On most days, and on this blog, I try to focus on the positives of life. But some days it can be hard. Especially when complicated family dynamics are involved.
Ours is a blended family. I do not have biological children, but my husband has four. They call me their “bonus mom” and I love them dearly.
I’ve written before about step-relatives and how loving them is a choice. I’ve jumped full-heartedly into loving my stepchildren, but that doesn’t mean our blended family has been all been rainbows and unicorns.
There is another choice involved in blended families – the choice to let go of anger. And that choice is one of the hardest.
One of our biggest blended family challenges is co-parenting with the kids’ biological mom. Sometimes it goes really well. But sometimes it doesn’t. During a recent, very bad evening, my husband’s former mother-in-law called my husband a nasty name in front of the kids and sneered that I should have known what I was getting into when I got married.
My response to her was that I knew I was marrying a man with four amazing children and I loved them very much. In retrospect, I am proud that I held my tongue and didn’t say some of the things I was thinking.
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Namely that what I didn’t know when I got married was that in addition to my relationship with my husband and his children, I was going to have to navigate some sort of relationship with his ex-wife. And that it was going to be far from easy.
I’d like to say I’m proud of how I conduct myself during every difficult interaction, but if I’m being honest, that’s not always the case.
Like many stepparents, I constantly work to choose to let go of things that are said to and about me, and actions meant expressly to exclude or hurt me. But I’m not always successful.
Anger Is A Dangerous Emotion.
Anger can get the best of people with even the purest of intentions. But throw it into an already simmering pot of emotions between ex-spouses who have a long history of pushing each other’s buttons, add in a new marriage, and it can be a recipe for disaster.
Whether it happens to you, an ex-spouse, or someone else, anger can take over a person and transform them into someone that doesn’t look anything like who you thought you knew. Bitterness can control someone’s actions until they punish everyone around them for their unhappiness.
And flying into a blind rage when you’ve been triggered by someone else can have lots of unintended consequences.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The thing about being angry and bitter is that it’s simply exhausting. You know when you’ve had a huge fight with someone and the next day you wake up and feel like you’ve been run over by a truck? It’s like an anger hangover, right? For me, it can take a day or two to recover if I’ve been part of a nasty argument.
I don’t like that feeling, but when that happens I try to shift my focus away from the ugliness to what I could have done to change the outcome and keep things from getting that bad.
Through this process, I’ve learned a few things that I hope are helpful to others navigating challenging family dynamics:
The Kids Suffer Most When Adults Can’t Hold It Together.
Kids need stability. Desperately. They need to know that the adults in their lives prioritize them. When they see adults fighting, it drives home a message that adults put their own interests and agendas ahead of the kids.
Kids have big ears, especially when adults are fighting around them.
Kids don’t have the ability to consciously digest that their adults are doing this. But that de-prioritization jumps into their psyche and festers. Which can lead to kids who grow up believing they aren’t worth being a priority to someone. And if left unaddressed, this absence of self-worth can lead to them having unhealthy, or even disastrous, relationships in their adult lives.
How can you change this?
Don’t fight in front of the kids. And if you’re in a blended family, don’t fight with the ex in front of the kids.
Okay, that is all easier said than done, right? My husband and I do squabble in front of the kids every once in a while. Most times it’s resolved within minutes by one of us cracking a joke.
But even when it lasts longer than that, we don’t attack each other. We don’t swear at each other and we don’t say ugly things we can’t take back. And when we resolve things (which usually happens pretty quickly), we have a conversation with the kids about what they’ve seen and heard. And we talk about the fact that people who love each other sometimes fight, but that if you love each other, you can always work it out.
That being said, one of the toughest conversations we had with our kids was when one of them said to Craig, “but you and mom couldn’t work it out.” Yikes, we had focused so much on setting a good example for them we hadn’t counted on that one!
While we can control how we act in front of the kids, we can’t control interactions with an ex-spouse that occur in front of them. It’s easy to say you just won’t react when verbally attacked or provoked, but when you’re in the moment it can be hard to hold your tongue.
I constantly remind myself that I can’t control others’ actions, I can only control my reactions. Good advice when I can take it.
Violence Is Never The Answer.
I hope this one doesn’t need much explanation. When anger controls someone, he or she can easily get carried away. Do not. Under any circumstances. Let things escalate into violence.
Shoving, slapping, punching. None of it will solve anything and all of it will get you in trouble. It’s just wrong – especially when you’re in front of the kids.
When children are shared by two people who get into an altercation, it is considered a domestic matter – even if the two adults are no longer married. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20,000 calls a day are placed to domestic violence hotlines.
I’ll add here that if you are the victim of violence or find yourself in a quickly escalating situation, do not hesitate to call 911. Try to disengage and get yourself to a safe place and wait for the police to arrive.
The Kids Don’t Need To Know All The Whys.
Sometimes people get divorced because they grow apart. Sometimes it’s because something tragic has happened in their lives that they can’t get past. Or it’s because they never really did get along. Or they were just a total mismatch. Sometimes it’s because someone stepped out. And sometimes it’s a combination of a bunch of those factors.
Whatever the cause, you should not, under any circumstances, get into all the dirty details with or in front of your kids. They simply don’t have the capacity to understand complicated and adult feelings.
They don’t need to know that mom or dad had secret boyfriends or girlfriends. Or that mom or dad got into pills or drinking. That there was some underlying emotional trauma in mom or dad’s background. Or that mom is mad at dad for getting remarried, or dad thinks mom isn’t paying her fair share.
Whatever the circumstances, kids only need to know three things: that their parents love them, will provide for them, and will keep them safe. That’s what is most important to them. Anything else needs to be put to the side when the kids are around.
