Marriage: A Petri Dish for Personal Growth

2 02 2011

When you meet the love of your life, it’s freakin’ great, isn’t it? My husband and I had so much fun in those early days before the pressures on us built. Little did we know then that our relationship would lead us to the darkest places we’d ever been. And how great we’ve been able to descend to the depths of ourselves to excavate all those unhealed places!! Marriage really is a Petri dish for personal growth. As a fellow stepmom said recently, you can grow disgusting moldy junk in there or a cure. You decide.

I also write novels (to be published soon, I hope!) and while taking an amazing seminar with Robert McKee, he said, “True character is revealed under pressure.” Isn’t that true of life, too? My character has certainly been revealed to me in the past few years as life pressed. And I’m so glad.

As another fellow stepmother friend once said, “Will you become bitter or strive to be better?”

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Your Questions Answered: Troubled 18-Year-Old Stepson Moves In

3 06 2010

Hi Jacque,

I know that you must have advice for stepmoms like myself. I feel like I am going to fall apart. My children are 26 and 21; my husband’s are 27 and 21. We live his home state because, as he put it, “his kids needed more help than mine did”.

I am happy to say that my kids do seem to be doing fairly well. I was divorced in 1997 and remarried to DH ( dear husband) in 2002. I have a really civil divorce and my marriage is more solid than my first was. Yes, it has its quirks, but seems to be very solid in most ways. When I moved here, my husband was non custodial of the younger son. The ex is a bi polar (yes, is being treated medically for it) mom that finally moved to another state….best for all involved. The younger son got involved in marijuana before I was in the picture and then got into real trouble; didn’t graduate high school, but did get GED and got arrested, ran to another state, came back and went into rehab and was in a year long court run drug program. He graduated and then moved to another state with his girlfriend….he was 18 at the time.

Things were going very well for a year and a half. My husband thought it would be best if the young man moved back up here away from the girlfriend and her family (the younger son lived with them…they are kind of a hippie commune type of family) until the father of that family had enough and moved into a house where none of his kids and their live in BF/GF could live. The son came back to live with us this past January, saying that he was going to go to college.

He was a problem immediately. First evening back he asked over some old friends and they broke something and were up until the wee hours. My husband finally went downstairs and told them all to leave. I was fuming. There were no ground rules set before this young man moved in. I told my husband that it should be done and it would at least start us off on the right foot, but no….this is my DH approach…reactive, not proactive.

The young man smokes like a stack and is also back to using marijuana and probably more. He got arrested about two weeks being back because he didn’t have a driver’s licence or car license and had outstanding fines from before….we are talking a couple thousand dollars. My DH did NOT pay the fines. He got a public defender and the young man got fines reduced, but had no way to get to work to work the fines off. So, as it was still winter, my husband or the young man’s grandmother took him and picked him up. Once in awhile I was asked and it was fine.

I am in the uncomfortable position of, 4 days a week, being the one that comes home well before my husband. I struggle, but try to be pleasant and have left most of the discipline, or lack of, be by my DH. The young man exhibits bi polar and depression symptoms, but has no insurance to pay for a counselor. He pays for nothing here…which I don’t agree with, but husband is doing it until his court dates (yes there is another as the son took his car out and was immediately arrested again). are over. My DH is not saying what will happen after the court dates and all fines are paid and the car license and license plates are paid for (not by us). The son has no plans now of going to college and does have two jobs.

I personally think that it is time the son moves out on his own since he never has been. I would be happy to give him the money for a deposit on an apartment, but that is all. In my opinion, he needs to learn how to sink or swim. My husband says he feels that the young man would completely fall apart and go down the toilet.

Jacque, I feel that I am getting angrier and angrier with my husband for his lack of setting ground rules and he and his son keep having the same fights over and over….smoking in the house when we aren’t here, staying up all hours, letting people in after we have gone to sleep and then they stay over night….ugh……Thanks for letting me vent.

Dear Stepmom,

This is a toughie! No wonder you needed to vent. I want to remind you that I am a coach and not a therapist. A therapist might have some very different ideas for you and I highly recommend seeking out help for your case. Here’s some food for thought I can offer you:

Do whatever it takes to get on the same page with your spouse. When you have a troubled kid like this one, stepparents typically need to take the back seat and let the biological parent do the heavy lifting of parenting. Usually, a stepparent’s main job is to support their spouse while he deals with the child. In this case, I would still say that your job is to not be out there parenting this kid, but he is living with you, so it’s absolutely fair that you be able to create guidelines for the household WITH your husband. This will not work if he is not on board. Tough kids like this kill remarriages. So if the two of you can align yourself as a team you can better help this young man while strengthening your marriage. Okay, so easy enough to say, but how the heck do you do that, right? First of all, go out and read Divorce Busting by Michele Weiner-Davis, right now. I interviewed her for my book and the woman is brilliant. Second, find a third-party who is a trained stepfamily expert who can help your husband see the benefits of working with you as a team to help his son. I would suggest Ron Deal for a situation like yours. Setting boundaries for this kid is crucial or he will never learn to grow up and this is doing him a MAJOR disservice. The only way we learn is to feel/live through the consequences for our actions. Setting boundaries for his behavior in your house with very clear consequences for not following them is a must in my book. Especially at his age. If he were younger, I would give you different advice.

