Why Stepmoms Really Just Want To Be Liked
You’re a woman. And there is a vast body of research stretching back to the early 1970s which suggests women are more “relational” than men. That means we derive not only satisfaction and self-esteem, but also our very sense of self, from being in successful, reciprocal relationships with others. Women are relaters. We aspire to be the carpenters who put the dilapidated house of post-divorce dysfunction back in order; the fixers who bring “ex- children” back into the fold; the good guys who charm recalcitrant and resentful stepkids, angry exes and judgmental friends of exes; and strangers we meet at a party into BFFs. As stepfamily expert Virginia Rutter, Ph.D., has noted, “A large body of research demonstrates that women’s self-esteem becomes contingent upon relationships going smoothly; it holds in stepfamilies as well.” We need to like and be liked. Anything else smacks of fault and failure. So we try, and try and try again. And we give ourselves hell when we encounter the thorny path. Stepfamily researcher James Bray of Baylor University found that stepmothers are more self-critical and self-blaming than any other member of the remarried family system.
Consider what would happen if you stopped trying so hard to be in a successful relationship with these people. I know how bad this sounds and this is opposite of everything that’s been drilled into your head with phrases such as, “Be nice”—which you’ve heard since you were 2 years old—and admonitions from ignorant outsiders to, “Just hang in there and keep loving those kids and they’ll love you right back!” You probably believe that what makes you a good an upstanding person is having his kids and ex like you and approve of you. That’s just not the case. Not in this case, at least, where there are forces far greater than you and your likability— stepfamily dynamics—at work.
In this case, you would do well to try to undo this part of your psychology. “Being disliked and learning to live with it,” a wise friend told me, as I struggled in my remarriage with children, “not groveling and begging and needing to be liked by someone who is unable to do so, accepting that you cannot change the other person’s mindset, is an important part of being a grown up.” It’s a muscle, and you’ve got to develop it.
Accepting that a person or some people may dislike you with no justification whatsoever, in spite of your beyond- reproach behavior or for reasons utterly beyond your control can help you grow. It can help you be more resilient. And it can help you negotiate the world better, with less timidity and fear and neediness.
No one is saying it is going to be easy. Getting over it can feel impossible. But it can be done. And you don’t have to become a bitch or a stepmonster in the process or burn bridges along the way. You can just care a little or a lot less about what people think and say about you. When that seems impossible, ask yourself, “How would it feel to have my sense of aggravation, of being aggrieved and misunderstood, melt away? What would it free me up for?”
This article is an excerpt from the full-length article titled “Sticks and Stones” by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D and originally appeared in the September 2010 edition of StepMom Magazine: