Jacque Fletcher, author of the important and supremely helpful book Becoming a Stepmom and www.becomingastepmom.com, invited me to discuss “Stepmartyr Syndrome” with her several weeks ago for her terrific weekly podcast series. Here’s the show. Have a listen and then tell me about it: Have you ever done so much for your husband’s kids or your husband and his kids that you started to resent it? What were you doing? How did you change it. Are YOU a stepmartyr?
Archive for the ‘finding a therapist’ Category
Today I’m running a special guest post by Mary Kelly-Williams, MA, a therapist and stepmother in Boulder, CO about boundaries. You need them if you’re a woman with stepkids, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to maintain them, how to assert them, for fear of being disliked or perceived as wicked. Here’s Mary on how and why it’s important to have your boundaries in the stepfamily, and protect them. Otherwise, you’ll likely find yourself exhausted, depleted, and resentful. Have a read…and leave a comment!
BY MARY KELLY-WILLIAMS, M.A.
It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel exhausted and depleted. It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel misunderstood, used, taken for granted, and the scapegoat when things don’t go well in the stepfamily system. It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel more like posers and actresses than actual human beings.
And all this exacts a price that no stepmother should or needs to pay.
Because the role of “stepmother” is so vague and ambiguous for most, and because our need for love and approval runs so deep, many stepmothers try to overcompensate, fix their spouse’s or even ex-spouse’s messes, be perfect and loving every second, take on the role of family and marriage counselor, and negate their own needs in the process. But there is a solution and it comes in the form of two simple words:
Yes, boundaries connect. I learned this 2-word mantra many years ago in a training program and I’ve used it ever since, for my clients and myself.
It’s important to have boundaries in our lives, especially when one is a stepmother. But this is tricky business, given the stepmother is the one with the invisible target on her chest that screams, “Blame me for everything!”
Stepmothers need to know when it’s okay to put up the bright red stop. They need to know when they’ve done enough conceding, enough “gutting” their way through their weeks and days. They need to recognize the warning their bodies give them when it feels like someone is stepping on their chest and it’s hard to breathe.
You know that feeling…that feeling you get when you agree to something that you really don’t want to agree to? That moment when you say “Yes”, and it’s as if you can feel all your essence, all that is you, slip down and go down the nearest sewer drain.
That feeling when you walk away and you want to kick yourself. That moment when you’ve said, “Yes” when you meant “No” and you blame the other person for “taking advantage of you.”
Why do we do this?
To keep the peace?
To avoid the conflict?
To get the ex-wife to like you?
To look like the good guy?
To make sure the stepkids love you?
To be a saint?
To be the perfect stepmother and wife?
To make life easier?
To ensure the smooth yet elusive “blended family”?
I thought so.
And you know how that feeling just sits in your psyche and you feel anything from slow burning resentment to out and out rage?
Usually when we get to this point, we also tend to get into a bit of a victim mode. We are being taken advantage of, we aren’t being appreciated, we aren’t being valued, we aren’t being seen.
Some of the most valuable lessons about how to maintain healthy boundaries in our stepfamily situations may come from other areas of our lives where we feel more self-confident. I finally learned the invaluable lesson of “Boundaries Connect” when one of my daughters was 15 years old. We were on the way to get her driver’s permit. Now, this daughter had been testy and feisty and difficult to get along with (Duh, 15).
I asked the unforgivable question, “So, how was your day?” ‘WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO NOSEY MOM? WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO ASK ME THESE STUPID QUESTIONS???!!!”
Quick background. I was recently divorced from her father and full of divorce guilt and how my divorce was going to screw up my children for life, and how I was accepting perpetual rude behavior from this one in particular because I had put her through this divorce and would be forever more making up for it for all eternity.
Well, I had just learned about the power of the mantra “BOUNDARIES CONNECT” and the two words came screaming at me. I had had enough and I made an illegal U-turn in the road and headed the car back towards home.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? THIS IS THE WRONG DIRECTION!!!”
Me, in extremely calm mother voice: “You are not getting one more thing from me from this point on until you learn to speak to me with respect in a civil and polite tone. I will never apologize to you again about the divorce. It happened. It’s done.”
The screaming and ranting continued with the expected, “HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME? I NEED MY DRIVER’S PERMIT AND I NEED IT NOW, BLAH BLAH BLAH.” No no. Wasn’t going to do it. Wasn’t going to turn around. The verbal barrage continued. We got home and she ran into her room slamming the door, threatening to run away, go to her fathers’, call Social Services.
I handed her the phone.
From that point on, our relationship changed drastically. It moved into a relationship of love—my daughter stopped her ranting, her demands. And if she slipped, I’d look at her and say, “You’re not getting one thing from me until you speak to me in a way that is respectful.”
It didn’t take long.
Stepmothers recoil when I tell them this boundary connects concept. It elicits fear. “What if I give a boundary and I get rejected?” “What if my husband pushes back?” “What if my stepchildren hate me for sure?”