Turn on your compassion. I have said this again and again but I believe so strongly in the power of curiosity and compassion that I’m going to add it here, too. Shift the prism that you are looking at your stepson through to curiosity. What is going on in his mind? What is motivating his behavior? Why is he so angry or why does he hate himself so much that he is ruining his life in this way? What is the pain that he carries around in his heart that makes him act out so dangerously? What kind of help would enable him to turn his life around? You’ll notice that these questions lead you away from “Look at what this kid is doing TO me, my marriage, and my household” and turns your thoughts to an area that is less emotionally loaded. He’s another human being on this planet. How can you turn on that objective, kind, compassionate part of you? There is a big upside for doing this: You reduce your own anger and that means you lower the amount of stress hormones in your body. You’ll feel better, be able to brainstorm solutions more creatively, and–according to some research–live longer!

Help him get the help he needs. If your stepson is struggling with a mental problem like bi-polar disorder, he needs help. Dad could do some research and put together a list of resources for his son. But he can’t make him get help. This boy is old enough to decide whether he’s going to get help or not.

Set up a structure of support for yourself. For the short term, do whatever you can to support your own gentle heart. Spend time with your own children. Stay out of the house when your stepson is there until your husband gets home. Start a book group. You and your husband  will need to find a way to solve this together and it’s not going to be easy. Make sure that you’re taking good care of yourself so you can come at this problem feeling good about your own inner world.





What to Do When All Hope Is Lost

10 02 2010

I’ve had many letters recently from stepmothers who have hit rock bottom. So I wanted to write a post about what to do when you feel that all hope is lost and you can see nothing ahead but darkness. Most of us feel paralyzed when we’re in that hopeless place. We don’t know where to turn or what to do to start feeling better or to heal our families or our own bruised hearts. I am not going to pretend that I can solve this for you but I am going to suggest some actions you can take to help turn your gaze back to hope.

Protect your heart. Realize that you are worthy of love, you are loveable, and you deserve to be treated with respect. Handle your heart with care. Work to build your self-esteem like you build your muscles in the gym. What is one thing you can do today to protect your gorgeous heart?

Plan something to look forward to. The feeling of anticipation can help us quickly move from despair to hope. First plan something small that you can do in the next week or two that gives you that zing of excitement. Spend an afternoon at the coffee shop with a good book, head to a spa for a decadent treatment, or buy tickets to a show. Then sit down with your spouse to plan some bigger outings. For instance, you might plan a trip somewhere just the two of you next winter. Start ripping pictures of beach views or European cities or rugged mountains out of magazines. Make a file and then go out and purchase one small thing for the trip.

Stop talking. If you and your spouse have been around and around about something (money, sex life, the kids, the BM) then take a holiday for a week (or two if you’re really brave) from talking about anything challenging. Any time either of you are tempted to bring up a hot topic, have a code word or phrase you can say:  “This is the house of no fighting!” You have plenty of time to talk about your conflict later. Right now, be quiet.

Ride it out with gentleness. Sometimes you have to ride through challenging times. The first three years of stepfamily development, for instance, are some tough years when you have to create a strong marriage, bond with your stepkids, set boundaries with ex, get used to living with new people, etc. etc. etc. The list goes on. Remember that you will come out the other side of these challenging times. While you’re in this difficult place, be extra gentle with yourself, please.

Fill your well. For those of you who have read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you’ll recognize this one. She maintains that an artist has to fill her creative well or she will be depleted and won’t be able to create new things. This is true of all of us. So take a break from your life and fill your well with things you love to do that make you feel light-hearted and glad to be alive. Do this at least once a week if not once a day. Filling the well can be anything from a trip to an outing to ten deep cleansing meditative breaths. It can also be as simple as stopping to look at the ocean or the snow-covered trees.





