One day while we were talking on the phone, we realized: one reason these relationships between households can seem so impossible is because we have the two most important relationships of our lives competing against each other:
parent and child vs. husband and wife.
This creates a dynamic in relationships that we like to call “emotional authority.”
What that means is that family members often feel like the strength of their bonds and connections to other family members automatically confers upon them certain rights, certain “givens.” The intensity and purity of your love for another seems to equal more power, more say in what happens to them, how they are treated and all decisions related to that person. It’s like that person is “yours” to a certain extent, even though on the surface, that sounds ridiculous. But we’re already familiar with how this works in “traditional” relationships, especially in nuclear families.
Think about it. When you were growing up, it was accepted that your mother (or primary caretaker, if this was different) was the one directing your life: making decisions about what you would do, eat, when you would go to sleep, who you would socialize with (when you were very young), health-related issues and schooling.
Just as in nature, it was assumed that, at a basic level, your mother or caretaker would fight to protect you against any perceived threats and we accept that as an instinctual “given.” She would go up against bureaucracy, bullies in school, other adults who might not have your best interests at heart and extended family members who disapproved of you, in an effort to nurture, shelter and love you – without giving her actions a second thought. Granted, some of us didn’t grow up in nurturing households and suffered at the hands of neglectful or even abusive parents, but nevertheless, we still know the archetype well.
As a society we also have certain givens for a husband and wife relationship. Spouses and cohabitating romantic partners confide freely and openly with each other about the most private, intimate matters. Traditionally, they make financial decisions together, divvy up household chores according to their own preferences (hopefully!) and do their best to form consensus around parenting values. They are loyal to each other and sexually monogamous. They protect the sanctity of their household and their right to dictate what happens in their household. They relax together, pick up the slack for each other when life becomes busy or overwhelming, and rest in the safety of knowing that their partner always has their back as they weather the stresses of life.
But let’s cross the lines a bit and see what happens…
Let’s say that a stepmom is largely responsible for overseeing her stepchild’s homework in her home, as dad works full time and is less available. She knows her stepson has been struggling in school and she feels for him, after witnessing many nights of homework that ultimately ended in him crying, extremely frustrated. For the past two years, mom, dad and stepmom have all had access to the child’s school records and online accounts. But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, mom revokes stepmom’s privileges. She lets the school know that she no longer wants the stepmom involved and that “only the parents should have access to these records and accounts…”
Stepmom is thinking, “What the hell? I should be able to access things because I’m fully involved in his school and have been already for two years now. Furthermore, my husband wants me to be, so that’s reason enough.” Meanwhile, mom is thinking, “That’s the father’s job to stay on top of things like this, not the stepmom’s. Who does she think she is? Why do we need one more person getting involved, complicating everything? She needs to just let the parents handle this and step out of it!”
In this case, the stepmom feels all the mother tiger instincts that a mother would normally feel. So what happens when the mom tries to pull rank with a stepmom who feels connected and concerned about her stepson? Fireworks, that’s what!
And as for the mom, she certainly remembers a time when it was just herself and her ex handling school matters. They had separate parent-teacher conferences so they wouldn’t have to be in the same room. Now there’s another woman involved who feels like she “has the right” to be included in communications with the teacher regarding her own child? Says who?!
Does one side have to be the winner and one the loser in our divorce-connected families? It would appear to be so—at least that’s how it feels. What seems like a huge priority for you, something that has to happen for your child, stepchild or your romantic partner can be a definite “No,” for the other party though—and they’re not going to budge.
This is tricky business, because when we act from a sense of emotional authority, our strong feelings can make us easily discount the other person’s concerns and demands in favor of our own, since we feel that our perspective takes into account what’s best for the one we love. Our agenda is superior, since it’s based on love and fierce attachment. We couldn’t let go of our emotional authority even if we tried, nor would we want to. In our example above, both women were likely feeling a strong sense of emotional “jurisdiction” because their actions came from love and concern for the child.
This dynamic sets us up for clashes of the worst kind, since they are rooted in instinctive maternal feelings of protection—or romantic attachments to the person we love and have chosen as our mate.
The big takeaway here: Giving up or taking a step back feels like betraying our loved one and abdicating our responsibilities to them. This is one of the biggest reasons why trying to figure out how to “work with” the other side can be so confusing and emotionally charged.
© 2013 Jenna Korf and Jennifer Newcomb Marine
(This is an excerpt from our upcoming book, “Skirts at War: A Survival Guide for Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict.”)