Dear Dr. Diana,
I am a stepmother of two children (one boy age 11, and one girl age 8), and have my own child with my husband — she just turned 2 years old. My husband works full time and we have my stepchildren 50 percent of the time. I love my stepkids and don’t mind taking care of them.
But, sometimes, I get really tweaked by their mom or how their dad, my husband, handles things with them and the mom. Then we get into fights and it’s just terrible. I need to figure out how to keep these things from getting so out of control. If I just shut up and don’t say anything, then I build up resentments and I eventually explode or start snapping at my husband and the kids over small little things. Do you have any suggestions for me?
—Trying to keep my cool
This challenge that you describe is one that most of us can relate to. How do we manage our own feelings and reactions and keep them from hijacking our relationship into a negative place? I think that even asking the question suggests that you are on the right track. The first step is self-awareness — being able to observe yourself and notice what exactly tweaks you. Taking time to write in a journal on a regular basis can help you get things off your chest until you can bring issues up with your husband in a calm manner. Try to notice and write about the feelings and thoughts that arise when a particular thing happens. The issues in our relationships that get us really emotionally hot are usually touching something deeper within us, like wondering if our mate is really there for us or if we are respected and valued members of the family.
So, the first step is to pause and reflect on what buttons are being pushed. Developing the ability to observe your reactions so that you are not fully submerged in your emotion can help you to gain some perspective on what is the best way to handle things. When you feel yourself getting upset, try taking some slow deep breaths…and think of the emotion as a wave and ride it out with your breath. You can also try breathing in to the count of four and breathing out to the count of eight.
Before you approach your husband about these issues try to see it from his perspective. Often divorced dads feel guilty and super concerned for the kids to the point of being a little lax on the discipline. It would also be natural and even healthy for the family to some degree for him to try to keep the peace with his ex-wife (if there is some). For the children’s sake, less conflict between their parents will help them with the adjustment to life post-divorce. If you take your husband’s feelings into consideration before addressing your concerns with him, it will soften your approach. And he will most likely be able to hear your needs and concerns more easily.
As a full-time caregiver to your children, it’s important that you take some special time for yourself on a regular basis. Taking time to exercise and spend time with friends can be good for blowing off steam and reducing stress. Just make sure that you choose friends who don’t exacerbate your difficulties, but rather they offer constructive, equanimous feedback. Stepfamilies can be complicated with all the conflicting needs, feelings, and pre-existing loyalties. It’s important to take a broad lens view when looking at the whole picture.
Note: Diane Wisdom will hold “Conversations for Connection,” a couples workshop and marriage retreat in Rancho Santa Fe June 29-30. Based on the book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.” Strengthen and deepen your relationship. For more information, visit www.cottageclinic.net.
Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Rancho Santa Fe. Specializing in marriage counseling, stepfamilies, and personality testing, she does private counseling as well as marriage enrichment retreats. (858) 259-0146 www.cottageclinic.net