Saturday, January 17, 2009

The importance of a supportive partner

Hi girls,

Some years ago I wrote a series on the importance of having a supportive partner. The reason I wrote this series was because I know beyond any doubt that without their partner's 100% support most stepmothers simply 'don't make it'. I can give you a guarantee that there is NO WAY I WOULD HAVE SURVIVED THE EXPERIENCE
 without my husband's consistent unwavering support and I suspect that you won't either. So, this series, in essence, is for your partner and I suggest that, as HE is the one who needs to understand this concept, you encourage him to have a read of it. It comes in 5 parts, each one of which will be posted over the next few weeks. ENJOY the benefits!

In order to find a definition of the word SUPPORT I consulted the Concise Oxford Dictionary which states the following:

*Carry (part of) weight * hold up * keep from falling or sinking * enable to last out * keep from failing * give strength to * encourage * endure * tolerate * supply with the necessary * provide for * lend assistance or countenance to * back up * further * take secondary part to * speak in favour of * assist by one’s presence *…..

Now let’s focus on some of these words and see how they relate to a stepmum's experience.

Step 1 - CARRY (part of) THE WEIGHT

As you are a biological parent who has experienced the loss of your former partner, either to death or separation/divorce, you most certainly are no stranger to carrying a heavy burden. Having found another partner I imagine that you are not only hoping to find another chance at love, contentment and harmony, but also that your new partner is someone with whom you wish to share the burden you have been carrying on your own. This is a natural desire which is totally appropriate unless, in your relief, you now just drop the whole burden squarely on your partner’s shoulders. This hopefully isn't true for you, but believe me, some guys do just that!

A healthy relationship makes it possible to SHARE whatever BURDEN you carry. But remember that sharing is a two-way street. It is just as important that YOU share your partner’s burdens as it is that THEY share yours.

In order to succeed at burden sharing, you can do the following:

* Regularly check with your partner whether she feels overwhelmed. How about once a week?!
* If she does feel overwhelmed or overburdened, find out what is causing her to feel this way and put your heads together to find suitable ways of relieving her of the overload.
* Take responsibility for your children and ensure that they behave in a respectful manner towards your partner. That will go a long way towards her feeling positive about them.
* Be there for your partner:
- Physically – she absolutely needs to know that she can count on you, no matter what.
- Relationally - spend as much quality time as possible with her. Together-time is essential to building a strong, happy and resilient relationship.
- Emotionally – carefully listen to and validate your partner’s needs (even if they are not the same as yours and even if you don't really understand them) and be sure to meet as many of them as humanly possible.

Step 2 - HOLD (your partner) UP AND KEEP (her) FROM FAILING

Sometimes your special lady needs to be ‘held up’. She needs your supporting hand when she stumbles or if she looks like she might be about to ‘fall’ (metaphorically speaking). If that’s happened already, she needs you even more to help her stand upright again so that she won't fall... into into the traps of guilt…. fear…. or helplessness… or feel like a failure…or fall into a state of depression. She needs you to make room for her by your side and hold her there safely and securely.

Stepparents (and especially stepmums) who lack acknowledgment and affirmation can easily feel as though they are failing. They may feel as though they are failing you… your children…themselves. A partner who feels like a failure will rapidly lose their confidence and their belief in themselves. Naturally such a partner is not a happy and contented one and if they are not happy - guess what? - you won't be happy either.

A client’s example:
(Client’s examples are shared with their permission – no real names are used and their real identity is disguised to preserve confidentiality)

Sally was clearly devastated when she came to see me. Between big tears dripping down her cheeks she told me: “I fell in love with Cindy and Chris (those are her stepchildren – aged 9 and 12) the moment I saw them. They took to me immediately and we were getting on like a house on fire. Well, that was until Gavin and I got married 6 months ago. We were totally sure that everything was going to be fine – we were so in love, the kids were happy and his ‘ex’ seemed okay with it all as well. Since we’ve been married, though, everything has changed. His ‘ex’ has turned against us and the kids’ behaviour has changed overnight. They started ignoring me, talking no notice of anything I said to them. In short, all of a sudden they began treating me like an unwelcome intruder and it wasn’t long before I began feeling like I didn’t belong at all”. Sally, sad and with an air of hopelessness, went on to tell me about the many things that began to go pearshaped in her relationship as a result.

