Why Healthy Boundaries Matter in Your Stepfamily

I didn’t realize I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. But I was. Married at 23-years-old to a man chasing the dream of success as a medical physician, I was along for the ride.

But all too soon, the ride got very bumpy.

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Arguments turned into character-attacking rants. Nights of alcoholic rage became the norm.

Convinced it was my fault, I tried harder to be a better wife. Nothing changed. My self-esteem plummeted under the weight of shame.

I wish I could tell you I recognized the dysfunction in my marriage and sought help. But I didn’t. At least, not until far-reaching damage had been done to me emotionally.

Eleven years after saying “I do,” I finally gathered the courage to walk away. With two young daughters to raise, I refused to subject them to the emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse I was experiencing. Al-Anon—an organization dedicated to families of alcoholics—gave me the tools I needed to set healthy boundaries that enabled me to start a new life.

Unfortunately, boundaries couldn’t save my alcoholic marriage that included a history of relapse and destructive patterns. But I learned life-changing lessons on how boundaries impact relationships.

As a result, I’m sensitive to others in emotionally or physically abusive relationships. I quickly recognize fuzzy or negligent boundary setting. And I see it often in stepfamily relationships.

Sitting across the table from a stepmom in tears, I suspected a boundary problem. As the conversation continued, I listened to her describe her stepson’s fits of rage and disrespectful language toward her and her husband.  At 17-years-old, he was controlling their home with his behavior. But she didn’t know how to change it.

“How does your husband respond to his son’s actions?” I asked.

“It becomes a yelling match to see who can get in the last word,” the stepmom responded. “I often leave the house and take our daughter with me. I can’t stand to watch it unravel. But the real problem exists when my husband isn’t home and the behavior gets directed at me. His outbursts are becoming increasingly more violent and I’m scared to confront his anger—he’s bigger and stronger than I am.”

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Dear Stepparent: It’s Okay to Nurture Your Needs

I used to believe that my needs should come last. I’d stay up late to finish laundry or rise early to put a meal in the crockpot before heading to work. If you peered into our home, you’d see resentment from an unrealistic routine that boiled over into behavior that was less than Christ-like.

One day I decided my needs were important too.

I’m not saying I never do those things anymore, but it’s rare. We teach our kids to do their own laundry as teenagers and meals at our house are simpler than they used to be. If I find myself overwhelmed due to chores or a schedule I can’t manage, I ask for help.  I bet my husband would tell you I’m easier to live with now.

ID-100169128The demands of stepparenting increase with summer upon us. Long days of a surly teenage attitude or a week-long vacation with a stepchild who disses you can send even the calmest stepparent into a fit of madness.

How do you cope?

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How to Cope with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

I’m addressing a question today I received from a reader. How do you cope as a stepmom when you’re dealing with a biological mom who is belittling to you and doesn’t want you in her children’s lives?

The stepmom role becomes harder when the bio mom makes every effort to exclude you from her children’s lives. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. At the root of this issue lies the fear that the bio mom feels the children are going to bond with the you – the stepmom, and form a deeper relationship with you than they have with her.

It’s an unfounded fear because children almost always have a stronger relationship with their biological parents than they have with a stepparent. However, she’s reacting out of her own fear and communicating to her children that she wants their loyalty. Women are territorial when it comes to their children. If you have children of your own, you understand these feelings, but it doesn’t give the bio mom the right to act belittling or antagonistic  toward the stepmom.

To help alleviate the threat the bio mom is sensing, the stepmom needs to send a message that she has no intention of interfering with the relationship between the bio mom and her children and isn’t trying to replace her in any way. In their book, The Smart Stepmom, Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal give an example of how to communicate this message which they call “The No-Threat Message.” They suggest doing it in person or via e-mail if the relationship is already strained.

“Dear Meghan, since we are both involved with your kids, I wanted to take a minute to communicate with you. I want to share that I totally understand and respect that you are the only mother of these children. I’m not their mom, and I will never try to take your place. They are your children. I am honored to be an added parent figure in their lives. I view my role as one of support to their father, and my desire is to be a blessing to them. I promise to speak well of you and work together for their benefit. I desire to make their lives easier, not more difficult. Please know that I pray for the entire family. If there’s anything I can do to help the situation or if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

Sending the no-threat message doesn’t guarantee the bio mom will accept your position in her children’s lives but it offers her some perspective on how you feel about your role. She is more likely to allow a relationship between you and her children if she doesn’t feel threatened by your behavior and sees you live out the No-threat message.

