The best defense is some ugly truth

(This post originally appeared in a slightly altered version last week, before our host blew up. I’ve revised it and included some important links as well.)

It’s a normal human impulse… when you can’t escape ongoing conflict with another person, you often feel compelled to prove who’s more at fault. Surely it can’t be you! The thing is, our ability to accurately interpret reality and take productive action is weakened by a little conundrum called self-deception, which is the problem of not knowing – and resisting the possibility – that one has a problem.*

This is greatly oversimplified, but there are two potential primary sources of mom/stepmom conflict:

  1. One side — or both sides — are behaving in a truly harmful, crazy manner.
  2. Each person is basically “normal,” but one — or both sides — are in emotionally-reactive mode.

BOTH scenarios can involve some pretty nasty behavior. You might be experiencing:

  • name-calling, yelling, anger, aggression
  • being set up to fail due to withheld, incomplete or deliberately erroneous information
  • a competition to be the better parent — in the eyes of the children — and others
  • legal battles over custody, visitation, and child support

Sometimes it fairly clear-cut when you’re dealing with Scenario A. For instance, when there’s evidence of:

  • substance or alcohol abuse
  • diagnosable mental illness
  • abusive or negligent parenting
  • parental alienation syndrome**

But other times, you’re not so sure where you are on the spectrum of responsibility. I mean, c’mon – isn’t mental illness and poor parenting subject to (massive) interpretation? How do you know whether it’s Scenario A and you need professional help? Or whether it’s simply Scenario B (and you still might need help)?

You might be wrestling with:

  • invasions of privacy
  • hearing that the other parent is maligning your name (from the child or others)
  • rudeness and sarcasm/ being snubbed / cold, unfriendly behavior
  • roadblocks to basic communication
  • huge differences of opinion regarding discipline, diet, TV or computer usage, appropriate friends for the children, etc.

Believe it or not, there’s one very basic way to tell whether you’re dealing primarily with Scenario A or Scenario B.

And once you know that, you also have some great information on what you should do about the conflict.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s simple.

You take off the self-deception blinders.

Be brutally honest and look at your own behavior. Are you:

  • happy to see the other person fail?
  • repeating your hard-done-by stories to anyone that will listen?
  • tallying up your resentments and criticisms?
  • rigidly trying to maintain control of the situation?
  • succumbing to your lowest impulses in a way that makes you feel embarrassed or out of control afterward?

Now… some of this behavior above might seem like a perfectly “reasonable” reaction to have if a nutcase bent on destruction was coming after you, right?


After all, we’re only human. We can only take some much wacky behavior before we lose our saintly intentions to be good all the time.

But here’s the beauty of being willing to look at the ugly stuff: if you can admit to yourself how YOU’RE actually benefiting from keeping the conflict going, something magical happens.

Suddenly, even though it first seems like you’re joining the other person down in the ditch and getting muddy yourself, you’re now able to see the other person’s behavior more clearly — without the swirl of negative emotions that normally keep you locked into a position of self-justification.

Some possible benefits to keeping the conflict going? You get to:

  • feel superior, self-righteous, smarter, better all around
  • enjoy being the eternal victim/ you get sympathy, anger and indignation from others that validates you
  • feel blameless, clean and innocent / are clearly the wronged or injured party
  • kick back and relax and let the other person hang herself
  • have the safety of not having failed – it’s someone else’s fault that things aren’t working

If you run through the list and find yourself going,

“Check, and Um… check. Yep, that one too… and that one. Ugh….”

then what happens when you think about the other woman?

You’re probably better able to see where she’s participating in the same kind of behavior — and where it goes a lot further than that.

If the other person is truly crossing some scary lines and is making your life a living hell (it happens), then the next step is to strengthen your boundaries and protect yourself, the kids, and your marriage.

Anne Katherine has a great analogy in her book “Boundaries” where she compares boundaries to the skin that covers your body. Your skin keeps the right things in and the right things out of your precious system.

Same dynamic here. Healthy boundaries give you a feeling of safety, comfort and control. You may not be able to control someone else’s behavior, but you can fortify your ability to keep their destructive behavior from taking over your life.

Now, you might be thinking that being aware of your boundaries simply means you understand the limits of what you are and aren’t willing to tolerate, but boundaries actually involve so much more than that.

  • To establish healthy boundaries requires that you first ask for what you want.
  • Barring the result you desire, you enforce a limit on future behavior by creating a consequence if your request is not met.

As women, we’re not socialized to clearly state what we want, much less create consequences if it doesn’t happen. Asking for what you want might mean you come across as bossy or selfish. We’re socialized to be “nice” and put the common good above our own desires. And enforcing a consequence might put you squarely in “bitch” territory!

If your boundaries seem to be fairly intact and you suspect that one or both of you are simply in emotionally-reactive mode, then it might be time to look at whether there’s anything you’d like to change in your own behavior.

Either way, facing up to some potentially squirmy truths in your life will get you closer to peace and perhaps eventually… partnership.

More about how to create healthy boundaries next week!

