Dear Partner of a Stepmom,
Being in an intimate partnership with a Stepmom can be a tough job, especially when your kids or their bio-mom aren’t as cooperative as you’d like. Chances are pretty high that you and your partner share a strong love that’s already been tested, twisted and probably stretched to its limits a few times as you both deal with complicated stepfamily issues. These issues can hook into some of your old emotional wounds and those of your partner—wounds that you each brought into your relationship that have been triggered by stepfamily life. Wounds that need to be seen and felt in order to be healed and released. This isn’t anyone’s fault. This isn’t bad or wrong. It’s just what happens when couples open their hearts to each other and then experience stressful situations neither of them is prepared for. Knowing whatever you’re feeling has merit and deserves attention, can make it easier to address each situation. When you and your partner put faith in your love for each other, stay curious, act compassionately and avoid blame and defensiveness (as much as possible, as soon as possible), you’ll learn quite a bit about yourself and each other as your love for each other deepens.
The following list of suggestions has been created for you because, from my experience, the Stepmoms seeking support (and now reading this book) love their partners dearly and want their relationships to work wonderfully well. She loves you and I believe you love her. The goal of my work (and this book) is to help Stepmoms and their partners (you) build stronger loving connections through whatever stresses they face together. You and your partner dreamed of a happy life when you fell in love. These suggestions are intended to give you ideas, insights and tactics you can use to help you better understand and support your partner as you build that dream together.
If these tips cause you to feel defensive or generate some questions, I hope you will talk with your Stepmom partner about it with a sense of curiosity. Nobody needs to be right or wrong. The goal is to be together and happy. I hope something here helps you achieve your goals. There are two entire sections in the printed book dedicated to helping Stepmoms better understand and work with their partners, maybe she’ll let you have a peak (or better yet a copy of those chapters).
Tips for the Partner of a Stepmom
Tip #1: Refer to your ex-wife as “my child’s/children’s mom.” Stop using the term “my ex.” This will reduce the subtle reminder that you’ve had sex and created children with this woman from your past, who may now be causing stress for both of you.
Tip #2: Keep reminding yourself that you’ve had time to learn how to interact with your kids and their bio-mom but your partner is new to all these complex and often subtle behaviors. The addition of your new partner to your now divided nuclear family shakes up the old dynamics, and usually not in an easy or comfortable way for anyone at first. It can be scary and lonely to become a partner and Stepmom to a family that may still be recovering from a divorce. When you and your partner disagree about how to interact with or manage your kids or their bio-mom, remember to patiently help her understand your reasoning. Your conscious efforts to acknowledge the understandable difficulties she’s dealing with will help ease much of her painful feelings of being an “outsider.” Your patience and appreciation for her learning curve can help speed up her acceptance of most situations. (Hint, Hint!)
Tip #3: If your ex-wife is not-so-cooperative or openly adversarial, make her attitude about you very clear to your new partner from the very beginning of your new relationship. Help your partner understand what you’ve lived through and what she could now be facing, too. She will not know your ex-wife like you do. Do your best to keep your new partner protected from the negative impact of your ex-wife, especially if the divorce process is still incomplete or unresolved.
Tip #4: Whenever you feel afraid of something—like that your kids might not love you if you do (or don’t do) something, or that your ex-wife will act in an unpleasant way—speak up right away and tell your new partner as much as you can about how you’re feeling. Never assume she knows what you’re thinking or feeling. Find the courage to tell your new partner exactly what you’re feeling so she can better support you with her full understanding and compassion. If you’re afraid she will judge you, tell her this (with actual spoken or written words) and ask her if she’s willing to suspend any judgments and really listen. Being vulnerable with her and sharing your feelings with her will likely open her heart, enabling her to be even more compassionate. In this loving safe emotional space she can help you in more ways than you might imagine.
Believe it or not, you can reduce the power your fears have over you by admitting and addressing them. It may be surprising to realize how much tension between couples is caused by feelings that are not shared. Once you share your fears, worries, anxieties, you can take wise actions that will reduce your upsetting feelings—past, present and future. The relief you’ll feel is immediate and difficult to measure but wonderfully liberating almost immediately.
