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Posts tagged ‘step-parenting’

Dealing with a Difficult Ex-Spouse: 10 Tips to Help You Cope

SOURCE:  Ron Deal, LMFT, LPC

Wouldn’t it be nice if adults could remember that parenting is not about them, and that it is about the children?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pain of the broken personal relationships of the past could be kept separate from the practical parental concerns of the present.  Wouldn’t it be nice…

Yes, it would.  But sometimes people aren’t nice.

Dealing with a difficult ex-spouse can be very discouraging and defeating.  Yet, we are called to continue trying to pursue good, to “turn the other cheek”, and “walk the extra mile.”  Hopefully, the following tips can aid you in your efforts to cope—because it’s all about the children.

 

1.      Be sure to notice your own part of the ongoing conflict.  Christian ex-spouses, for example, often feel justified in their anger toward their irresponsible ex-spouse.  It’s easy, then, to also feel justified in your efforts to change them in whatever ways you feel are morally or practically necessary.  Unfortunately, this sense of “rightness” often blinds good-hearted Christians from seeing just how their own behavior contributes to the ongoing cycle of conflict.  Any time you try to change a difficult ex-spouse—even if for understandable moral reasons—you inadvertently invite hostility or a lack of cooperation in return.  Learn to let go of what you can’t change so you don’t unknowingly keep the between home power struggles alive.

2.      Stepparents should communicate a “non-threatening posture” to the same-gender ex-spouse.  An ex-wife, for example, may continue negativity because she is threatened by the presence of the new stepmother.  It is helpful if the stepmother will communicate the following either by phone or email: “I just want you to know that I value your role with your children and I will never try to replace you.  You are their mother and I’m not.  I will support your decisions with the children, have them to your house on time, and never talk badly about you to the children.  You have my word on that.”  This helps to alleviate the need of the biological mother to bad-mouth the stepparent or the new marriage in order to keep her children’s loyalties.

3.      Keep your “business meetings” impersonal to avoid excessive conflict.  Face-to-face interaction has the most potential for conflict.  Use the phone when possible or even talk to their answering machine if personal communication erupts into arguments.  Use email or faxes when possible.  Keep children from being exposed to negative interaction when it’s within your power.

4.      Use a script to help you through negotiations.  This strategy has helped thousands of parents.  Before making a phone call, take the time to write out your thoughts including what you’ll say and not say.  Also, anticipate what the other might say that will hurt or anger you.  Stick to the business at hand and don’t get hooked into old arguments that won’t be solved with another fight.  (For more on how to do this, see the “Be Prepared by Borrowing a Script and Sticking to It” section of the free Common Steps for Co-Parents e-booklet.)

5.      Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what you ex-spouse is suggesting.  This good business principle applies in parenting as well.  Even if you disagree with the main point, find some common ground.

6.      Manage conversations by staying on matters of parenting.  It is common for the conversations of “angry associate” co-parents to gravitate back toward negative personal matters of the past.  Actively work to keep conversations focused on the children.  If the conversation digresses to “old marital junk,” say something like, “I’d rather we discuss the schedule for this weekend.  Where would you like to meet?”   If the other continues to shift the conversation back to hurtful matters assertively say, “I’m sorry.  I’m not interested in discussing us again.  Let’s try this again later when we can focus on the weekend schedule.”  Then, politely hang up the phone or walk away.  Come back later and try again to stay on the parenting subject at hand.

7.      When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent.  Listen and help them explore their hurt feelings.  If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.  Let God’s statutes offer any necessary indictments on a parent’s behavior.

8.      Remember that for children, choosing sides stinks!   Children don’t want to compare their parents or choose one over the other.  They simply want your permission to love each of you.  This is especially important when the two of you can’t get along.

9.      Wrestle with forgiveness.  Hurt feelings from the past are the number one reason your ex—and you—overreact with one another.  Do your part by striving to forgive them for the offenses of the past (and present).  This will help you manage your emotions when dealing with them in the present.

10. Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household.  For your kid’s sake, find ways of being respectable even if you honestly can’t respect your ex-spouses lifestyle or choices.  Do not personally criticize them, but don’t make excuses for their behavior either.

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Ron L. Deal is the author The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and President of www.SmartStepfamilies.com.  He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor who specializes in stepfamily education and therapy.  He presents conferences around the country and equips churches to minister to stepfamilies.

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6 Tips for Building Relationships with Your Stepchildren

SOURCE:  Ron Deal/Family Life

Improving your relationship is a challenge, so be intentional.

Improving your relationship with stepchildren is one of the greatest challenges of forming a stepfamily. Use the following suggestions to help you to be intentional about slowly building your relationships:

1. Do not expect that you or your stepchildren will magically cherish all your time together. Stepchildren often feel confused about new family relationships—both welcoming and resenting the changes new people bring to their life. So give them space and time to work through their emotions.

2. Give yourself permission to not be completely accepted by them. Their acceptance of you is often more about wanting to remain in contact with their biological parents than it is an acceptance or rejection of you. This realization will help you to de-personalize their apparent rejections.

3. Give your stepchildren time away from you, preferably with their biological parent. The exclusive time stepchildren had with their biological parent before he or she married you came to a screeching halt after the wedding. Honoring your stepchildren by occasionally giving back this exclusive time in one or two hour increments.

4. Early on, monitor your stepchildren’s activities. Know what they are doing at school, church, and in extracurricular activities, and make it your aim to be a part. Take them to soccer practice, ask about the math test they studied for, and help them to learn their lines in the school play. Monitoring seeks to balance interest in the child without coming on too strong. (From Stepfamilies: Love, marriage, and parenting in the first decade, J Bray, New York: Broadway Books, 1998)

5. Until they feel comfortable with you, buffer your relationship with other people. Be involved with stepchildren when another family member can be present. This “group” family activity reduces the anxiety children feel with one-on-one time with a stepparent.

Adults frequently assume that the way to get to know their stepchildren is to spend personal, exclusive time with them. This may be true with some stepchildren; however, most stepchildren prefer to not be thrown into that kind of situation until they have had time to grow comfortable with the stepparent. Honor that feeling until the child makes it obvious that he or she is okay with one-on-one time.

6. Share your talents, skills, and interests with the child and become curious about theirs. If you know how to play the guitar and a stepchild is interested, take time to show him how. If the child is interested in a particular series of books or a video game, become interested and ask her to tell you about it.

These shared interests become points of connection that strengthen trust between stepparent and stepchild. Sharing the Lord through dialogue, music, or church activity is another tremendous source of connection. For example, service projects are wonderful activities for parents and stepparents to experience together. Little brings people together like serving others in the name of the Lord. Discussing values through the eyes of Christ and having family devotional time can also strengthen your relationship.

Blended Family Issues: Holiday Power Plays

SOURCE:  Ron L. Deal/Family Life

Between the joy and hope of the holiday season, some stepfamilies find themselves in frustrating power plays between homes.

“Because he is on edge and doesn’t want to deal with his ex-wife, he procrastinates in finding out details about the schedule,” Connie complained about her husband. “This causes tension between us when I ask what the plans are. If he has not spoken to her yet, he gets defensive and mad at me. We are always tip-toeing around each other, wondering if the next event will blow up like others have.”

Connie and her husband had fallen prey to the classic unresolved conflict between him and his ex-wife. The more he avoided dealing with his ex, the more the tension escalated between Connie and her husband.

Hidden struggles

It’s not uncommon for special family gatherings and the holidays to erupt hidden power struggles between ex-spouses. Issues that normally can be avoided in the regular routine of life are often not put aside when extra coordination and cooperation is demanded. Even former spouses that typically get along fairly well may burst into conflict during the season of hope.