* The Arbinger Institute has a free, upcoming call on “The Anatomy of Peace” on Thurs., Jan. 7, 2010. More information here. I love both of their books and highly recommend them for their brilliant insights on conflict resolution, from the heart.

** Dr. Richard A. Warshak’s classic book “Divorce Poison” has been newly updated and will be released on January 19th. Take a look at his updated website for lots of information on parental alienation syndrome and a great list of resources.

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine          All Rights Reserved


  1. Hi Jen,

    You know I’m the choir you’re preaching to…what I’m discovering by re-running my Self-Deception articles is that there’s a contingency who don’t really want to look at their own behavior. And somehow intrepret this line of thinking as coming down too hard on the stepmom and blaming her for all the problems when in fact it’s all about taking ownership of your stuff – what you think, say and do. Not what other people think, say or do.

    I find the conversation as it unfolds to be incredibly interesting.

  2. The other thing that I find when you take control of you and reclaim you, you reclaim your boundaries – Once I figured out what I owned, I was better able to enforce healthier and better boundaries for myself.

  3. I read the Arbinger books several years ago now, and practically memorized them. (I copied all the charts out by hand and carried them around in my wallet.) I felt heartbroken, and moved, and transformed by the books. Over the years, though, I have started to question whether they are the right fit for the stepmom community generally speaking. I think that starting with a focus on boundaries is a much, much better fit.

    In retrospect, I think that the Arbinger books did me more harm than good. I felt guilty about not helping the people around me more, and when I read the Arbinger books, I plunged head-first into helping and emotional nakedness — into doing what I felt initially in the moment in each situation was right and being completely open emotionally. The idea of pulling back, withdrawing a little, and setting boundaries set off my guilt like crazy!

    Over time, I have started to experiment with doing things that I feel guilty about — like setting boundaries, pulling back and helping less — and everything around me is going BETTER!

    The problem I have with the Arbinger books is that we don’t always know what the best thing to do is, and often — especially as stepmoms — the thing that we feel is right in the moment, might not be the best thing for the people around us or for ourselves. Stepparenting is fantastically unfamiliar and difficult — sometimes, without expert help (like from a good stepfamily-savvy therapist!) our consciences alone are not enough to steer us through the morass — they’re limited because they’re limited by what we know and see.

    I’m not sure if I’m part of the contingent that you mentioned, Peggy, who doesn’t want to look at their own behavior. I have been rather vocal these past few weeks about saying that I don’t think Arbinger is always — or even often — helpful for the stepmom situation. I definitely would agree that each of us is responsible for our own behavior, though — and that we should think about it and own it and choose it carefully. I am not sure responsible is the right word I would choose for feelings and thoughts — and I think that’s where I start to disagree with Arbinger and Byron Katie. Our feelings and thoughts are not other people’s fault or responsibility — that’s for sure — but I think it’s more effective if feelings and thoughts are judgement-free — not wrong, not harmful, not hurtful to others just by existing in our heads or even our private conversations — they’re seeds of actions, but if they just exist without being right or wrong, we can look at them and decide what to do with them instead of suppressing them or hiding them, even from ourselves — we can consider whether we want to plant those seeds and have them manifest in behaviors that we ARE most definitely responsible for, or whether we decide ultimately to let them shrivel up and die, when we are really, truly, authentically ready.

    I think the problems I ran into with Arbinger is that it puts thoughts and feelings in the same category as actions — it seems that Arbinger is saying that thoughts and feelings can be hurtful, and thoughts and feelings can be wrong — I see it differently now. I think people need time to sort out their thoughts and feelings for as long as it takes — although actions and behavior are different.

  4. This whole issue is so interesting that I’m going to post about it on my own blog.

    Thanks so much, Jennifer!

  5. I don’t know how I feel about this article. It is probably helpful for some people. I’ve read some other stepmom blogs where clearly the stepmom is being reactive to the mom or vice versa and it made an ugly situation worse.

    However, I also know that some stepmoms or moms are having their lives dictated by the other women, which is totally unfair. The mom can’t even have a bad day or rough weekend without the stepmom claiming she is a terrible mother and here are all the things she’s supposed to do. Or the stepmom has a rule for her house that the mom thinks is completely unreasonable and encourages the kids not to follow it.

    There are times where simply having a boundary and stating that boundary makes no difference. In fact sometimes when the other woman knows your boundary she will purposely cross it every time in order to cause as much trouble as possible. And she will encourage the kids do to the same because “she’s not your mom” or “she’s a terrible mom” and “you don’t have to do what she says” or “I would never have a rule like that”

    I’d really like to know what a woman who is in that situation is supposed to do. I’d like to think counselling would work, but are there really counselors out there who can break through a self-righteous attitude enough for that woman to actually see how much damage she has caused not only the other woman (who she undoubtly could care less about anyway) but also herself and most importantly her children?


  1. […] In another take on the debate, we have Jennifer at No One’s The Bitch, and her thoughtful post The Best Defence Is Some Ugly Truth. […]

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