A Step-Couple Back from the Brink

This is one of the most inspiring step-couple stories I know of.  Although it’s long, the drama of their experience will grip you and not let you go until you get to the end…

Gavin and Pamela first met in the 5th grade in 1980 and quickly became best friends. Even when they went to different high schools they made time to hang out together on weekends. When they graduated from a Mastering the Mysteries of Stepfamilies class in March 2010, they had been married for four years. They each had two children from previous marriages. This interview was conducted about six months following the beginning of their implementation of stepfamily guidelines.

Pamela: Gavin (with his then girlfriend who became his first wife) came to my first wedding when I was 23 years old. Although several family members and friends expressed their concerns about my choice, I went through with my marriage to Tom (name fictitious). Abusive behaviors began only two weeks after the wedding. It began with name calling and throwing things, graduated to breaking things, then to hitting me, pulling the telephone cord out so I couldn’t call police.

It continued with financial tyranny and infidelity with my best friend. He made sure we only owned one car and prevented me from attending school. He wanted total control. Our son, Dakota, was born in ‘93 and Amanda in ‘95. They were three and five years old when I left with a police escort after he’d chased me around with a buck knife.

I met Cole (fictitious) on line, a firefighter from Alabama. He seemed very kind. He came to Missouri to visit me and the kids. He and my parents really liked each other. My Dad suggested to me that I marry him on a Friday. We married on the following Monday, packed up our belongings and drove away in a U-Haul. My Ex surrendered his parental rights to avoid child support payments. My dad convinced Cole to adopt Dakota and Amanda because the court wouldn’t allow me (the mother!) to have sole custody!

My marriage to Cole was never very intimate. He liked that I was raising his kids for him, even home schooling them. He brought a check home and spent every night he was home drinking in the garage. He eventually reunited with a high school girlfriend and said he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. He just moved out. Neither of us was sorry. He gave me 6 ½ years of safety. It helped me regain my balance after being afraid for my life with Tom.

Gavin: In my early twenties I was not living according the faith that was important to my family. I made decisions based on how I felt and what I wanted. I met Carol (fictitious) at Cal State Bakersfield and married her in spite of her noticeable problem with drinking. During our first few years she attempted suicide several times. We split before our son Terry was a year old. One night about 10 p.m. I was sitting in my apartment when I got an urgent, sick feeling in stomach.

I drove straight to where Carol was living. I could hear the car running in the garage. When I opened the door, she was unconscious. I turned the engine off, called 911 and found Terry in his crib with a suicide note. I took custody of Terry at that time. I thought I had it all together but was really immature. I was making great money and changing diapers but was a dad on the fly.

I met Cali at an escrow company while I was making good money in the mortgage business. There had been no real change in me. My family was telling me I was out of my mind. Even Pam tried to warn me. Cali quickly became verbally and emotionally abusive to two-year-old Terry. One time he dropped a piece of rice on the table and she freaked out. She’d throw his toys in the trash. She repeatedly said, “He’s not part of our family.”

Meanwhile Terry’s mom had gone through counseling and re-hab. She wanted to spend time with Terry—reconnect. I wanted Terry to know his mom, so I shared time with her even though I had custody. Cali was so rejecting and abusive with Terry that when he was with me I’d take him to my dad’s or a hotel.

Cali and I were expecting. The birth was difficult—a C-section—so I was very active in taking care of Anisha during the first several weeks while Cali was recovering. I felt very bonded with her. Cali became even more abusive to Terry saying, “Now we have our family.”

Things got pretty crazy. She wouldn’t allow any photos of Terry in the house. If we were in conflict when I had to leave for a business appointment, she’d lay on the hood of my car so I couldn’t leave. If she got off and I drove away she would call my phone hundreds of times in 20 minutes. One time I smashed my phone in frustration. The court would not allow her to be present during any time I spent with Terry.

She convinced me to let her drive up to Lompoc to pick up Terry. I gave in. We picked him up. On our way home she began to be angry. She wanted a reaction from me and I wouldn’t give engage. She turned on Terry and began screaming at him. “I wish you were dead! You’re the reason we’re in so much trouble!” I reached back to calm Terry. When we got home I packed a few things and left. I was so tired. I began praying, “God, please help me!”

Anisha was only 3-4 months old when I left with Terry. I was so bonded with her, but because of her age, the judge only allowed me two hours per week. I left the courtroom sick to my stomach. It took a week or two to regain some focus. I knew that as she got older I’d get more time. I was a single dad uninterested in another relationship. I was just doing my job, spending some weekends without kids and some with kids. I was just plodding along. I became more stable, returning to my faith.

About three years went by. I was not looking for another partner. I was resigned to being a single dad. Three years went by. There was not one person I could imagine wanting to see until Pamela emailed me out of the blue. We had not been in touch for six or seven years.

Pamela: A friend saw Gavin being interviewed on television for his mortgage business. I looked up his company’s website. I had no idea whether he was still married, so I just sent a general, “How are you?” email, not even sure if he would answer.

Gavin: I was sitting at my desk at work. It was a shock to open Pamela’s email. I replied, “I’d like to come see you and see how you’re doing.”

Pamela: We hugged and cried and had a great visit. He came out again….and again. I knew he was serious because he’s afraid of flying and I was still in Missouri.

Nancy: Why did either of you think you could have a sane marriage after these horrendous relationships?

Pamela: The only thing that sounded familiar and comforting was our friendship. Gavin was the only person I knew for sure loved me in the whole world and I knew I loved him. We both thought we were finally going to do it right!

Nancy: How long did it take to realize it wasn’t going to be easy?

