Dear stepfamilies, I have to confess that I have been putting off blogging about this topic for a year now. After thinking about the reason for postponing for a while, I decided that it takes me out of my little comfort zone. Breaking out of my giver-pleaser mode was and still is difficult for me. However, I learned that dealing with conflict is a skill and I was happy to help my clients learn the skill too.
Please remember that hindsight is always 20/20.
So here goes….
There are always “ leftovers” after a divorce. Some of the issues lurking from your past might be still with you no matter how much you try to move forward in your stepfamily. Of course if you have children then you will be co-parenting with your ex-partner. There is no way around that if you want to have healthy, well adjusted children. We know that children need and love both parents who are loving, caring, and involved in their lives. That is a given.
Therefore, the one issue that seemed to pop up over an over again with most of my clients is the struggle dealing with ex- partners. Often just the fact that we need to check in with the ex regarding important issues with our children can wear you out. My clients often looked so tired when they told me about their struggles with their ex-partner.
It is usual when sharing children with your ex-partner to have day-to-day situations regarding them. These concerns might include rearranging holidays or adjusting for special celebrations that come up, worries about a child being ill or having school problems. I could keep naming many more because the list goes on and on but I am sure you know them. There may be some very serious issues too like unsolved custody issues, child support worries, and even court cases to deal with. Any of these conflicts, little or big, will create stress for both partners in a stepfamily.
I think the most important thing is to deal with the conflict in the healthiest way possible. This is where assertive skills come into play. In Chapter 7 of my book I mention assertive communication skills to use when dealing with difficult ex- partners. (Or anyone for that matter.)
Isaac Newton’s famous statement, “ to every action there is always an equal and opposite or contrary, reaction” applies to situations with your ex-partners. For example if your ex gets angry with you it is easy to become defensive and get angry back. If your ex-partner writes you an aggressive letter, you might write one back just as negative. He/she pushes and you push back. This puts you both in a tailspin, which gets you nowhere fast. As a result, intense feeling from these events will affect the other members of the family too.
You can’t influence how another person feels but you can change how you react to that person. Maybe you can’t be impartial but you can be assertive and not reacting each time is a start. Not everything your ex says demands a response. After all, “you are the boss of you” as my son used to say. While we are discussing this topic, try to chose your own battles with your ex wisely. There is always more than one point of view on any matter. It is best not to expect your former partner to see things in the same way that you do.
Some issues with your ex (or both ex’s) can be very distressing but try not to talk about these issues continuously. Talking about these problems will eventually affect every aspect of your stepfamily and definitely your partnership. Situations with a difficult ex-partner become the elephant in the room. You will need to discuss them together but not dwell on them. It is not the most important part of your lives together. Keep your view on the horizon and be encouraged that these issues really will eventually get solved. Try to focus on the positive ways you both are coping with problems. Encourage each other and remind each other just how important your love is for both of you and for your children. (If you need someone who is impartial to the situations, you can always get some professional help.)
The one thing you do NOT want to do is involve your children in any conflict regarding an ex-partner. We know for sure that it is parental conflict that places children at risk in virtually every aspect of their lives. Children have the right to love both their biological parents and they don’t need to hear one parent discussing their ex-partner with angry, nasty words. Young children become frightened and find it threatening. They can’t distance themselves from how their parents feel about each other. Young children think that if their parent is that bad they must be bad too. Older children express weariness and annoyance and often try to defend the absent parent.
A client told me the story of a teenage son who kept being subjected to hearing criticism of an ex- partner. The son said sharply “enough dad, I do not want to hear it.” I thought “out of the mouths of babes.” It is so true.
Negative verbal remarks about an ex-partner and negative discussion about that parent by a stepparent makes it hard for children to like or trust that stepparent.
Here are 6 tips to remember:
Children are always observant. They notice and don't forget…. who slammed the phone down and who answered politely or who called the other parent names and who behaved maturely.
Keep your children out of any disagreements or arguments with your ex- partner. Do not ask their opinion or try to have your children side with you in an argument.
Adolescents sometimes try to help find a solution for a problem that doesn’t involve them. They can get tangles up in the middle of an argument and think they need to help find a solution in order to stop the blaming. This is not healthy for them and be sure to tell them that you do not need their help. If an argument is about their behavior, you might need to carefully explain that you are working together with your ex to resolve the problem.
Avoid any temptation to prove to your children that you are right and your ex-partner is wrong about a situation.
Always register your complaint with your ex-partner privately and not in front of the children.
Although partners in a stepfamily will want to discuss the issues together and in private, it is best that each partner deals with their own ex-partner themselves.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we all need to know how to deal with conflict. Children also need to understand how to deal with conflict. They will need these skills all their lives. Children may as well learn these skills from you and their stepparent. Therefore, parents are the role models and the teachers of conflict resolution in your house. Margaret Newman in her book Stepfamily Realities makes the following suggestions: (The best part is that you can not only use these ideas with your ex-partner but also with the members of your stepfamily.)
Clearly identify the issue that you want to speak about. Write it down to make sure you don’t get side tracked about another issue while discussing this one.
Ask the person involved the best time to call or chat. Say what the issue is but don’t talk about it until both of you are ready to discuss it. This way both of you can think about the issue before you discuss it.
Use the “I statement” to define why you are concerned, your thoughts on it and what you need.
Listen carefully to the response and repeat back to them what they are saying so no one gets mixed up.
Suggest a compromise that might work both ways if you can. Otherwise try not to get discouraged and make a time to discuss it another day. (Say “goodbye” and hang up gently or walk away if the discussion gets heated.)
Not long after a divorce, children learn that their relationship with their parents is different and separate from their parent’s relationship. They are usually loyal to each of their parents and rarely like to discuss one parent with the other. Kind words about an ex-partner are always welcome at any time though.
Be reassured that time marches on and eventually everyone settles down and gets on with their lives. Once that happens routines begin to form and the problems to be discussed between ex-partners becomes less and less.
I hope this blog has been helpful in dealing with a difficult topic.
All the best.