.

It’s not like I’m suggesting you instantly forgive your ex-, but ask yourself how all this spite is affecting your insides. Wouldn’t you like to do it differently?

Being at the mercy of core issues

Sure, we all love reading about sex, but the second most important volatile issue has got to be money.

When a family dissolves and becomes two separate units, one side is always going to have less. Unfortunately, given the way our culture works, that side is usually the ex-wife’s. Money gets us where it counts: in that core place of fear connected to matters of survival and our power in the world.

If you’re keeping the fires of conflict stoked over issues of money, it actually might not be worth it. Can you attach a dollar figure to your angst? Let’s say every summer you argue with your ex-husband over whether he’ll chip in some extra money for summer activities for your child, and he balks. You end up mad at him for months afterwards, getting a few headaches here and there, snapping at the kids, dreading having to interact with him over the phone. Maybe it ruins a few evenings or weekends.

Put that cumulative stress into a bucket and ask yourself: is all of this worth an argument over (insert dollar amount here_____) bucks?

Trying to win the Better Parent award

This is a close cousin to holding a grudge, but it’s more like a grudge in action, fueled by a sense of competitiveness for a contest that no one’s ever going to win.

You do whatever you can to set him up to fail.

Maybe you withhold information from him, like for sporting events, or having to do with your children’s friends. Maybe you don’t tell him about birthday parties or school events until the last minute so he can’t come (and looks like he doesn’t care, whereas, obviously, you so-o-o do).

Whatever you’re doing, you ARE doing something. You’re trying to show him up, you’re trying to seem you’re doing everything (or okay, mostly) right, and he’s flubbing it up once again. No surprise there, huh? Worst of all, you may find yourself making little digs out loud with your own children. "Well, you were ready to go, it’s your father that’s late. As usual…."

Feel like a hamster on a hamster wheel?

Refusing to mourn

There’s one big reason we’re willing to spend so much of our emotional lives stewing in animosity and it isn’t pretty. Not only does it have to do with ugly-face crying (you know the kind, your face is twisted into something only an Academy-award winning actress would allow), it’s also almost unbearable to experience. Hence, the avoidance.

I’m talking sorrow here; sadness – big, sweeping, aching voids.

I remember one day in the garage, cleaning out paper grocery bags stuffed to the brim with first squiggles; outlines of traced hands from kindergarten; brightly-colored, endearing art projects and first writings.

For some reason, I’d been avoiding this task for years and wasn’t even sure why. As I sat on the floor, sifting through one drawing of "our family" after another, I finally lost it and starting sobbing, – the wracking, snorting kind that makes you feel like you can’t breathe.

Our little family – tall dad, less tall mom, one bigger child, a toddler – we were no more. At least, not as we were in the pictures.

I’d cried about our divorce before, but this was different. No longer was my crying mixed with anger and thoughts of making my ex- wrong. It was just overwhelming grief and sadness; the deep, shredding disappointment of a course of action that was immutable and damaging to all of us.

Sure, we’re human and we’ve all adapted. But to face the truth and sharpness of my tears so fully, wow. It was grueling.

I guess it says something about me that I perhaps stupidly and impulsively called my ex-husband to talk. And it says something about him that he set aside his own habitual grievances to lend a supportive ear and ended up crying himself on the phone.

So what’s left in you to mourn? Are you afraid the pain will have no end? If you fish around inside, do you sense there’s a dam that needs unblocking?

I’ve got four more big mistakes to cover, but this article is getting pretty long as it is, so come back for Part Two, where we’ll cover:

  • Denying the what-if fantasies
  • Keeping the focus on you and your shit
  • Not seeing him for who he is NOW
  • Letting lost opportunities pass you by

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine  All Rights Reserved