Which boat are you in?

Many of you come to this site because you’re looking for information that might give you an advantage with your difficult mom/stepmom relationship.

You want something extra to help you create a shift. Movement in the right direction. A breakthrough out of nowhere.

You’re the only one who knows what it’s like in your particular situation.

If you’re like most people though, you’ve got a razor-sharp sense of how things stack up on the scoreboard. Who’s done what to whom. How you were justified in reacting to various offenses.

But what about when it comes to the potential for real change — how do you know what to do? Which direction to go?

There are two possible boats you might be in if you’re struggling with the stepmom or ex-wife. So I’ll ask you:

Is this woman crazy and dangerous?

Or is she normal enough that you might one day get somewhere?

Which boat do think you’re in?

The one where you’re both basically “normal,” but having a hard time?

Or the one where she’s damaging the kids because she’s abusing drugs or alcohol, compulsively lies, maybe has a diagnosable personality disorder, and is actively alienating the children from you, even though it’s destroying them in the process?

Sounds obvious enough, right?

But here’s where this gets tricky.

When people attack us, when they hurt our feelings, snub us, do things that piss us off, when they do something with the kids that we strongly disagree with, we almost always put them in the second boat.

We are appalled at their flaws and issues, their behavior. We are offended. The reason they’re capable of acting the way they are must be because there’s something seriously wrong with them. They’ve got major problems.

And sometimes, this is true.

But sometimes… it’s not.

A little story for you.

In the brilliant book, “The Anatomy of Peace,” an Arab and a Jew lead a weekend workshop for the parents of troubled teens who are off on a wilderness retreat.

Yusef, who’s Arab, tells a tale from when he was young and earning a living, begging from Westerners on the streets of Bethlehem. He knew an elderly, blind Jewish beggar named Mordecai from working the same beat.

One day, Mordecai fell and spread his donated coins all over the ground. Not only was he struggling to stand up, his days’ earnings were everywhere.

Yusef’s first impulse was to help Mordecai get up and retrieve his coins.

But in an instant, without even being conscious of it, Yusef thought of all the injustices that the Jews had committed against his people; how angry, bitter and put upon he felt by these circumstances; this choice he had to make.

Instead of helping Mordecai, he quickly walked away.

Not only did Yusef do something unkind, he also betrayed himself in that moment.

He went against what he himself thought was the right thing to do.

Immediately after betraying himself, his mind turned to making Mordecai wrong. Making the situation wrong. Making the pressure he felt to help wrong and unfair.

In less than a second, Mordecai became the enemy.

Do you see how Yusef couldn’t, from that frame of mind, be able to accurately tell which boat Mordecai might be in (friend or foe) to save his life?

Same thing for us when we don’t do a brutally honest, slow-motion replay after a conflict-filled event.

When we can’t tease out our feelings of superiority, self-righteousness, our vindictiveness, our desire to get sympathy from others over our hardships, we lose our mental clarity.

We lose our compassion.

We lose any sense of responsibility.

We turn living, breathing people into objects.

What fascinates me is that millisecond of self-betrayal.

The self-betrayal comes first, then all else just “seems” to automatically follow….

We don’t even realize it’s happened!

We want to get along with the other woman, sometimes from just wanting less stress, more peace, cooperation, etc.

And deep inside us all, we know that our choices, our actions, our conflict-filled relationships after divorce actually hurt and frighten our children.

This knowledge tugs at our hearts and keeps us up at night.

But… something “goes wrong” again with the stepmom or ex-wife, we betray ourselves, and off she goes into the Crazy boat, even if she doesn’t belong there.

So how do you know when she does?

For one thing, it’s strikingly clear. You know it in your gut in no uncertain terms. This feeling is consistent from day-to-day. It never goes away. Those are the special circumstances that need to be taken seriously and managed with professional resources.

The Crazy boat requires stronger boundaries so you can protect your children and step-children. Maybe later, you can lower those boundaries. Maybe not.

The Normal boat is where things actually have the potential to change.

As a human being that’s a constant work in progress, I commit acts of self-betrayal on a daily basis.

How about you?

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

(Did you know it’s actually possible to create peace no matter which boat she’s in with our new 6-wk. course just for stepmoms? It’s true!  Check it out….)

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  1. Just by following you and your work I feel as though I am being changed as a stepmother and a person. I have ordered the book and looking forward to reading it. For so long I have held so much resentment towards my SD’s mother for so many reason’s. We do have a good working relationship one where we can be around each other and not claw each others eyes out.. for a while we became close where we were calling eachother and talking for 3 hours at a time… Things are changing now and I know I am not innocent in all of it, so looking forward to really spending some time learning about myself,this situation as well as seeing things from her side and giving a little more compassion and respect.. Thank you ladies so much for stepping out and spreading the word you two are really making a statement and are changing the state quo of a stepmom/mom relationship!

