Ep 65 – Estrangement in Blended Families

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Hi Stepparents,

Despite rising tensions around the holidays and the buzz of annual family gatherings straining your already taxed energy, the familiarity and nostalgia of holiday traditions brings a certain warmth.

However, if you’re estranged from a loved one or from a person who was once close to you, this time of year can amplify that pain. Today we’re discussing estrangement. Find the show notes for this episode at synergisticstepparenitng.com/65.

My Story of Estrangement

I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my father as far back as I can remember. There were moments when he had an uncanny ability to be warm, loving and nurturing and delighted in piquing my curiosity by curating magical moments.

But what I’m left with most is the bitter sediment of his flared temper. Arguing and blaming me for not visiting him in NYC after leaving my mom and me when I was a young child. Then speaking ill of the grandparents who raised me.

Our fights would erupt out of nowhere. He would say something upsetting. I would be hurt. Instead of apologizing or trying to hear me and engage in a conversation, he would explode and demand respect.

For a long time, because I spoke with him on the phone rarely and saw him once a year, I would try my best to reconcile. Many times, giving in and brushing past the upsetting events without any resolution or closure.  

As I got older and his transgressions became more obvious and insulting, this became harder to do. I didn’t want to just pretend like nothing happened and look the other way. Though, during his visits, I would still try to push through to salvage the brief hours of our time together.

Having Your Own Back

It wasn’t until I was much older and after a period of not seeing or speaking to my dad for several years that I realized during an upsetting interaction I get to choose how I respond.

I didn’t have to push through for the sake of being obedient and take on the responsibility of keeping the peace. I didn’t have to just suck it up.

That was the moment that everything changed.

Because that was when I started having my own back in the relationship. Once I did, I felt so much easier and lighter. I didn’t have the pre-occupying thoughts swirling around on loop in my head about what happened and what I did and didn’t do or say. I felt clear and easy.

Radical Acceptance

Growing up, my mom and I often butted heads. She hated conflict but cared about me and would try to convince me of some terrible mistake I was about to make. When I’d use the same tactics to discuss the matter with her, she’d get defensive and would walk away or hang up.

At the time, I was fighting to show up authentically in my truth. I wanted my mom to hear me, engage in an exchange and be willing to build a bridge towards each other’s perspectives to find common ground. I didn’t know though, that my approach was not helping me reach my goal.

There were several contributing factors…

Being with Uncomfortable Emotions

It became clear to me that my mother didn’t like uncomfortable emotions and would shut down as soon as things reached the point of being even a little intense.

A lot of times people don’t have the necessary conversations because they are uncomfortable with conflict or with the emotions that come up. You want to avoid feeling that way at all costs.

You may not realize that this avoidance is taking a costly toll on you emotionally and physically.

The discord is still there whether it’s addressed or not, but if it’s not dealt with, it’s got nowhere to go. So that energy is not being released and the person is hanging on to the upsetting emotions or keeping them inside.

When kept in, this unsettling energy starts to poison you. It poisons your thoughts by focusing the lens on evidence to support your emotions getting in the way of objectively seeing the facts. It poisons your body by sounding the “danger” alarm activating the flight response.

Showing up in authenticity requires energy and can feel like a heavy lift. Before you can get on the same page, you first have to establish where you are, and what your views and values are. And you have to show up transparently in your full truth without exception.

You can’t be people-pleasing and withholding information to spare someone’s feelings, because that only muddies the water. Much like when using a GPS, it can’t give you the routes to get to your destination until you put in your accurate current location – where you’re starting from.

Why Uncomfortable Feelings Are Difficult to Tolerate

It’s okay if it feels unnatural and uncomfortable to stay with uncomfortable emotions either by yourself, or in conversation with someone else. Your brain often perceives this discomfort as a threat and that it means something bad is happening.

In reality, it’s just your subconscious making you feel like something is wrong because it’s trying to keep you safe. Your subconscious is sending warning signals to your organism because it’s perceiving a threat in the form of death. When actually it’s encountering something new and unfamiliar.

You are just expanding your repertoire. Whenever there are challenges – especially to your thinking – it’s an invitation to expand. Recognize that it’s happening and name the feeling. Recognize your trigger warnings. If you don’t know how to calm them, listen to episode #11.

Learn to view this invitation for expansion as a positive development instead of a negative one.

Showing Up Authentically

It takes work to not only get clear on where you are, but to expand your ideas such that there’s room for the other person’s perspective also. Because this other person with their opposing views has a right to exist just like you do – because they do.

It takes courage to admit who you are and what you believe, even to yourselves. And takes even more courage to allow yourself to be seen so completely by others. Bravery and vulnerability is necessary to be that truthful, and it’s HARD work.

Taking Responsibility

Before asking someone to listen and hear your negative feedback, first they need you to take responsibility for your misdeeds. They need you to own your errors in judgement and in your behavior. And an explicit apology is needed naming the offenses.

In a standoff, there will always be someone who needs to lead and start the process. In parent-child relationships where the child is young, it’s often painful and difficult if the parent isn’t leading and modeling the way towards reconciling the disagreement.

With my mother, I had to let go of my grudges and see her a person. I realized, like everyone, she has flaws but was always doing her best. I apologized for interacting with her in a way that was difficult for her to tolerate. Then, I changed my approach and our relationship flourished.

It’s powerful when you own your stuff. If someone points out your transgression and you admit you messed up or you didn’t handle something as well as you wanted to, they instantly drop their guard.

It’s even more compelling if you realize an error and take the initiative to bring it up with the affected person or persons taking responsibility for any wrong-doing and apologize.

Doing this sets you up for more happiness, ease and peace because your mind becomes clear. You’ve cleaned up the situation by naming all the things and getting them off your chest. You’ve apologized and righted your wrongs.

You free yourself up from incessant thoughts about the situation, justifying why what you did was okay, getting defensive about what someone is saying and wondering if they are insinuating anything. You get to have peace that comes with a clear conscience.

Listening and Hearing

Deeply listening is another critical component.

How do you listen in a clean way without judgement? How do you listen without getting defensive or interrupting?

The practice of listening is a lot harder than it seems. It seems like a basic skill assumed to be easy. But listening is a nuanced skill because of the strong automatic emotional responses that often gets in the way of hearing.

A word causing an emotion orients the mind to a perspective creating a story of how details fit together.

How can you keep an open mind understanding that this person has a different perspective caused by experiences different from yours? How can you keep your perceived understanding separate from their actual intended meaning?

A great place to start is to assume that the person has the best of intentions. We already know that everyone is doing the best they can with what is available to them. Taking this perspective sets you up as allies and orients you towards finding common ground from the start.

Next, prepare yourself. What might you hear? Shine a spotlight on it. What strong responses might you have? Be realistic. How can you neutralize those emotions in that moment so that you’re able to stay present in the conversation and hear the person’s concerns?

A great approach is, after you’ve heard what the person said, ask if it’s okay with them if you summarize what they shared to make sure you heard it correctly. Then summarize the response and ask, “Did I get it? And is there anything I missed?”

Action Items

Do you have a strained relationship with your partner, stepchild or another member of your blended family? If so, take some time to identify which 1-3 tools can you implement right away that would have the biggest impact for your relationship.

Just thinking about the issue with the strategies for 15-25 minutes can create more effective communication and help you work through differences and disagreements.

And if you continue to struggle, schedule and assessment call with me at synergisticstepparenting.com/work. During the call you’ll gain clarity about the root cause of the issue and identify the next best steps to move your towards the relationship you want.

Until next time, be well!

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Gaining Clarity in Your Stepparenting