Unfortunately, some bio moms are mean-spirited and vindictive. In this case, there’s not a lot the stepmom can do to have an amicable relationship. For further insight, I suggest reading the chapter from The Smart Stepmom, “Meet Your Ex-Wife-in-Law: Friend or Foe.” It gives additional scenarios of how to cope with a difficult ex-spouse.

What suggestions would you give this reader? I’d love to hear them.

Picture by Grant Cochrane

Related Posts:

Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Creating Healthy Boundaries with Your Ex-Spouse

Recognizing the Need for Boundaries

Setting Boundaries with Your Stepchildren

My stepson moved from Conway, AR to Austin, TX this past week. After graduating from college, he opted to explore the big-city scene of Austin as a single person. He spent a few days at our house during the transition.

austin capitalThe weeks prior to the move, we were in contact with him almost daily regarding details like renting a U-haul, finding the best apartment, budgeting his finances for the move, etc. A dilemma surfaced regarding how to pull a trailer when his Jeep didn’t have a trailer hitch. Since I drive a car with a trailer hitch, my husband suggested we let him borrow my car and pull the trailer behind it.

I bristled at the suggestion. My stepson has totalled one vehicle and allowed a friend to drive his next vehicle, which the friend totalled. Knowing my stepson has little experience in pulling a trailer made me even more uncomfortable. I pleaded my case for another option and thankfully, my husband agreed.

During the short period my stepson stayed at our house, he asked if I would help with his laundry. It was a small favor I knew would help without a huge sacrifice on my part. Our kids are taught to do their own laundry as teenagers, but saying yes to laundry that day was okay with me.

Boundary setting requires wisdom and sensitivity on our part as stepparents. The boundaries you set in your home will look different than what I set in my home. And boundaries change as our children mature.

Saying no to driving my car was a boundary I felt strongly about it. But doing my stepson’s laundry to help with his move was a gesture of love for me. If we can say yes we need to say yes – that’s part of building a loving relationship with our stepchildren. But when we need to say no, say no.

Our actions or inactions in setting boundaries teach others how to treat us. We can require respect from our stepchildren, even if they don’t like us. Team up with your spouse and set some ground rules (i.e. yelling is not allowed–even when you’re angry), and follow through with consequences if they’re not followed.

I like the way veteran stepmom Sue Thoele discusses boundaries in The Courage to be a Stepmom, “With practice and commitment, taking care of ourselves and setting self-nurturing limits can become second nature. Cultivating the ability to say “no” to unreasonable responsibilities and expectations makes it easier for us to say “yes” to love and laughter.”

As stepparents, we make endless sacrifices for our stepchildren with few rewards, especially in the beginning. It’s our responsibility to determine what boundaries we need to put in place to foster thriving relationships. When we allow disrespect, or behavior that goes against what we can tolerate, we invite resentment into our heart and home.

If you’re struggling with boundaries, I recommend reading Boundaries, When to Say Yes and When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. Healthy boundaries impact all areas of our life and enable us to recognize our limits and seek balance as stepparents.

Are you successful in setting boundaries with your stepchildren? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Related Posts:

The Power of Boundaries as a Stepparent – Part One

The Power of Boundaries as a Stepparent – Part Two

Creating Healthy Boundaries with your Ex-Spouse

Overcoming the Pain of Rejection as a Stepparent

Tears began falling down my cheeks the moment the realtor left our house. I wasn’t prepared for her insensitive comments about the home our family had enjoyed for eleven years. “It won’t sell with wallpaper on the walls. I prefer only neutral colors in all rooms. Your family pictures must come down. The price will be discounted since the master bedroom is upstairs. The light fixtures are dated and must be changed out. You should consider moving your furniture around in some of these rooms.”

Geeeez. I knew our home wasn’t perfect but we shared a lot of love and laughter there, making it a special place for our family. Life with a bunch of kids didn’t allow for the time, energy, and money necessary to keep a home perfectly updated. But we were happy in our family-oriented, slightly-dated home.