From everything Sally told me that day it became clear to me that as she didn’t know how to handle the sudden and inexplicable changes (and…who would?) she started becoming increasingly insecure….at first in her role of stepmum, then in her role of wife and lastly in the person she perceived herself to be as an individual.

Once feeling like an ‘outsider’ Sally began to strike out verbally at the kids. After his initial surprise at the unexpected turnaround, this really upset Gavin who clearly had no idea what was going on. He (as it emerged in the later conversations I had with him) started to get really anxious when he became aware of the increasing tension between Sally and his children. In his anxiety he began berating Sally, responding to her complaints about the children’s behaviour: “No wonder they ignore you, all you do is shout at them or nag them!.” Gavin was afraid that he would lose his children’s love and affection if they became too uncomfortable in their new environment. He was also afraid of upsetting Sally and felt more and more internal pressure as he became aware that he could neither please Sally nor his children. He didn’t know what to do and became increasingly disgruntled and depressed. A mere six months after ‘tying the knot’ it was clear that nobody was happy!

At this point Sally and Gavin came to see me. After a few sessions during which Sally was able to share her innermost feelings, her sense of insecurity and fears it became crystal clear to Gavin what he needed do to improve the situation for everyone concerned. As soon as he realised that he was the LYNCHPIN in this family and, as such, needed to take charge of creating empowering changes, he was ‘off and running’. He appropriated the suggestions below. It didn’t take long, once he began to support Sally in this way, that she reverted to the cheerful, loving and happy-go-lucky girl she had been at the time he’d fallen madly in love with her.

Having a heart-to-heart with his kids in which he gave them permission to talk about THEIR insecurities and fears enabled them to vent
their anxieties and helped them stabilise. Soon thereafter they began to settle into a comfortable routine which eventually allowed them to re-embrace their stepmum without feeling a sense of disloyalty to their biological mother, which had been one the children’s issues.

Gavin now says: “I had no idea how much ‘power’ I had to create the family environment I have been craving all along. No, it isn’t all just sugar and spice in my home now, but there is a sense of peace and harmony that I had almost given up hoping for. Sally is great – she’s a fantastic stepmum and I couldn’t wish to have a more wonderful wife.”

Sally now says: “I could not imagine that I would ever be this happy. When things went pearshaped I got really worried but since then Gavin has turned out to be the most wonderful husband. He really understands me and he’s become my best friend as well as my lover. Not only that, he is also become this really great father to his kids. I can’t wait to have a family with him now that I know what he is REALLY like.”

You can assist your partner succeed in their step-parenting role by:

* Letting her know frequently just how important she is to you.  This affirmation really helps and can be your marriage saver, especially when the going gets tough.
* Acknowledging the difficulty of her position and role. She needs to feel that you understand!
* Assuring her that growing into the role of stepmum takes time. She will be a lot less anxious if she knows that your expectations are realistic. Growing into that role REALLY DOES TAKE TIME!
* Comforting her if your children’s response to her isn’t all she had hoped it would be. She needs to feel loved by you, especially at those times when she feels rejected by your kids.
* Listening to her when she shares her feelings about the situation, your children and any her other concerns. She isn't criticising YOU when she does that, even if that's how it feels to you. She is just trying to work it all out for herself and you can really help by simply listening.
* Not feeling threatened by her worries, fears and insecurities. They aren't YOUR fault and they cannot be fixed. They are normal feelings that normal people have in challenging circumstances and your consistent support, your unwavering love and the passage of time will take care of them.
* Comforting and encouraging her when she feel distressed about the situation. SHE'LL LOVE YOU FOR IT!

Stay tuned to Part 2 of this Series
Feel free to forward this or any of the other articles on this site to someone who might benefit but please remember that all posts on this blog are copyright © (all rights reserved) to Sonja Ridden

Sonja Ridden is a counsellor, psychotherapist and relationship coach.
She is the author of “Help, I’m a Stepmother” and is a popular trainer and speaker.
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