Some common emotions and power plays that parents and stepparents may experience include:

  • Aggravation when waiting for the other home to decide their holiday schedule.
  • Annoyance when someone changes plans at the last minute.
  • Frustration over the biological parent who refuses to abide by the visitation schedule that was established in the divorce agreement.
  • Stress over grandparents who refuse to cooperate with the boundaries you set.
  • Sadness when the ever-present memory of a deceased parent is so highly honored that new traditions, meals, or decorations cannot be incorporated into your family traditions.
  • Anger when extended family members voice their disapproval of the stepfamily to the children during family get-togethers.

These dynamics can make anyone feel helpless and weary. Here are a few smart steps to help curb the conflict and tension.

First, pay attention to the stress and ask yourself what fears you have that may be fueling your reactions. Then talk with your spouse openly and discuss the situation in a calm manner. For example, after admitting to herself how difficult it is to respect her husband when he avoids his ex-wife, Connie might approach her husband calmly. “Honey, I know that talking to your ex-wife about holiday schedules is very stressful for you. I’m also aware that when I ask you what the plans are, it sounds as if I’m judging you for not talking to her. I certainly don’t mean to judge you or make you feel pressured. How can I best support you?”

Stepparents in this situation are sometimes tempted to take on all the responsibility for bridging the power plays between ex-spouses (“I’ll talk to her for you.”). This is a dangerous position to be in.

Sometimes stepparents can communicate with the other home more easily, but they should not take on too much responsibility. If they do, the tension that exists between exes will likely shift onto the stepparent’s lap. Instead, work out a plan together for how the biological parent will manage themselves as they contact the other home to work through details.

Second, choose “between-home battles” carefully. Whenever possible, attempt to live in peace with the other home. This will require making sacrifices so the children don’t have to deal with warring parents. This may seem unfair if your family is making all of the concessions, but this is one reality of a stepfamily.

On occasion, however, there are battles which need to be engaged. The difficulty is learning when to deal with the issue and when to let it go. For example, if the other home normally is flexible about the holiday schedule, but for some reason this year is unwilling to bend, then let it go. But if he or she has a pattern of repeatedly ignoring the divorce arrangement, refusing to allow visitation, or if they control the children’s time, that’s probably a boundary worth battling. That parent is being unreasonable and hurting the kids.

Accommodating their antics gives them more power and increases resentment within your home.

When holiday power plays begin, strive to stay on the same side with your spouse. The natural flow of stress, even if it is initially related to those living in the other home, is to ripple into your marriage. Couples must be diligent to guard and protect their relationships from this dynamic. Talking calmly with one another, not out of fear but confidence, lays the groundwork for moving through such stressful situations.

Staying Close in Remarriage

SOURCE:  Ron L. Deal

Strong couples feel close to one another because they know what to do to make that happen.

Blended family living can create a unique barrier that often keeps couples from staying close to one another. This barrier grows with the concerns, frustrations, and struggles that are all too common in remarriage. I call it “third party thorns.”

These prickly, blended family realities include things such as tenuous stepparent-stepchild relationships, an antagonizing ex-spouse, leftover debt that preceded the marriage, the memory of a wonderful marriage that ended in death, and even an ex-mother-in-law. But despite these thorns, healthy couples find a way to stay close.

For example, let’s look at Matt and Sherry. Matt has a very high need for closeness. His father and mother divorced when he was very young, so he grew up without a great deal of family stability. He mainly lived with his mother and blamed himself for his father not being around much. His grandfather served as a surrogate father for a few years, but then died an untimely death when Matt was just 10 years old. Because closeness in his childhood family relationships was not something he experienced, he longs for it in his marriage.

Matt’s wife, Sherry, grew up in a hard-working middle-class family. While they loved one another deeply, the demands of earning a living kept parents and children going in multiple directions. As a result, Sherry learned quickly how to remain emotionally and financially independent from loved ones. She prided herself on working her way through technical school after having a child in high school.