So why was my spirit deflated? Rejection. The feeling was all too familiar. I had felt it many times as a stepparent. And now I was feeling it from a realtor. All she could see were the negative aspects that would keep our home from selling. She didn’t consider the sprawling front porch, the well-established neigborhood with beautiful trees, or the central location to anywhere in town. She rejected any notion of positive features of our home.

Have you felt that before as a stepparent? Your stepchildren don’t recognize the meals you cook for them every night, the laundry that gets washed every week, or the endless carpool trips to school, ballgames, and friend’s houses.

Instead they focus on the evening you lost your temper after a long day at work, the extra kids that came when you married their dad, or the uncomforable feeling that’s created when they begin to care about you like they do their biological parent. It’s easier to reject you than deal with the inner turmoil of accepting you into their life.

So, how do we deal with rejection as a stepparent? How do I come to terms with the rejection I felt from the realtor? Here are a few things I’ve done to help me cope:

1. Focus on what I can change, and let go of everything else. I can’t change the fact that our master bedroom is upstairs, but I can hire someone to strip the wallpaper and put on a fresh coat of paint. As a stepparent, you can’t change the circumstances if you brought children of your own into your marriage. But you can work hard to love your stepchildren with Christ’s love and accept them for who they are.

2. Realize that Christ loves me every day, regardless of whether my stepchildren accept me or whether the realtor approves of my house. Affirm my positive qualities in the midst of criticism. “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18).

3. Unite with my spouse to overcome feelings of rejection from my stepchildren or hurtful comments sent my way. Find solace in a loving, comforting relationship that can only be shared with a mate.

Other ideas? How do you cope with rejection?

Can you look past the pain of rejection and see the beautiful person God created in you? How do you cope with rejection as a stepparent? I would love to hear your comments.

Related Posts:

Marriage is Not Always Blissful, Especially in Blended Families

Stinkin’ Thinkin’ Creates Bitter Quitters in Stepfamilies

Grasping the Value of Boundaries as a Stepparent

As I was listening to my friend complain about the disrespectful behavior from her stepson, I couldn’t help but think, “Why haven’t you established some boundaries that would allow you to take care of yourself instead of putting up with his self-centered behavior?

We can require respect from our stepchildren, even if they don’t like us. Our actions or inactions teach others how to treat us. It helps to team up with our spouse and set some ground rules (i.e. yelling is not allowed, even when you’re angry), and then follow through with consequences if they’re not followed.

It isn’t our role as stepparents to be walked on, taken advantage of, or neglected. We have needs and wants also, and it’s okay to express our needs and learn how to take care of ourselves.

For example, I learned many years ago that I don’t deal well with chaos. It makes me nervous to spend a lot of time in an environment that is loud or uncontrolled. Since my husband and I have five children, I can’t completely avoid those situations.

However, I’ve learned that if I take a time-out for myself when we have large groups of kids at the house and let my husband be in charge for awhile, I can regroup and come back to the interaction refreshed. I want our kids to be comfortable having their friends over, so I’ve learned how to cope with my limitations.

I’ve also learned that I have less patience with my stepson and his ideas of post-college life than I do my stepdaughter’s quest for mature decision-making about her future. I’ve learned that my husband can guide my stepson better without the judgment and lack of understanding I experience. It’s more natural for me to spend my emotional energy influencing my stepdaughter regarding her long-term relationship or my biological girls with their current struggles.

As stepparents, we make constant sacrifices for our stepchildren and may see few rewards, particularly in the beginning. If we give up too much of ourselves in order to meet the constant needs of others, we will wind up frustrated or resentful. It’s our responsibility as stepparents to determine what we must do to take care of ourselves adequately.

I like the way Sue Thoele discusses boundaries in The Courage to be a Stepmom:. “With practice and commitment, taking care of ourselves and setting self-nurturing limits can become second nature. Cultivating the ability to say “no” to unreasonable responsibilities and expectations makes it easier for us to say “yes” to love and laughter.”

Do you need to practice saying “no” this week?

Related Posts:

The Power of Boundaries as a Stepparent: Part One

The Power of Boundaries as a Stepparent: Part Two