When parents get divorced, kids usually have a lot of questions. Things like: Where will I live? Why is this happening? Is it my fault?
Focus on making sure they understand that just because you aren’t together, you both love them and will put them first. If they ask a lot of questions that start with the word “why” simply say that they don’t need to worry about the adult conversations, that the important thing is that they are loved by all.
We try to remind the children often that they have three parents who will always love them unconditionally.
Water Under The Bridge Doesn’t Always Stay There.
This all seems like a pretty easy formula, right? Put the kids first. Behave around them. Get along.
I wish it were that easy! My husband and his ex-wife were married for a long time. There is a lot of water under that bridge and they know exactly how and where to drop a depth charge.
They both try not to on most days, but despite best intentions, we’ve had more times than I can count where one of them will say something that hits the other in the wrong spot and it goes downhill from there. And yes, I’ve gotten dragged into it, too.
Pushing buttons doesn’t help anyone.
It’s like being a kid on a full elevator and wanting to push every button on the grid. You sort of know it will make everyone angry, but you can’t help yourself.
And then as soon as you push the buttons, you hear the sighs and feel the collective daggers shooting into the back of your head as the elevator makes its way to the top, stopping at every. single. floor. Everyone suffers and becomes more irritable because you couldn’t exercise a little restraint.
See the above section on kids suffering when you can’t hold it together. Keep the water under the bridge where it belongs and try your hardest to refrain from pushing those buttons.
And if you push a button, identify that it has happened and try to back out of the situation. Turn around to the other elevator riders and say you’re sorry, that you can’t keep the elevator from stopping on every floor but you sure wish you hadn’t done it.
Sharp Tongues Cut.
I was an English major and am a lawyer by training. I have a decent command of the English language and I can think on my feet. My husband and his ex-wife are also smart and quick-witted. Especially when provoked.
This can all make for a dangerous combination when people get angry. I watch my husband and his ex trade barbs, and I cringe when any of them are directed at me.
And there have been times when an amazing zinger of a response has slipped out of my mouth. The kind that you hear someone in a movie say that is the perfect retort to someone who has said something cruel.
At the moment it makes me feel good, like I got the last, best word in. But in the end, it never makes me feel better. In fact, I usually end up wishing I had held my tongue. Which leads me to . . .
Sometimes The Best Answer Is No Answer.
It’s okay to not answer an insult with an insult. It’s also okay to not respond right away to a nasty email or text. Take time to think about your response. Will your response escalate the situation or will it work towards solving whatever problem you’re fighting about?
If it will help solve things, go ahead and hit send. But if it adds to the hostility and re-opens old wounds, take a beat before you respond and think about how you might be more constructive.
This can be particularly hard as a stepparent. We can often end up being used as emotional punching bags for the ex-spouse’s grievances, and even for kids who are processing complicated emotions about their parents.
As rewarding and amazing as stepparenting can be, it can also be frustrating to always turn the other cheek (or at least to always try). You have to let a lot of stuff roll off your back, which is really hard sometimes.
My first inclination when someone snaps at me is to stick up for myself and argue the point until I win. But that is not always the best answer.
Sometimes it’s better to let things go. Even if you feel like you’re being treated badly.
It is hard. Really hard, some days. But usually, it’s for the best to take a pause and think before you speak/write/shout.
Don’t trash the other parent or stepparent to the kids.
Like some of the other tips in this post, this should go without saying. But I’m saying it here. Kids do not have the emotional maturity to understand adult dynamics.
So when you talk to them about the fact mom or dad cheated, or that mom or dad never shows up on time, or never pays what’s owed, kids accept those things as fact. And it can tarnish their relationship with the other parent. While that may be tempting in a moment of anger, it is never the right thing to do.
We do not badmouth the kids’ mom in front of them and we hold our tongue when something she has said is repeated to us. That being said, we aren’t always perfect and it is hard to keep a poker face sometimes. I’d love to say we are successful every single time, but we just aren’t.
Talking badly about your ex or your spouse’s ex might get you what you want in the short term. But you’re doing far much more harm to the kids in the long term. The kids will feel like they’re stuck in the middle and once again like they aren’t a priority to either of you.
Prayer works for me.
I know not all my readers are believers. Whether you want to call it prayer or just sending positive vibes into the universe, I believe it helps. If you need it, I would ask you to consider just giving a silent plea for help. I think you’ll be surprised at how it makes you feel.
I pray every day, but when we’re going through a tough situation, I pray more specifically. Not for God to exact revenge on my husband’s ex for whatever is the most recent way I feel wronged, or for God to give me the solution I want. Tempting though it may be, that doesn’t work – and it’s selfish.
I pray first and foremost for God to give us, my husband and I, the strength to get through whatever the current challenge is. When I say those words, out loud or to myself, I can feel myself becoming stronger and more resilient.
For me, prayer works. And whatever you want to call it, I would suggest you consider trying it. It might bring you some peace you didn’t even realize you needed.
Keep choosing love over anger.
In the same way we choose to love our blended families, we must also try to choose to let go of anger and bitterness. It’s really hard. Especially when you’re balancing the delicate relationships that surround a blended family.
But it’s really important. For everyone involved, but especially for the kids.
Whether you’re in a blended or traditional family, I wish you nothing but rainbows and unicorns in all of your relationships. But I suspect most of us aren’t going to reach that level of perfection, so I hope I have given you a few things to think about.
I’d love to hear from you. What are some tips that have helped you navigate a difficult family dynamic? What tools are in your toolbox to diffuse tense situations? Comment below!