A later marriage added another child, but the marriage didn’t last. Sherry found herself divorced and the single parent of two. This series of fragmented romantic relationships fueled her emotional independence as a parent and woman.

When Matt and Sherry met, they quickly became romantically and sexually involved. Matt was enthralled with the amount of attention he received from Sherry. She seemed to be a dedicated mom, but went out of her way to make time for him.

Sherry saw in Matt the kind of stability she wanted her children to experience so she pursued him with passion. Her physical and sexual availability and his need for closeness quickly fused their emotional connection, but substance was lacking. They were fooled into thinking sexual passion equaled a healthy future.

After a rushed courtship and wedding, things changed considerably. Sherry didn’t feel the need to pursue Matt as much as she did before and he felt it. The significant drop in time together produced a great deal of anxiety in Matt. He complained to a friend, “Now that we’re married, Sherry is much more worried about being a mom than she is a wife. I feel like I’ve lost her.”

Neither Matt nor Sherry carries all the blame for their increasing distance. Yet each is responsible to fight through the thorns and stay close.

The doing and feeling of closeness

In general, close couples:

  • Trust and have confidence in one another; they feel secure as a couple.
  • Include one another in important decisions.
  • Have a mutual respect for one another.
  • Have many similar likes and interests.
  • Are committed to spending time together on a regular basis and intentionally plan ways to be together.
  • Feel the freedom to ask each other for help.
  • Choose to be loyal to one another.
  • Balance time with family and friends so as to not take away from their relationship.

The largest study conducted on the strengths of healthy blended family couples reveals that strong couples feel close to one another because they know what to do to make that happen. In The Remarriage Checkup: Tools to Help Your Marriage Last a Lifetime, Dr. David Olson and I reported that 94 percent of happy couples have hobbies and interests that bring them together. They find it easy to think of things to do as a couple (compared to 62 percent or less of discouraged couples). In addition, a full 94 percent said togetherness was a top priority for them, revealing strong couples’ intentional effort to invest in their relationship. Doing things that facilitate closeness certainly contributes to feeling close.

Every healthy relationship has a balance of time spent together and time apart. Healthy couples have both a desire to be together and a respect for the individual interests, pursuits, and freedoms of their spouse. In strong relationships, individuals place emphasis on the “self” as well as the “we.” And there’s something else.

Healthy blended family couples also strive for an appropriate amount of sharing, loyalty, intimacy, and independence within the larger family dynamic. This dance of intimacy is not easily achieved in blended families and demands attention and good communication since couples are continually pulled apart by stressful thorns.

Patience and persistence

Matt and Sherry found balance and a loving heart by doing a number of things. First, both had to calm their fears. Matt had to remember that it was good and right for Sherry to spend focused time with her children and that he really wasn’t in competition with them. Sherry had to recognize that maintaining her independence and emotional distance from Matt was in part an attempt to protect herself from depending on someone she couldn’t guarantee would always be there for her. If she was ever to move closer to him, Sherry had to risk trusting Matt.

Second, both Matt and Sherry became more intentional in carving out time to be together to enjoy a leisurely activity. For them, playing golf on occasion helped them to laugh and connect. But, of course, saying “yes” to golf meant saying “no” to other activities and time with children so they communicated often about finding the appropriate balance.

With patience and persistence, Matt and Sherry removed their thorns and stayed close.

Questions Answered: Blended Family; Sex Silence; Anger Styles

SOURCE:  Dr. Diane Langberg

Dear Dr. Langberg,
I’m in a second marriage, and the holidays are just the worst because that’s when my husband’s teens visit (his ex-wife has custody). There’s a lot of tension between his children and our children, and they compete for attention. It’s placing stress on our relationship. What can I do?

Mixing children from two different marriages does often cause quite a bit of tension. It usually requires hard work and good communication for the various relationships to mesh well.