Tip #5: If avoiding conflicts with your ex-wife is more important to you than getting to a fair win-win solution or standing up for your rights—make your wishes clear to your new partner right away! You have a right to express your wishes. Making your priorities and needs clear is one of your responsibilities. So many relationship problems between a Stepmom and her partner come from misunderstandings, unspoken feelings and mistaken assumptions. A Stepmom often acts out or stands up for her new partner thinking that achieving fairness is his top priority, only to find out that he would have preferred to give in and move on—like choosing to lose the battle to win the war for the prize of a conflict-free life. You may want to read the chapters in Section Three (with your partner) to learn more about the relationship strategies and tactics I’m suggesting to Stepmoms and their partners.
If you fear your new partner will judge you as weak for not wanting to fight to try to convince your ex-wife to get along with her—you may be right—initially. Thankfully, you can save yourself a lot of uncomfortable time, judgments and arguments if you give yourself permission to honor your needs and talk with your partner honestly and directly. She may have a desire for fairness at any price—which may include her own rage toward injustice—and this is likely baggage she brings into this relationship from her past experiences. Once you two talk about any conflicting emotional needs you can avoid painful drawn out power struggles then work together to find a mutually satisfying solution. You have a right to a peaceful life with your new partner and—she can’t help you until you talk with her about the tradeoffs you’re willing to make, and how important it is to you, to avoid conflicts, seek peace and make a wonderful life with her.
Tip #6: Whenever you say you’re going to do something, you’ll be appreciated if you’ll do it when you say you will to the best of your ability. There are so many things you have no control over. Keeping your word, or letting her know that things have changed and you will do it at another time, is something you do have 100% control over. It’s such an appreciated quality. When you disagree with your new partner or you don’t want to do what she wants you to do, speak up right away, as equal partners would do in a work environment, so you two can find a new solution and make a new agreement. Passive-aggressive defiance, in the form of forgetting, doing something half-way, wrong or not keeping your word at all, can bring out the dreaded, yucky mother/son dynamic between your new partner and you. No one wants that! Keep your word and speak your mind (kindly). This will spare you both a lot of stress and you’ll feel a lot better about yourself.
Tip #7: Ask your new partner to trust and support your recommended strategies for dealing with your ex-wife—outright and as soon as possible. Dealing with the potential for conflicting strategies upfront—or perhaps as soon as it’s clear you disagree—will save you and your new partner unproductive arguing and immeasurable time and stress. It’s your responsibility to stand up for your new partner’s emotional safety and well-being to the best of your ability. You know you would do so automatically if a stranger threatened her, right? You’re the one who understands the people she’s inherited by way of loving you. While she may initially believe she can help you stand up for your rights or feels she’s stronger because she doesn’t fear your ex-wife, you’re the one who fully understands the reactions and ramifications of your ex-wife on whatever you and your partner do. For the sake of your relationship, risk the discomfort and speak up early and often. Do your best to help your partner understand that things will be easier for all if she puts her faith, trust and support in your recommendations when it comes to dealing with your ex-wife and kids. See Chapter 18 and 19 in the printed book.
Tip #8: Reinforce with your partner that your ex-wife knows you very well and will therefore probably recognize any of your partner’s involvement in decisions and communications. Unfortunately hostile and uncooperative ex-wives rarely appreciate this contribution—even if the communication is more clear or better stated. Help your partner understand (whenever it is true) that while her new ideas for dealing with your ex-wife may be correct (in theory) or appropriate for other people, her ideas could also be experienced as ganging up on your ex-wife. Your ex-wife could also perceive that she’s losing more control over you; control she began exercising long before your divorce. Your new partner’s influence on your tactics could potentially fuel your ex-wife’s rage or vengeance. If this is the case for you, gently and firmly help your partner understand how her involvement can trigger more irrational, problem-causing reactions that are completely avoidable IF she will trust you to handle the interactions with your ex-wife. You can see, by now, that I encourage Stepmoms to give their partners’ this benefit of the doubt.
