By Nancy Landrum, MA, Relationship Coach
It seems to be a universal belief that all it takes to have a great marriage is that you love each other and are committed to your partner for life.
However, it takes more than love to navigate the journey to stepfamily success.
My late husband Jim and I had both been widowed. We were ecstatic to have found each other and eager to join our families “for life.”
We were not kids. We’d been through a lot. We were mature. We could handle anything! But… we were totally blind-sided by the unique challenges of stepfamily dynamics.
We had our first spat the day we returned from our honeymoon. Our parenting styles were so opposite. I was a disciplinarian. He was so casual and loose about enforcing rules.
It wasn’t long until our disparate ways of parenting became frequent “discussions.” We’d talk about it. Decide on a plan of action.
Then Jim would decide there was a good reason to “forgive” the consequences of misbehavior.
As each of us felt more frustrated, our communication methods began to deteriorate. I was good at sarcastic put-downs.
And if that didn’t work, I would raise my voice until I found myself yelling at Jim. I hated how I was acting, but, after all, I was right! Why couldn’t he see that?
Jim became an expert at the finger-pointing “you” accusations. You know the kind… “Why can’t you see my point of view? What’s wrong with you? You just don’t understand. You’re wrong!”
By our seventh year we were talking about separating. We began to look for help.
We were stunned to learn that it’s how couples manage conflict that determines the outcome over time, and said that couples need to learn how to talk without fighting.
But how do we do that?
Then we made appointments to interview three different therapists.
There were tidbits of help here and there, but nothing concrete that gave us hope…until we found a coach who really listened to each of us and saw each point of view.
Then she began to teach us anger management skills. “When you’re too angry to treat each other with respect, call a time out. Cool down. Vent your anger safely away from each other until you can return to the conversation and be civil.”
I wrote all my angry, self-righteous thoughts about Jim in my journal. Sometimes I’d write him a vicious letter…and then burn it.
Jim got very creative and bought a microcassette recorder—the kind we have in our phones today.
He’d drive to a nearby park, park his car far away from anyone who might hear, hit the record button and ball me out!
He’d say every mean, disrespectful thing he was thinking about me. “You are unreasonable! You are too strict! You’re becoming the epitome of the wicked stepmother! I’m beginning to wonder why we married!”
When the heat was gone from our anger, we’d return to our discussion about parenting. This is where the next lessons began to help us hear each other.
She taught us that there were certain ways to deliver a message that guaranteed a response of defensiveness.
Of course, sarcastic put-downs, accusatory “you” statements and yelling were three of the most offensive.
Those ways of trying to make our opinions heard only escalated into fights where everyone loses, especially our children.
She told us to rephrase our messages beginning with “I” and adding a feeling word.
For instance, “When we make an agreement, and then you break your word to me, I feel betrayed and disrespectful toward you.” Or, “When you are so strict…unbending…I feel protective of my son.”
These “I feel” messages were so much easier for us to hear from each other without reacting defensively.
The first time we sat down to talk about our “hot” issue using this wording, it was exhausting…like trying to speak in a foreign language.
But we made it through forty-five minutes without it becoming a fight for the first time in years!
We agreed to stop for that day but resumed our discussion using these new language tools the following day.
As we stood, Jim held open his arms to me and said words that would change our lives, “That felt so respectful. Let’s agree to always treat each other with respect.”
We also agreed to ask the other for a “redo” if the partner slipped back into the old, poor methods of attacking language.
We asked each other for redo’s often those first couple of weeks. We were both relentless in insisting that the other speak respectfully using “I” messages.
It was hard. I had to think through everything I said to Jim.
“What words am I about to use? How loud is my voice? Is there sarcasm in this message? How can I say what I need to say using the words we were taught?”
Finally, I’d be ready to speak. And Jim was making the same changes in his speaking habits to me.
The payoff? We never had another fight. Never. Because we weren’t triggering each other with attacking language, we began to hear the other’s point of view.
Our hearts softened toward each other. We each relaxed our hold on being “right.”
Regaining my respect by keeping his word became Jim’s primary goal. Regaining his trust by never again yelling at him in anger, was my strong commitment.
After a few weeks we agreed on a parenting plan that we could both live with.
Because we were so committed to maintaining respectful behavior, we were scrupulous about keeping our word to each other.
With consistent respect, our love for each other was soon restored even deeper and more committed than ever.
We came through this crucible of fire agreeing that the book was right. Our love and commitment weren’t enough for us to have the loving, forever marriage we thought we were getting when we said, “I do.”
We needed to learn how to talk without fighting. We needed good communication and conflict management skills.
Those effective, powerful skills had not been modeled for us in our homes of origin.
Although both of our parents had remained married until death separated them, they had fought, and at times, treated each other with hurtful disrespect.
We were just doing what came naturally based on the faulty relationship tools we had inherited.
We need skills for every other endeavor…driving a car, riding a bike, playing football, becoming an engineer or garbage collector.
Why hadn’t it occurred to us that we needed good skills to create and sustain a loving marriage?
Why did we (unconsciously) think we could do what our parents had done but we would have better results?
A few years later we began to teach classes to couples at our church and in our home.
We taught them skills…how to speak without using attacking language, how to listen to your partner’s point of view, how to call a timeout when you’re too triggered to remain respectful.
I began to coach couples who needed more support than we could give them in a class.
I remember one young couple who chronically fought over money. He was a saver. She wanted to travel. They were trying to talk about their issue in my office but weren’t getting anywhere.
I asked him, “What is it you feel when you think about spending money on an expensive trip? What memories does that feeling evoke?”
He began to talk about his parents’ declaring bankruptcy twice during his childhood. The fear of losing his friends when they had to move. The loss of precious possessions.
Then after college, the job market in his field crashed. He was too far in debt to recover. The only way out that he could see was to declare bankruptcy.
By this time the depth of his pain was obvious in the tears running down his cheeks.
He said, “I never, ever, ever want to experience that again. I am terrified of putting my family through that trauma.
I want to give my wife what she wants, but I need the reassurance of a hefty savings account before I could enjoy expensive travel.”
I turned to his lovely wife and asked, “What are you thinking now?” She answered, “I’d heard the story before, but I’d never heard the feelings. Now I understand.”
Using effective, simple, but powerful communication skills had driven the conversation down deep where she was able to feel compassion for his pain.
In that medium of respectful, deep compassion, they were able to work together on a financial plan that would ultimately meet both of their needs.
I still get a Christmas card from them every year!
Respect is the medium in which love thrives. Without respect love diminishes or disappears.
Learning the simple, but powerful skills that enable a couple to maintain respect for each other 24/7, especially as they work out solutions to conflict, is the education required for creating and sustaining love “till death do us part.”
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About The Author
For 25+ yrs, Nancy Landrum, MA, has authored eight books and coached couples and stepfamilies with transformative communication skills.
Nancy has contributed to The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Best Life, Yahoo, MSN Psych Central, Medium, Thrive, Woman’s Day magazine.
Nancy is the Host of "Relationship Rehab" TV and Talk. As Creator of the only one of its kind online relationship solution, The Millionaire Marriage Club, Nancy reaches couples across the globe.