  2. A stepmom says:

    How funny that I was just thinking about all of this yesterday. For years I’ve struggled with different methods of trying to make peace with the mom in our situation. I had been told by my husband that she was diagnosed with a personality disorder, but since I’d never encountered such a disorder before (or, at least, was never aware of having encountered it), I didn’t know what it actually meant. He had been dealing with her for years before that, so he was used to having to handle things in a certain way. I, on the other hand, couldn’t understand why it seemed so beyond comprehension that we could just sit down like reasonable adults and work things out. I tried many times, in many ways to get us there, then I would get frustrated and contribute my own anger and frustration, making the situation worse, and on and on the cycle would go. I actually even said point blank to her, during one of our more unpleasant encounters, that I knew about her illness. She responded by telling me that she was “very sane,” and eventually followed it up with her belief that she had been misdiagnosed and now no longer believes that she does have the personality disorder. In the meantime, her behavior and outlook are the same, and can’t realistically be described as rational or reasonable. But I still thought maybe there was a chance. Last night it finally clicked for me, and I realized that there really is nothing I can do. This isn’t merely about someone who’s been hurt and is defensive, this is someone with a mental illness, who can’t be expected to be someone she’s not. Oddly, this realization made me feel a lot better. I can stop questioning my (and my husband’s) efforts, and taking my failures personally. I wish this realization had come sooner. It would have saved me years of frustration and anger that have culminated in exhaustion. But at least I hope I can now look at the situation for what it is and not hold myself responsible for not trying hard enough.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Wow, Laura, thank you! That’s high praise and I’m humbled by it. If our book can help women diffuse even a *little* bit of the stress and chaos and create happier clumps of days, then we’ll be so grateful.

    What changed in your relationship, do you think? How did y’all end up going backwards? Seems like it it was good at one point, there’s hope for getting back there!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Hi, A stepmom says,

    Yay for you! I’m glad you get the relief of knowing it’s something bigger than you and outside your control. Isn’t it weird how much of a relief that can be? Much better than banging your head against a wall into eternity. In your case, since there was a diagnosis before, it does indeed sound like you’re dealing with a verifiable disorder (not that they can’t *ever* be treated and dramatically healed). All too often, that term is bandied about very casual — on both sides. 😉

    Now, to rebalance yourself and create some clearer boundaries!

    Thanks for writing…. 🙂

  5. Thank you! Thank you for this post. For YEARS, I’ve had my ex and his wife “diagnosing” me as bi-polar or otherwise simply because I didn’t see something their way when it came to my kids. Or if I stood my ground on something I truly believed was right. I think too many ex-wives are accused of being mentally ill by the other party, when it could not be further from the truth. I see it in posts on numerous sites. Are all stepmoms evil? No. Then are all moms crazy? I think not.

  6. As a step and biological mom, I know that it’s not uncommon for tension, compromise, and confusion to rule when the role of parent is shared between a step and biological parent. Some people still feel that stepparents aren’t “real” parents, but our culture has no norms to suggest how they are different. And the less our roles are defined, the more unhappy we are as both parents and stepparents.

    Another role ambiguity is that society seems to expect acquired parents and children to instantly love each other in much the same way as biological parents and their children do. In reality, however, this is often just not so. A stepparent might feel a tremendous amount of guilt about his or her lack of positive feelings (or even the presence of negative feelings) toward the spouse’s children. Discipline might be a constant source of family conflict: You might, for example, think your ex-spouse isn’t being strict enough, when in fact, most stepfathers and stepmothers think the real parent is not being strict enough.

    As a stepparent, you might feel like an unbiased observer with a grudge because you’re an outsider and the very thing that’s making you “unbiased” is something you resent, biology. Stepchildren, as well, often don’t react to their parent’s new spouse as though he or she were the “real” parent. The irony of expecting instant “real” parent-child love is further complicated by the fact that stepparents are not generally expected to be “equal” in discipline or otherwise controlling their stepchildren.

    Another reason for a difficult stepparent-child relationship might be that your child does not want this marriage to work, and so, acts out with hostility. Commonly children harbor fantasies that their biological parents will reunite. If children had reservations about or strongly disapproved of your divorce, they may sabotage your new relationships in the hope that you will get back together. Children who want their natural parents to remarry may feel that sabotaging the new relationship will get them back together. Stepchildren can prove hostile adversaries, and this is especially true for adolescents.

    Although all stepchildren and stepparents are to some degree uncomfortable with some aspect of their new family role, certain difficulties are more likely to affect stepmothers, and others are more common to stepfathers. Conflicting expectations of a stepmother’s role make it especially hard. As a stepparent, your best shot at happiness is to ignore the myths and negative images and to work to stay optimistic.

    As a stepmother, yes, your work is cut out for you. In fact, the role of stepmother is thought by some clinicians to be more difficult than that of stepfather. One important reason is that stepmother families, more than stepfather families, may be born of difficult custody battles and/or have a history of particularly troubled family relations.

    Society also seems, on the one hand, to expect romantic, almost mythical loving relationships between stepmothers and children while, at the same time, portraying stepmothers as cruel, vain, selfish, competitive, and even abusive (Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few bedtime stories we are all familiar with). Stepmothers are also often accused of giving preferential treatment to their own children. As a result, a stepmother must be much better than just okay before she is considered acceptable. No matter how skillful and patient you are, all your actions are suspect. Is it any wonder that stepmothers tend to be more stressed, anxious, and depressed than other mothers and also more stressed than stepfathers?

    Some researchers have found that stepmothers behave more negatively toward stepchildren than do stepfathers, and children in stepmother families seem to do less well in terms of their behavior. In fact, the relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter is often the most difficult. Yet, other studies indicate that stepmothers can have a positive impact on stepchildren. Because stepmothers are much more likely to play an active part in the lives of children than stepfathers, perhaps there is simply more to go wrong.

    Still, some step-mothering situations can make this role especially complicated — such as a part-time or weekend stepmother if you are married to a non-custodial father who sees his children regularly. You may try with all your heart to establish a loving relationship with your husband’s children, only to be openly rejected, or you may feel left out of part of his life because of his relationship with his children. In addition, a part-time stepmother can feel left out by her husband’s relationship with his ex-wife; for example, non-custodial fathers need to spend time communicating with their ex-wives about their children’s school problems, orthodontia, illnesses, and even household maintenance and repairs.

    Yet, well-run by knowledgeable, confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), this modern version of an ancient family form can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

    Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press).

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