Tip #9: Muster the courage to tell your new partner the truth about what you want and need from her emotionally and in regards to your kids, your custody and co-parenting agreements. Many a divorced father has told me he feels/felt afraid to tell his new partner what he wants (or doesn’t want) because he feels ashamed or feels pressured to be viewed as a good dad or be more or less involved than he wants to be. It may be scary to admit this to yourself, let alone tell your beloved new partner.
It’s true your partner may have some feelings and she may make some assumptions about your needs and wishes. That said, nothing is worse for your relationship than not speaking up and later blaming her or yourself for problems that could’ve been avoided if you’d spoken up sooner. However, it’s never too late so speak up now. This could be about big things or small things. Here are just a few examples of topics you may want to discuss with your partner.
Maybe you want to have your kids for less time than you currently have them.
Maybe you want to approach the court for more parenting time or decision-making power, which would require additional resources, energy, patience and courage from both you and your new partner.
Maybe you want to move out of town so you can have some space from your ex-wife or the pre-divorce social circles, even if this means you only see your kids every other weekend or on vacations.
Maybe you want to move closer to your ex-wife so you can see your kids more.
Maybe you realize you’re OK if you miss a game or teacher conference because it’s just too difficult to deal with your ex-wife at this time.
Maybe you want to be more involved (or less involved) in school or extracurricular activities.
Maybe you want your new partner to be more (or less) involved than she wants to be and depending on the situation, you’re afraid to discuss it with her knowing she will be upset.
Maybe you want to coach your kids’ sports team even though it means more time exposed to your ex-wife and away from home.
Maybe you want your partner to let you make all the decisions for your kids or at least have final say after discussing the options without having to have an argument when she disagrees with you.
Maybe you want your partner to be more (or less) involved in parenting duties and decisions.
Maybe you want time alone with your kids so you can bond with them and build their confidence in you, and you need your new partner to be OK with being in the fringes for a part of each visit.
Maybe you want your partner to be more involved with your kids but she’s pulled away because they’ve not been very kind or respectful and she can’t handle being treated that way anymore—but you want her to anyway and don’t know what to do or how to help her feel better.
Maybe you don’t know how to give your partner the time and attention she needs and feel like a good dad, too—and maybe you’re worried about how to say this to her in a way that will result in both of you feeling good going forward.
Whatever you’re feeling, be brave enough to express your feelings up front, as soon as you realize what they are. While it’s natural to want to give your new partner what she wants, it’s important for your relationship that your needs and wishes are equally valued. As Brené Brown says, “choose discomfort over resentment.” It’s a sign of respect to be honest with your new partner. You have every right to expect the same from her.
Tip#10: Recognize you may be emotionally calloused to the disrespectful behaviors of your kids. That’s not a criticism, just a possible reality. If you feel guilty about the divorce or are afraid of losing your kids’ love, this may compel you to tolerate hurtful and rude behavior from them. Makes sense. Before expecting your new partner to tolerate the same, ask yourself: “How would I feel if a neighbor’s child treated my partner the same way my kids just treated her?” This question can help you see through your own emotional callouses or blindness in an important way.
How would you respond to the neighbor kid if you witnessed this child treating your partner exactly the same as your kids treat her? How can you reduce any mistreatment of your partner by your kids? Why do you expect your partner to endure having her feelings hurt by your kids? You have the right to choose and accept to be disrespected by your own kids. However, your partner didn’t sign up to be mistreated by anyone, especially in her own home by children in her care. If you have other children—perhaps, for example, with your new partner—consider whether it’s fair, safe or appropriate for them to witness these disrespectful behaviors, too. With this in mind, you may need to reconsider the types of behaviors that are acceptable in your home and explore how you can improve the environment for everyone.
