I was a solid step parent. I loved my wasband’s children, who were into their late teens and early adulthood during our relationship. Both of their parents were conflict and difficult topic averse, so I had many of the “difficult conversations” with them — we talked about sex, drugs, relationships and more. But where I really excelled in this role was not getting sucked into the shit and actually seeing and pointing out the dysfunction in my ex’s family.
Here’s what would happen: someone from the outside, maybe a distant cousin, would attack my then partner. His children would then launch into two behaviors:
- Protect their mother
- Defend their father
Let me comment on these: No child is ever responsible for protecting or defending either of their parents. I don’t care whether my stepchildren were already late teens or in early adulthood. The only time this behavior may be necessary is when the parents are compromised or infirm, through age, disease or mental disorders. But children often carve out roles in the family based on birth order, socialization or other circumstances, and end up contributing to the dysfunction rather than mitigating it. And then they carry these dysfunctional responses with them into adulthood, as many of us have.
The truly important thing here, and one that many of us overlook, is the way we respond to attacks or bad behavior:
Think of the word “responsible” — it’s true meaning is “ability to respond.” So what are we responding to? The words or the behavior? Sometimes the ability to respond means knowing which of these to respond to. Often, rather than jumping in to a frenzy of verbal warfare (responding to the words), it’s best to simply say, “That was mean. I don’t appreciate you attacking my family. It’s none of your business” or “Ouch; that hurt!” (responding to the behavior).
Years after my own parents’ divorce, my father used to call me and, during every conversation, he would bring up my mother with some snide or sarcastic remark like, “Your mother called to tell you she loves you.” However true it may have been that my mother was, at this time, reserved and relatively inattentive, I eventually had to ask my father to stop bringing her up in conversation and that I would have my own relationship with my mother, thank you very much.
My mother, for her part, called and visited frequently while going through her own divorce. Again, I listened and empathized…but, after I’d heard her repeating the same feelings and questions (e.g. “why?”) several times, I reflected back to her that she was allowing her mind to dwell in these thoughts — much like a broken record skips back and plays the same part of a song over and over (for those of you who remember turntables and vinyl, anyway). I suggested she talk to a therapist and, while I didn’t hear from her again for a few weeks immediately following my pointed recommendation, our relationship is now more open than ever.
So today I ask you to think about the relationships in your life and what type of responsibility you have in them. How able are you to respond? Are you responding to words or behaviors? How well do you navigate which to use when?
I’d love to hear your thoughts or stories.