Your Questions Answered

12 11 2009

Hi Jacquelyn,

My name is Jeff. I am happily re-married to the most wonderful woman in the whole world. We have 5 (15, 13, 11, 7, and 5 years of age) children from my previous marriage, she had no children. Every other weekend the children come stay with us and once a week we go see them and it takes about 50 minutes to get to the children (one-way). My wife says she loves me and has no problems with me and our relationship. However, she is wanting to leave due to the ex-wife being in our lives. I have put forth great effort to minimize any contact with the ex and have been quite successful just dealing with the children. The children adore their stepmom and love her more than myself (which has been great) due to lack of the proper attention at home. She (stepmom) has been a source of security and stability for me and these 5 children. She is tired of the monotony and seeing 1/2 my pay check go to a woman who does nothing but sit in her chair, watch tv, talk on a cell phone, and then leave the kids a few times a week and spend money on herself. My wife is a hard worker and sharp as a tack. She is angry for letting herself get into this situation, angry because of the wasted money, and has quite frankly had it.

I am not a stepmom. I have read a couple of books and can see where she is coming from. Issues of how society treats her, how is she supposed to act, not being herself etc. I try to stand in her shoes, I have treated her like the queen she is. I help with the house, laundry, cooking etc… She gets flowers once a month, cards, notes, daily hugs n kisses, thank yous and appreciation. I love her more than anything in this world ( I am not saying I am perfect, though. I am male ;)). How can I help relieve her anger and frustration? I try to get her to focus on us / me rather than the ex and future issues. She seems to go through a cycle where we are doing great and then she is walking out the door. This cycle used to be monthly and has now been not as often, around every couple of months since the beginning of the year.

We have been to counseling that was superb.

She is tired and I am hurt because she is hurting.

Any suggestions?

Signed

Losing My Soulmate 😦

Dear Losing My Soulmate:

If only all stepmothers had a man as aware and engaged as you! (Sorry dads, but stepfamily life really asks dads to step up to the plate like never before.) It’s tough to know exactly how to advise you because I don’t know enough of your particular situation but here are a few general rules of thumb that you can share with your wife that will hopefully help alleviate some of the pressure you both feel.

Lighten up. I don’t mean to be flippant here. I really mean that. Have some fun! Since you don’t have the children all the time, go out and have some inexpensive fun. Laugh together. Create a list of activities that would interest both of you so you can build some really strong, wonderful memories together. Do this with all the kids, too. Create some fun rituals so that your stepfamily can begin to create an identity.

Hire a financial advisor or take a money class. We all know that with the economy the way it is, money is tighter than ever. Join a stepfamily and Dad’s money now goes to support two families. Though this is a tough concept for a stepmom, she really just has to accept that you are sending money to the other household. You are financially obligated to support your children. (She knows this I’m sure.) If mom is really not using the money on the kids then you always have the option of going back to court. (Though I would HIGHLY recommend mediation first because the courts rarely handle these cases intelligently, well, or fairly. Little rant there.) Check out these books for a place to start:  

For Richer Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples, by Ruth Hayden. A money class in a book that helps couples learn to view their financial lives as a partnership. Hayden doesn’t address stepfamilies specifically but her approach to dealing with money as a couple is fantastic.

Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage: Handling Delicate Financial Issues Intelligently and Lovingly, by Patricia Shiff Estes. A guide to financial systems, options, and solutions that work in remarried households as well as how to deal with the complicated emotions connected with the subject of money.

Create boundaries with the ex. It sounds like you’ve already set up the ways you two will handle your ex wife and that’s great. Sit down with your wife and brainstorm together ways you think you should handle the ex as a couple. The more you do the job of co-parenting, the better off your wife will be in the long run. If she is feeling jealous of the ex or angry at her for intruding on her family life, then tell her to write me a letter so I can help her by knowing more of the facts. It sounds like this is your wife’s biggest issue. Depending on what kind of ex you have, this can be a major stressor. Is she open to co-parenting? Or is she angry and bitter and in your faces? That makes a big difference in how things will go in your house.

Thank your lucky stars. The fact that your kids love her should make your wife jump for joy! There are so many families who are struggling because the kids are resentful of and angry at stepmom.

Chin up. You didn’t mention how long you’ve been remarried, but I want to toss this out there: The two of you are not going to figure out everything all at once. This is why that lighten up section is so important. Balance the icky parts of stepfamily life with fun times and lots of laughter and intimacy and you’ll be just fine. (If you’ve read my book then you know about John Gottman’s research: 5 positive interactions to every one negative interaction equals marital longevity and satisfaction!)

 





The Doctor Is In: Emily Bouchard

11 03 2009
 emilyEmily Bouchard, founder of www.blended-families.com, is an expert in stepfamily issues with more than 20 years of experience in working with children and families dealing with adversity. She has a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s degree in child development. Emily is also a stepdaughter and a loving stepmother to two young women who were teenagers when she entered their lives. At www.blended-families.comyou will find archived articles such as this one, a free newsletter written by professional family coaches, and many other resources for stepmoms who want to thrive in their families.