I try to reassure. I can’t tell you the times that the “Boundaries Connect” in action gives people more love, more respect. It’s not about being stubborn or rigid. It’s about being true to yourself and holding fast to the anchor of your being.
Ultimately, it’s better to disappoint another to be true to yourself. And it’s like that airline analogy. You know the one…you need to put on your oxygen mask first before you can help others.
We can’t model self-love to our children, our stepchildren, our spouses, or our friends if we aren’t self-loving.
So experiment today. Pick one small thing you’re tempted to relinquish. And don’t. See what happens…take a chance.
-”My husband is married to his kids, not to me. He’s so close to them. Whenever they show up I feel and am shunted to the side. If I complain, I’m a petty wicked stepmother. So I don’t say anything. And then I’m furious at him, and at them.”
-”When his kids are around he won’t even hold my hand. That hurts. And it makes me dread their visits.”
“He’s not finished with his ex. He does chores for her. He bickers with her like they’re still married. He’s at her beck and call and I’m fed up with it.”
-”This is a shadow of the marriage I hoped I would have–the fighting, the disappointment, the stress of dealing with his kids and his ex.”
You are right in your sense that when it comes to stepfamily life, without a good partnership you are nowhere. And with an airtight, satisfying alliance where you feel valued, loved, and part of a team of two, you can put up with and even thrive in the context of just about anything an uncooperative ex or resentful step/kids dish out.
Your partnership is what counts and is the key to success. Everything else–games of chicken about visitation with his ex, teen stepkinder with slovenly rooms and bad hygiene, stepkids who are disrespectful, sullen, or unwelcoming to a stepparent–are so much noise. What I mean is, fix the underlying issue by recalibrating your marriage so that it is a true partnership, and these other issues with repair themselves, or recede so much into the background that they matter less.
For example, if your teen stepson in residence is using drugs, that’s a huge problem and a huge stress on a marriage or partnership–particularly if you find yourself in that typical dynamic in a remarriage with children wherein you point out the problem with the kid’s behavior, and your husband dismisses your concern and minimizes the importance of what’s going on. At which point, you escalate your criticisms so he’ll take you seriously, and he grows ever more defensive and withdrawn and suggests, implicitly by ignoring you and explicitly by saying it, that you’re way too hard on his kids and there’s something wrong with your reaction.
Feels like a deal breaker, doesn’t it? Here’s another scenario: you’re both on the same page about what to do. You’re not thrilled to have your life once again waylaid by a teen stepkid who’s constantly creating drama and difficulty in your marriage and your life. You calmly tell your husband as much while also telling him that you feel bad for the stress it’s creating for him to have a kid breaking the rules. Your husband nods and says, “I know. It’s so frustrating for me and I’m his parent. I can only image how much you must resent this, and I don’t blame you one bit. Thanks for putting up with all this teen crap. I really feel lucky that you married me and you’re sticking it out with me.”
Yes, you can. Over the next weeks I’ll have stepfamily and martial and relationship experts doing guest posts to tell you how to realign the power imbalances in your home so your partnership feels and IS equitable, satisfying, and yes, happy.
A great place to start is psychoeducation–learning what’s normal for a couple in a repartnership with kids of any age, what dynamics are typical. One of the most common is putting the partnership last on the list of priorities as we put out fires with stepkinder and uncooperative exes.
Two great guest posts, one by Mary Kelly Williams, MA of www.marriedwithbaggage.com, and one by Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling, illuminate why your couple bond is so important, and steps to take to keep it thriving.
And Susan’s piece called “What Were You Thinking?!”
Have a read (have two!)….and leave a comment.
As a follow-up to Kela Price’s recent guest post about how to find a therapist to help you and your remarriage/partnership with stepkids, a couple of other things that might interest you as we wend our way toward Top Stepmother Concern #3 in the next few days.
First, a psychologytoday.com post by Mary Kelly Williams, on a marital therapist’s thoughts about “The Marriage Ref”:
And now, a few of my favorite shrinks…find their links under “resources” on the right hand margin of my blog:
-The National Stepfamily Resource Center lists therapists with stepfamily training and experience
-Jacque Fletcher, author of Becoming a Stepmom, offers coaching for stepmothers and couples in remarriage or repartnership with children
-Mary Kelly-Williams is a family and individual therapist who also happens to be an ex-wife and stepmother. She runs a Stepmonster support group in Boulder, CO but also does phone coaching
-Kela Price, certified stepfamily counselor and co-founder of Today’s Modern Family (formerly blendedfamilysoapopera.com does phone coaching
-Susan Swanson of The Stepfamily Center in Los Angeles, is tremendous resource for those of you in LA and surrounding areas. She has a radio show as well
-Joan Sarin of Stepfamily Solutions has a track record of helping stepmothers survive and thrive
-Rachelle Katz is a psychologist in Manhattan who also does phone coaching
-Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling, counsels couples in Portland, OR
-The Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan has a number of highly qualified therapists, many of whom know about stepfamily life and dynamics from first-hand experience
If you have personal experience with a therapist you found to be knowledgeable about stepfamily issues and helpful to you, please let me know: email me at email@example.com
As we’re addressing the concerns of you, women with stepchildren, a reality is taking shape. Namely, many of you could benefit from counseling. Either couples work or individual work, but something. But as stepfamily researcher, social psychologist and stepmother Elizabeth Church, Ph.D. notes in her book Understanding Stepmothers, it’s possible that a therapist treating a couple in a repartnership with kids will do more harm than good. Church details that many of her patients came to her after being treated by therapists with no training, familiarity, or real experience helping remarried couples with kids. The results were unfortunate: therapists telling women to “treat stepkids just like they’re you’re own” and otherwise importing a first-family model to address stepfamily or stepcouple reality. Since stepfamilies are different, that doesn’t work. These couples understandably became frustrated, discouraged, even hopeless before finding real help.