As the adults in the home, you and your husband need to set the tone for all the children and their respective relationships. So think about how you’d like the children to relate to each other. What are your goals for your time together? What characteristics would you like to nurture in the children? How can you two work together to help both sets of children grow in love and respect for each other?

As you discuss these issues, you’ll also need to consider how you help or hinder your children from relating effectively. Do you carry any resentment toward the older children? Do you wish they didn’t come to your home? Does your husband feel guilty about not seeing more of them, and either distance himself or give them excessive attention? Hidden attitudes such as these can leak out and infect your home’s atmosphere. As you and your husband establish goals and examine your attitudes, pray together for yourselves and each child.

Help your younger children prepare for your husband’s teens’ visit well in advance. Why not encourage the younger ones to pray for their father’s other children? Perhaps they could send notes or cards to them throughout the year. Teach them about hospitality—what God says about it, and how they might demonstrate it to their guests at Christmas. Perhaps your husband could encourage his teens to reach out to your children throughout the year as well.

This difficult, stressful situation is full of potential for demonstrating to all your children God’s great love for us—and his call to us to love each other in like manner.

Although my husband and I have sex, we never talk about it. How can we broach the subject so we both feel more fulfilled in our sex life? I’ve never felt comfortable talking about sex, and I don’t think my husband does, either.

I’ve found, through years of marriage counseling, that many couples have sex regularly but never speak to each other about it. It seems rather common that what husbands and wives do with the lights out they cannot bring themselves to discuss when the lights are on. It’s a shame because many couples end up spending decades merely guessing whether or not their spouse is pleased, fulfilled, and comfortable, or miserable, unfulfilled, and in pain.

When I work with couples in similar circumstances, I find it helpful to use an outside resource as an aid to get them talking to each other, such as The Gift of Sex by Clifford and Joyce Penner. Such a book provides a helpful medium. You might begin by each reading the first chapter, then setting aside some time during the week to discuss what you’ve read. Simply choose one thing from the chapter that speaks to you, then talk about it. As you progress chapter by chapter, week by week, you’ll begin to read portions to each other that are important—and you’ll begin to use some of your own words rather than relying on the book. Soon you’ll find a growing freedom to discuss sex together.

If you think your husband’s discomfort level is too high even to suggest reading a book together, then simply hand him this column and tell him you would like to try what’s suggested here.

Sex is a wonderful part of marriage, and we aren’t meant only to enjoy it but to be free in our enjoyment. Since God is the one who thought of sex in the first place, it’s something we ought to be free to talk about. And there’s a side benefit: As you and your husband work through your discomfort and awkwardness, your relationship will improve—in all areas!

My husband and I are having a real problem handling anger. I like to blow off steam and get my anger out of my system, while my husband simmers. He’ll stay angry with me days after an argument, while I’m ready to kiss and make up minutes after I’ve vented. I’m frustrated by how long he holds on to a grudge.

You’re frustrated by your husband’s slow simmer, which lasts for days. But do you know how your “blowing off steam” affects him? Are you careful with your words, or do they run away from you? It’s possible that part of what feeds your husband’s slow simmer are the words that fly out of your mouth when you vent.

You and your husband need to discuss your different anger “styles” and find out how they impact each of you. I think you’ll find that your venting and his grudgebearing are both damaging. Scripture says, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” (James 1:20). As you delve into God’s Word and open yourselves up to his Spirit, you’ll find you need to be careful with your words and gracious in your speech. Your husband will discover that letting the sun go down on his anger opens the door to bitterness and resentment, both of which erode love.

You cannot keep your husband from holding a grudge. You can, however, encourage dialogue, listen to his perspective, pray for and with him, and most important, ask God to transform the way you manage anger.

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Diane Mandt Langberg, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and the author ofCounsel for Pastors’ Wives (Zondervan) andOn the Threshold of Hope: Opening the Door to Healing for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Tyndale).

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