Tip #11: Dispel any beliefs your new partner may have a belief (unspoken or otherwise) that it’s her job to stand up for you against your ex-wife. This is a natural “mother bear” urge for a woman, especially newly in love. She may feel this way if she’s been hearing about how you’ve been hurt or wronged by your ex-wife, yet it’s a wormhole that could lead to future power struggles among you, your ex-wife and your partner. Appreciate your partner’s eagerness to help you and redirect her energy to supporting you in ways that will make you feel more confident and minimize/contain any future negative impact from your ex-wife.
Tip #12: If your new partner is eager to care for your kids and interact with their bio-mom, but you believe this may cause problems with your ex-wife, speak up immediately. Be courageous and fully disclose your fears, reasonings and feelings to your partner so she has the chance to better understand how her involvement may impact her new life with you. She’s probably creative so work with her to create options that would help her feel better about a situation she may need to accept she can’t change.
Tip #13: Recognize that any behaviors of your kids or their bio-mom that exclude or hurt your new partner are likely to be emotionally charged issues for her. Do your absolute best to avoid getting angry at your partner for being hurt or for wanting to be involved in the first place. Instead, bring more patience, empathy and creative problem-solving to your support of her and the situation. This will help her feel acknowledged and be honored as you deal with the stress in new ways. Many Stepmoms truly want to become part of their stepkids’ lives. If she doesn’t have her own bio-kids (if she doesn’t have them yet or perhaps never will), being excluded can be excruciating at a deep level for other reasons. Your lovingkindness and compassion for her pain can be a healing balm for her wounded heart. Remember, she may be hurting even if you can’t readily see it.
If you find yourself unable to be compassionate with her or even feeling angry and defensive—look more closely at your own feelings about the matter at hand. Your partner is in pain and looking for your support, what are you thinking, believing or feeling that is interfering with your ability to support her in a loving way? There are good valid reasons for whatever’s happening with you and it’s your responsibility to work with whatever is stopping you from being loving. See Chapters 26 and 27 for more about what might be going on with you.
Tip #14: If your new partner wants to be included in your kids’ activities but your ex-wife is complaining about, limiting this or blocking it entirely, recognize that this may be causing your partner anxiety, anger and grief. Your partner may have strong feelings about being left out. Who likes to being left out of something they imagine is great fun?! She may believe she has the right to be included with you and your kids. While including her—or being included yourself—may not be important to you, she may feel differently. This is not the time to make your partner wrong for wanting to be involved with your kids’ public life. This is the time to be her champion. This is a time to listen patiently and acknowledge the unfairness so she knows you understand her true feelings.
When she’s ready, work together to figure out new ways to help her get her needs met. This can seem like mission impossible, but only if you underestimate the power of your compassion and loving support. It’s crucial for the strength of your connection that you give her your non-defensive creative support. You may not have caused this painful wound or situation, but you’re the best person on the planet to help heal it. Please take this in—you may be the only one who can help her move on from this painful unchangeable stepfamily reality.
Tip #15: Be vigilant about owning and fulfilling your responsibilities for your kids, even if it’s easier to let your new partner handle them for you. It can be tempting to let your enthusiastic, happy-to-help newbie Stepmom partner take over your childrearing chores, particularly if you’re under pressure at work or still suffering from the stress of your divorce. If your partner wants to participate in these activities, talk about it and build a conscious plan with her so that she feels like an equal partner and not just a nanny. It’s common for divorced fathers to let their new partners care for their kids but deny them a voice in child-care decisions or the joy of being part of your children’s parenting team when it comes to school or social events. This is giving her responsibility without any authority—a petrie dish for resentment, rage and humiliation. Be proactive and make sure you and your partner make her involvement a good deal for both of you.
Stepfamily Specific Example—If your ex-wife is not-so-enthusiastic about your partner participating in public activities, consider writing a letter to the school or any sporting organizations giving your partner your permission to transport your kids and speak on your behalf in your absence. Make sure her name is on the school emergency contact list so if she’s ever needed to pick up your kids at school, she will be allowed to do so. Being turned away by school or sports officials as “not authorized” can be humiliating, enraging and heart-breaking for your partner. You can spare her this trauma by writing this general “permission slip. You can make this a formal letter and send out copies to each group or you can compose a letter she carries with her. You can get the letter notarized to show officials and your new partner she’s an official member of your parenting team if you suspect anyone will question your intention. This is only partially about the permission and mostly about you taking action that shows your partner she has the authority to be part of your kids’ lives.
