I’ve been following Peggy Nolan’s Self-Deception & Betrayal articles, particularly this one, drawing on the Arbinger Institute’s teachings, and thinking about how they relate to my life.
I’ve also been following the sometimes heated debate that’s arisen about the Arbinger concepts amongst a number of stepmother bloggers, including Nine Kinds of Crazy who, to distill their broader arguments, basically, seem to feel (please forgive me if I’m misunderstanding this) that the teachings can often seem to blame the stepmother for intractable conflict not of her making.
In another take on the debate, we have Jennifer at No One’s The Bitch, and her thoughtful post The Best Defence Is Some Ugly Truth.
It’s interesting, isn’t it?
It’s interesting to consider the idea that we’re functioning defensively so much of the time in our relationship with our stepkids’ mothers.
I know I am, at times, in denial of my own contributions, of how much the image of the Lovely Man’s ex as she exists in my head is made of a toxic papier mache of legal correspondence glued together with negative emotions.
I’m sure this caricature I’ve made of her isn’t how she is experienced by her friends, her neighbours, her family or (obviously) her children.
And it’s also interesting to see this debate as evidence of how ready stepmothers are to feel blamed for the dynamics in their families. Yes, they may bear some responsibility, but don’t we know that ultimately the way things are in a stepfamily is likely to have least to do with the stepmother?
And yet many stepmothers have felt blamed by the exercise. Maybe, just maybe, they’re not actually being paranoid or defensive.
Maybe they’ve actually become accustomed to being blamed – by their partners, their stepchildren, the ex-wife and the community more broadly.
Yes, powerlessness can be said to be a choice to some extent, even if only in a go-or-stay-in-the-marriage sense. But given how powerless so many of us feel as stepmums, perhaps it’s not surprising that we sometimes feel that a call to ‘take responsibility’ for what we feel utterly unable to change might seem like a case of blaming the victim.
(Please understand, I’m not saying the exercise ‘blames’ stepmothers. In itself, it’s neutral. I’m talking about the reaction I’ve seen many stepmums have recently to the Arbinger Institute concepts and tools.)
Personally, I’ve found the exercises a helpful reminder to look for my own contribution to stepfamily conflict. But I can easily see how that response might feel like an unattainable emotional luxury to a stepmum living in a warzone that she feels helpless to change.
(I really hope nothing in this post is problematic for any of the stepmom bloggers I’ve referenced. If anyone feels that I’ve misstated their views or misunderstood their materials, please let me know.)