I asked Kela Price, a certified stepfamily coach and co-founder of www.todaysmodernfamily.com, to weigh in. Here are her thoughts on how to find a coach, therapist, or psychologist who can help you:
Guest Post by Kela Price, Certified Stepfamily Coach
Choosing a therapist takes some serious consideration. Choosing a stepfamily therapist takes even more. Navigating through stepfamily life is a challenge and choosing the right counselor to help you do so is imperative. Many think that choosing a therapist with a slew of academic credentials and qualifications means that he or she is the best fit for their stepfamily, but this is rarely the case. There are far more important factors to consider when choosing someone who can truly understand and help this family system.
While it’s important to have some academic training or education, it’s more important to have the right academic training and/or education. Many stepcouples make the mistake of just choosing someone based on whether or not they have a degree and what particular school they graduated from; however, even if that individual graduated at the top of their class, with a psychology degree from Yale, Harvard or Columbia University, it doesn’t mean that they are qualified to guide your stepfamily through your challenges. What matters is that you interview the candidate to see what experience they’ve had specifically with the stepfamily.
I’ve known and counseled stepcouples who have been discouraged because they express that counseling didn’t work and are therefore hesitant to try it again. This is because many traditional therapists will try to apply a first family model to a stepfamily, and it does not work. Additionally, there are therapists who have only read about stepfamilies in a book and then attempt to counsel a stepfamily. Again, it doesn’t work. The most qualified therapist for the stepfamily is one who has the academic training or education specifically in the area of divorce, remarriage or repartnership with children and the stepfamily dynamic, and also one who has lived or is living the stepfamily life. Academic knowledge alone doesn’t work because in order to apply that academic information to your treatment of stepfamilies, you have to first know if it is correct, and in order to know if it is correct, you have to know how a stepfamily operates. In order to truly understand and know the inner workings of a stepfamily, you have to have lived it! The right combination of both professional and personal experience is important to consider when deciding on a stepfamily therapist.
I encourage anyone who’s about to enter into a stepfamily (the best time to get counseling is BEFORE you enter the stepfamily, not when you’re in crisis mode) or is in a stepfamily situation and feeling in need of help (it’s never too late to find the help you need!) to ask their potential therapist, counselor or coach the following questions to determine whether or not he or she is qualified to help in this area. Don’t be afraid to interview them prior to choosing, as choosing the right therapist can prove to be a great benefit for your family.
Interview Questions for Your Stepfamily Counselor Candidate
1. Specifically, what kind of stepfamily training have you had?
2. Do you treat stepfamilies different from first families? If the candidate says, “No, the stepfamily operates much like a first family and so the treatment is the same,” keep looking!
3. Have you ever been divorced and/or remarried and experienced stepfamily life yourself?
4. What are some of the unique challenges that stepfamily co-parents face, and (specifically) how do you handle those?
5. Why do you feel that so many remarriages fail as opposed to first marriages, and what specifically do you do to help strengthen the remarriage?
6. How many stepfamilies or stepcouples have you worked with?
Phone coaching is an increasingly common option for individuals and couples for a few reasons. For many stepcouples, finding qualified counselors in their area is extremely difficult as there aren’t that many of us out here. As such, when distance is a major factor, phone counseling may be their best option. Additionally, some find a coach or counselor’s office sterile, intimidating and uninviting, and are less likely to truly open up. For some men, the thought of counseling makes them want to run, let alone if they have to actually sit in front of someone and discuss their feelings. For them, phone counseling isn’t as intimidating and is the only way their spouse can get them to attend.
Overall, phone counseling/coaching can be just as effective as sitting face to face with your counselor or coach. It’s not for everyone and it’s most important for you to choose the option that works for you.
La Belle Mere, a self-described “sprogless Brit stepmum blogger” who likes her “fags and adult bevvies” (I’m paraphrasing here) has written a three part series about why women with stepchildren sometimes feel inadequate, unhinged, and frankly insane.
She quotes extensively from Stepmonster in all three of the posts, bringing the research in my book to life, rendering my stats and stories immediate and real–all of which makes me feel a little less mental myself.
Check it out at www.labellemereuk.blogspot.com/