A New Perspective on Dealing with Your Husband’s “Ex” 

By Emily Bouchard

One of the most persistent and common complaints I hear from stepmoms is their frustration with their husbands’ former spouses whose behavior is intolerable.

In my experience it is HOPELESS to wish, want, need, hope, pray – that THEY will change. I’ve heard clients report how they have tried all sorts of communication strategies that are supposed to be so effective with zero results. I’ve heard so many complaints about how the former spouse will agree to something and then turn around and do the opposite – and my clients are always so surprised EVERY time this happens.

I feel a need to repeat here Gertrude Stein’s definition of insanity that can be very helpful: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Here’s what I tell couples who are struggling with these issues – stop focusing on what is wrong about the “ex” and start focusing on what you do have control over – your responses to what the ex-spouse does in relationship to you and your family.

Oftentimes, when couples begin to shift their focus, they discover that it has been serving them to look outside themselves at what is so wrong about the other person – the one they cannot change. It allows them to feel victimized, helpless, hopeless, and righteously indignant. They get to feel superior, knowing better than the former spouse how to parent and deal with new families and new lives.

The remarkable paradox that occurs is that when couples shift to:

  1. compassion for the former spouse, and
  2. taking full responsibility for their participation and choices in relationship to the former spouse,

change does occur – it has to. When one aspect of the family “system” changes, all members have to shift as well.

When the new, second wife is able to release and let go of her resentments toward the former wife, she is able to be much more at peace with whatever the ex-wife is doing. By becoming a “lover of reality,” you get to actually enjoy the drama of life, instead of feeling only wronged, victimized, and hurt by life.

Freedom and peace come from meeting life fully with what it brings you instead of wishing, hoping, or needing life to be different than what it is.

Action Step: The next time a former spouse pushes your buttons and you feel frustrated, angry, or hurt –

  1. Acknowledge your feelings and seize the opportunity.
  2. Ask yourself what you “get” out of believing that you are being treated a certain way.
  3. Honestly appraise how you approach life when you hold onto your beliefs about the former spouse and why you think they are behaving that way.
  4. Ask yourself how you might be different if you did not believe those things about the ex-spouse.

This same process works for ANYTHING outside of your control in your life. Any time you feel out of balance, frustrated, angry, or irritated about a situation – be it about one of your stepchildren, the weather, your computer not working right, your partner, etc. – you can apply this simple strategy to determine, consciously, how you’d like to respond to what life brings you.





Dating a divorced man with kids?

15 12 2008

A vast majority of newly married couples report they did not have conversations about important topics such as money, sex or the number of children each person wants before the marriage license is signed. Part of the conflict that arises in the first few years of marriage comes from problems in these areas that were never discussed during the courtship stage of the relationship. If you are dating a man with children it is absolutely critical that the two of you put everything on the table long before you decide to move in together or tie the knot. The fact is, remarriages have a higher rate of failure than first marriages because the stressors that come with stepfamily dynamics can erode the marriage. The more armed you are with information, the better!

You can find many conversation starters in my book at the end of each chapter in the Discussion Topics for Two sections. I also came across a free teleseminar that you might find of interest:

Yvonne Kelly, founder of The Step and Blended Family Institute and David Steele, founder of The Relationship Coaching Institute are presenting a free teleseminar on Thursday, January 22, from 9-11 p.m. EST. Register at www.stepdating.ca to reserve your spot and they’ll send you a copy of the Stepdating Report.





S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Interview your stepchildren.

2 11 2008

I’ve created a free guide 110 Questions to Ask Your Stepkids eBook filled with conversation starters to help you get to know your stepchildren (and your partner!) better no matter how long you’ve known them.

As a stepmother of three and as a stepdaughter myself, I have a lifetime of experience dealing with the day-to-day realities of stepfamily life. As the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007) and this blog www.becomingastepmom.com, I have interviewed blended-family researchers, therapists, and stepmoms across the country and learned how people just like you are making their blended families succeed every day.

As a journalist, I have studied the art of the interview, which is about how to connect with other people and draw them out. I decided to interview my stepchildren to learn about their likes and dislikes, their feelings, their beliefs. In other words, I asked them questions. In return, I shared with them stories about my life. It worked! It continues to work. As the kids grow up, they have new experiences we can talk about. New things happen in my life that I can share with them.

Click on the link above for my free ebook of 110 conversation starters. Then interview your stepchildren. Start asking them questions and you’ll make connections that will last a lifetime. After you give it a try, let me know what worked and what didn’t. Good luck!

Visit my other site www.smackyourinnercritic.com for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.