Monday, October 30, 2006

Myth: Divorce ends marriage

OK, maybe divorce does end marriage, but it does not end the relationship. If you think for one minute that the legal divorce ends the emotional, financial, and co-parenting relationships, you've got another thing coming.

Let's focus on the emotional divorce. An emotional divorce is NOT achieving hate for the ex-spouse nor is it achieving indifference. Rather, it is getting to a point in which the former spouse is just that, a former spouse and not the evil "ex."

An emotional divorce requires forgiving that former spouse for their wrongs (I know they don't deserve it), not requiring them to meet your needs, and finding a way to decenter that person from your life.

Decentering is probably the most challenging thing to do. The former spouse might be centered positive (maybe things could still work out), or the former spouse might be centered negative (that lousy $#%&*@ is the cause of all of my problems). Either way, having your former spouse centered in your life means that the emotional divorce has not been accomplished.

Sometimes decentering your former spouse requires a centering something else. It is tempting to make it another person, but what might be better is centering on healing, faith, and coping. Accomplishing decentering is a major part to the divorce process.

Anyone want to share their successful decentering?

Monday, October 23, 2006 a red-headed stepchild

It is one of the worst cliches ever. I mean really, what if you happened to a stepchild and you actually have red hair? Stepchildren don't choose to be stepchildren and people do not choose red hair - OK, some people choose red hair, but there is nothing wrong with that.

According to the Urban Dictionary, the term has at least four meanings.

1. A person or group treated without the favor of birthright.

2. A child who is obviously not your own, a child who is treated worse than other children in the family

3. One who is beaten often.

4. According to popular belief red headed stepchildren are prone to severe discipline problems, rebelliousness and promiscuity.

Well, aren't these lovely definitions? But, aren't these just good fun? I mean really, does any one really attribute negative stereotypes to stepchildren?

The answer is that they do. Jokes about stepchildren aren't funny and do not serve to promote healthy family life. As if life were not complicated enough for stepshildren, then add social stigma, mockery, and taunting. Furthermore, when adults use the phrase with children, it is even worse. Then there is the generational power play going on. Not a good idea.

My advice, stick to jokes that are funny and not offensive, demeaning, or crude. Making negative attributions to people becuase of family structuture or genetics is cruel.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stepfamilies - Theories and church practice

There are tons of theories out there about how families are supposed to be. Some theories focus on how a family is suppoed to develop over time while others try to make clear cut gender role distinctions. Still other theories are on the other end of the spectrum such that any collection of people near each other might be considered a family if it so chooses.

What many of these theories try to do is explain how things are or how they should be. But, what many of these theories actually do is tell a story about the person creating the theory and the time period in which that person lived. For example, 50 years ago, there were far fewer stepfamilies and most of these stepfamilies are the result of the death of a spouse. Most families back then (in America anyway) were nuclear families. The nuclear family was the standard to strive for and the measure normalcy.

Now there are many more stepfamilies and these stepfamilies are mostly formed post-divorce. The nuclear family remains an important and significant chunk of our society, but nearly half of all people do no have the luxury of striving for it. So, what needs to happen is for new theories to develop that take into consideration new family forms and structures. When good theories about how stepfamilies operate are developed, then perhaps better support systems, wider acceptance, and better trajectories can develop.

The place this knind of new theorizing needs to happen is not so much in universities where many theories develop (although it needs to happen there), but more so in the churches and denominations. Most churches do a poor job with stepfamilies. They are either judged as failed, broken, or incompetent or they are ignored altogether. Many people in stepfamilies are previously divroced, which in many churches means that they are penalized in one way or another. No leadership roles, no public roles, fewer service opportunities. Second class status is often the resulting trajectory for divorced people, which means if they are in a stepfamily, the whole family gets penalized.

OK, so I've been a bit down on churches as their underdeveloped theories on stepfamilies causes poor treatment of stepfamilies. However, I know that there are churches who do it well and do it right. There are churches who make room for stepfamilies, offer useful ministries to stepfamilies and by stepfamilies, who do not penalize people for their divorce and so forth.

I'd like to know what churches out there are doing a great job with stepfamilies. What's your experience with a good church?

I would also like to hear negative experiences, but please don't mention the church by name if you share one of those horror stories. Maybe frame it like this: "I attended a church in the Midwest..."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Stepfathers and stepchildren 2

When a man marries a woman with a child(ren) from a previous marriage or relationship, the man becomes a stepfather. He also enters into a potentially complex set of relationships. In fact, every relationship he has in this stepfamily is going to complex.

With his new wife, it will be complex becuase he does not have equal parental standing with the children. In her life, they pre-existed him, thus giving him an historical disadvantage - they have more history with the mom than he does. She still needs to be the one in charge of the kids, which may feel all wrong and conflict with what many people call being the "man of the house." As a marital partner, he is an equal, but as a parenting partner he is not.

His relationship wth the stepchildren is complex because he a new man in the family. Furthermore, his love and affection and strength of commitment wit the children's mother earn him little or no credit as an authority in the realm of parenting. However, if he treated his new wife (the kid's mother) poorly, it would most certainly count against him so far as the kids are concerned and would probably be his ow undoing.

His authority as a parent is complex because he has little or no history with teh children, the children have a biological father (unless he is deceased) who fills an authority role (either real or imagined ) with the children. In fact, even if the bio father is deceased, in the kid's minds, he may still be the authority.

A stepfather's authority comes in two ways over a long period.

1. Earned. When a stepfather shows himself patient, reliable, good, and willing to develop a relationshp with the stepchildren, these children may grant him some authority in their lives. This may seem all backwards, an adult working to gain authority from the kids. It may feel like the tail is wagging the dog. But if you think about it, it makes good common sense.

If you think about entering stepfathering not as a father figure, but rahter as a new man who is entering ther children's life, getting to know them, learning about them, like a new babysitter or baseball coach, then it makes a little more sense. A trust has to be built and a pattern of relating has to develop. The powerful and sensitive flow of wills must merge. that kind of thing seldom happens quickly.

2. Bestowed. The mother must give authority to the stepfather. Although the temptation here is to do this all at once, it only works if it is done gradually. This does not happen in one sit down conversation with teh kids.

"Kids, darryl is your new stepfather and i give him all parental authority in the house. What he says goes."

You can say these words, but it won't do any good.

This kind of authority comes in little chunks and pieces, here and there. Bestowing authority upon the stepfather from the stepmother takes a very aware and alert set of parents. She really has to know her children's tolerance for the stepfather's inluence and he needs to be aware of the signs the kids give whe they are accepting or rejecting his authority and furthermore, have the courage to back off when he has violated that tolerance. Mom needs to be ready at anytime to bring her authority back into the picture if things are falling apart between stepfather and stepchildren. She cannot abdicate her authority - ever.

Again, this is very challenging to the sense of being "man of the house." It feels like everyone in the house has power to make things happen except the stepfather. "What am I, chopped liver?" might be the feeling of the stepfather when he has to earn authority with children and wait for it to be bestowed upon him from their mother. "Don't I have any authority just for being there?" "Hey, I bailed your mother out of a real financial bind, and this is the thanks I get?" Again, he earns no authority points by being a good husband.

Think big picture and think slow cooking here. Stepfathers can have a good relationship with their stepchildren, but it develops slowly and is always a work in progress. it is like an invesment into a 401(k), put a lot in with nothing to show for it, that is until it is time to cash in - and that time is not right now. It's worth it even if it is doing me no real good today. It's worth it for it's future value.