Official Alert: This is not legal wording. It is offered as a relationship improving suggestion. If you’re concerned about the legalities of this idea, consult your attorney and get a plan in place.
Tip #16: If you find yourself becoming angry at your new partner because, from your perspective, she’s making a big deal out of nothing in reaction to something your kids or ex-wife have done—STOP yourself from reacting and take a moment to look at it from her perspective. She may not be the cause of the problems. She may not have any experience with the behaviors she’s just now encountering. Be aware of the all-too-easy impulse to make your new partner the villain for not being able to endure all the things you’ve had years of practice enduring. If she’s upset, there’s a good reason. The sooner you understand it, the sooner she can let it go or move into problem-solving mode.
Tip #17: Be aware that the communications and problem-solving skills that work so well for you at your job are not necessarily going to work well for you in your loving relationships when it comes to working with your partner on stepfamily situations. While you may find this frustrating, recognizing this truth will enable you to open to new ways of communicating with your intimate partner. Chances are good that you two work well together in handling life’s challenges that don’t involve your kids or your ex-wife; this is a good scenario to reflect on and build from going forward. Chances are also good that when you’re resolving those non-stepfamily conflicts, you’re not feeling guilty, fearful or defensive about things—hmmmm?—this is a noteworthy observation for your reflection.
If you’re open to it, she can teach you a lot about giving and getting empathy. She can help you balance the rational thinking aspects of an issue with the messier but important emotional feelings involved. This gives you both access to even greater wisdom and creative choices as a team. Yes, this process may take a bit more time—initially—however you’ll see that working together, keeping the big picture in sight as you also solve the short-term problem will reap benefits in several ways. When a couple can combine their skills, instead of trying to convince each other to do things another way, the synergy of your acquired wisdom and skills can be directed to solving whatever stepfamily situation you’re facing and do so as a team.
Tip #18: Recognize and acknowledge whenever the actions of your kids or their bio-mom trigger your defensiveness when your new partner wants to discuss what’s happened. If you find yourself speaking in angry tones or withdrawing silently, pause and say to your new partner, “I’m sorry. I’m feeling defensive right now.” Do your best to call yourself on it as soon as you recognize your hardening heart. Remember your love for her. Take a breath. Stay as open-hearted as you can. If you feel defensive, it means you believe something is about to hurt you, or is already hurting or scaring you. Your partner wants to help you so working on this together helps you both feel safe around each other. See the chapters about dealing with defensiveness (Bonus Chapter #5 and Book Chapters 21 and 22.
Tip #19: Make time with your new partner—as often as possible—to get away from the stresses caused by your kids and their bio-mom. Whether a 20-minute walk, a date night or a weekend away, making this time will help you protect and strengthen your loving relationship. Look up Chapter 37, TIP #7, Create Stress-Free Zones with Your Partner for more about this idea (in the book).
Tip #20: Make time to get clear about, acknowledge and process any anger you have toward your kids and their bio-mom in productive, healthy ways. After you do this work, you’ll be better able to support your new partner when she’s angry. Once the anger over a situation is processed, you can work together to find ways to take action and handle difficult situations in an empowering way—as a team. Keep reminding yourself that much of the stress in stepfamily life is caused by the actions of the kids and their bio-mom, particularly if the bio-mom is not as cooperative as you’d both like. Working together with your new partner is a worthy and attainable goal when you both stay conscious of the sources of your stress and anger and take responsibility for processing your feelings in healthy ways.
Tip #21: Whenever the mood is tense or you’re not sure what to do to lighten the mood or re-connect with your partner, reminisce with her about romantic and happy times you’ve shared. Be that romantic guy who does all kinds of unexpected, silly, sexy, funny and loving things with and for her. When Stepmom/divorced Dad couples have been under pressure for a while, visiting these memories can help you both remember and most importantly feel a fresh infusion of that powerful love you share. With all the stress, it’s easy for that love to become buried under a lot of misplaced but really heavy anger, pain, fear and anxiety. Any time you share a loving memory, play a song, sing a song, surprise her at work, prepare a meal together or go out for a favorite food or activity—it can work wonders to rekindle and strengthen your love.
Tip #22: When your new partner is upset about something that doesn’t upset you or you ever find yourself mentally reacting to her complaints with, “Here we go again” and emotionally beginning to brace for the next few hours of stress, make a new commitment to respond in a new way going forward. Instead of enduring or brushing her feelings off out of irritation, tell her you’d like to give her 10-15 minutes of your loving undivided attention and empathy so she can share her feelings and feel your support. This is such a loving gesture. This may surprise you—just giving your new partner this genuinely loving attention is often (about 50% of the time) all she needs to feel better and to move on without either of you having to do anything more.
Whether she admits it or not, deep down she knows you can’t always change the circumstances or control or stop everything that your kids and their bio-mom do. Still, if you defend their actions or dismiss your partner’s feelings, this is only going to make her feel more left out, angry or lower on your priority list—and that can be excruciating for her. Giving her your loving attention—for a pre-agreed period of time so you don’t feel like you’re held hostage to her feelings—is the best way for her to move on from the situation. Save both of you hours or days of stress by understanding that, more than anything, your new partner wants you to see her, understand her feelings and appreciate whatever she’s going through—and for you to love her through it. When you can do this for your partner, chances are very good, she’ll be even more eager to do the same thing for you. It’s a win-win tactic.
Tip #23: Remember your partner once had a happy family dream…
And this dream may have been destroyed (or is being destroyed) by the actions of your kids and ex-wife. This is not your fault, yet it’s part of the baggage you bring to the relationship. Set down your defenses and love your partner to help her accept this reality.
Give her heartfelt compassion and acknowledge that she’s inherited people in her life that can prevent her original dream from being possible. When you can do so lovingly, say something like these words out loud, “I know that my kids and my ex are disrupting your happy family dreams. What can I do to help you feel honored and loved at this time? Let’s create a new dream when you’re ready to talk about it. I really believe we can find a new dream that we’ll both love.”
Invite your partner to tell you how’s she’s feeling about whatever she’s losing (or has lost) due to the behaviors or needs of your kids and your ex-wife. Defending or denying anything she feels is likely to keep an ever-growing wedge of resentment between you two. Giving your partner compassion for her losses and frustrations is very healing for her and will likely draw you closer together. Yes, really! It often takes surprisingly little time to feel the positive impact. It’s another example of the powerful benefits of shared love.
Every time your partner shares her feelings of losing her dreams, resist the urge to defend or explain why those dreams were unreasonable or wrong. This won’t help either of you, even if it’s true. This is moment to open your heart, see her side of things with great empathy and give her all the compassionate loving attention you can muster so you can help her honor, mourn, handle, heal and reframe the reality of her stepfamily life situation. This clears out old feelings and creates a pathway for building a new dream with you.
Talk with your partner about her dreams, your dreams and the life you want to create together. It’s so easy for a Stepmom’s dreams to be written off as naïve or silly by a bio-dad who’s juggling a lot of plates and already doing all he can to handle the daily load of stepfamily issues. Although one dream may not be possible or realistic, this is your chance to work with your partner to create a new one. Wherever you and your partner are now, take the lead and talk about it. Ask her directly, “What are some things you’d like for our life together now that you see what we’re dealing with and how others’ actions impact our plans? I want to create a new dream come true with you. I love you so let’s talk about it and figure it out together.” Magic words for any woman.
I know this can seem like a lot of instructions and you’re right…there are a lot of ways you and your Stepmom partner can work together to make yourselves closer, happier and less stressed. There are ways you two can make your relationship stronger and, in a sense, untouchable by the actions of your ex-wife and any kids involved. That’s my wish for you both. It’s a dream that you CAN make come true. Go for it!