Gavin: When we returned from our honeymoon I was facing two court battles, one each for Terry and Anisha. Terry’s mom was drinking again. She was neglecting him. Once he called me crying. She ripped the phone from him. I was trying to get him protected. Cali took us to court for everything about Anisha. One thing would get resolved then the next week I’d get court papers regarding something else.

Pamela: Add conflict between Gavin and me to the mix. We were fighting over the parenting of our children. Gavin is very structured in the way he parents. I am far more relaxed. Gavin’s family told him to leave me. When he refused, they broke off all contact with us. We were spiraling downward. Very little could be discussed. We had fights in front of the kids, about the kids. We had no dates, no time for us. Everything had become a competition. My kids had had no contact with their adoptive or biological father since 2005.

Gavin: In 2007 after my last court appearance with Terry’s mom she won back the right to share custody. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with brain cancer. A court mediator was appointed to watch over him. I was given full custody of Terry because his mother’s health had deteriorated. He moved in with us in 2008. Carole and her parents cut off all contact with us. We’ve tried through many different channels to find out how Carole is. We don’t know if she’s alive or dead.

Cali tried to move Anisha to New Jersey—precipitating a court battle which we won. Thousands and thousands of dollars had gone into court battles—paying attorneys right and left. Meanwhile the economy tanked and I lost my mortgage business, two rentals and a million-dollar home. My car was repossessed. We couldn’t afford to put gas in our family car. We moved twice.

Pamela: We knew we still loved each other underneath all the chaos, but we’d lost trust in each other. Both of us had been in insane relationships for so long. Yet, we both believed that God was with us individually and still had a good plan for our lives. We also had our memory of our very solid friendship as children. Even though we’d lost each other for a while, Gavin was the only one I’d shared deeply with. He was a safest place I’d ever known.

Gavin had been going to church before we reconnected. We got involved in a Sunday School class. Nobody knew what going on in our home, but, thankfully, we were there when things got really bad in the Fall of 2009. One couple came over the night of our biggest fight around Thanksgiving when the kids called the police. They recommended we see Pastor Dave Carder. Two days later we saw him, but he said, “There are no classes for you until early February.”

Gavin: In January the church had a preview of all the marriage classes offered for Spring. On the way there we had a big fight and Pamela said to turn the car around and take her home.

Pamela: I heard a strong voice inside saying, “Turn around and get back there!” We did. At the preview, we heard a woman talking about her experience in a stepfamily. She (Nancy Landrum) was promoting Mastering the Mysteries of Stepfamilies class. We related to everything she said. The minute the meeting was over we went to her and poured out how desperate we were for help.

Gavin: Although the class didn’t start for four more weeks, Nancy had experienced the desperation of hanging on by her fingernails, hoping for help. She agreed to see us a few days later. After listening to each of us describe what was happening from our respective points of view, she asked if we were ready to take steps for immediate relief. We would have done anything at that point! We loved each other and were heart-broken that we couldn’t seem to make our marriage work. Without doing something differently, we were teetering on the brink of another separation.

Pamela: She described the guideline recommended for stepfamilies who have conflicts over parenting. We would go back to single parenting our respective children. The step-parent would not comment or criticize the bio-parent’s children or parenting methods. We would agree on a few simple house rules by which everyone in the family would abide. It hit me hard. When I told Nancy that I just wanted a man who would love my children, she replied, “It’s too late to have a nuclear family. That time is gone. You’re in a stepfamily now and most stepfamilies only succeed by functioning with different dynamics than first families.”

Gavin: But we were so desperate we’d do anything to stop the fights, so we agreed. No commenting or criticizing of each other’s children or parenting decisions. We’d focus on rebuilding relationships with our own children.

Pamela: Over the next few days it was like a magic pill had been dropped into our home. The fighting immediately stopped! The calm was like a breath of fresh, cleansing air after being in a smoke-filled room! But I also grieved the loss of my first-family dream. I grieved the loss of a loving father for my children. I cried off and on for two weeks.

Gavin: A few weeks later we took the class. The first full Saturday of class went by so quickly! We were learning how to hear from each other’s point of view. We heard each other with deep empathy, learning to Show Understanding. It was transformational! (Showing Understanding is the listening skill for the Mastering the Mysteries of Stepfamilies curricula.)

Pamela: I learned why my communication methods were creating and escalating conflict. I learned how to say, “I feel hurt when you….” rather than “You are so thoughtless!” That day and in the evenings to follow we grabbed and used every skill and concept that was presented in class. We were so determined to have peace and save our marriage and family that we practiced constantly. We put into practice the Problem Solving Skill with issues that had been hot topics for four years, such as how much money we spent on our respective children.

Gavin: We’d have to call time outs sometimes, but we were successfully talking about things that we’d tip-toed around in our efforts to avoid more fights. Decisions were being made that satisfied both of us. We’ve been successful in following through with our plans. Every successful Skilled Discussion is a miracle that we celebrate!

Pamela: The love we knew was buried under everything all along has returned in force. We’ve gone on romantic dates! We have rediscovered why we’ve been friends through all of these years. The kids have calmed down. The whole family had been divided in half, but now relationships between the kids are healing. There is laughter in our house again!

It felt like the solution to change back to single-parenting was a bomb that dropped in the middle of our family. Everything flew in all directions. Our expectations had been so unrealistic. Now we know that stepfamilies often require thinking outside the nuclear family box. We’re slowly figuring out how to put our family back together in ways that work for us and our children.

Gavin: Right after the class we thought everything was fixed, but in the months since then we’ve realized that a lot of damage was done during all the chaotic years. Now we are taking things one step at a time. As we and the children feel more secure, layers of issues are surfacing that require us to continue using our skills and stepfamily guidelines. We’re doing a better job of listening to our children. Now that we’re not busy being defensive with each other about our parenting, we’re becoming more attentive to the needs of our children. We’re more realistic about the fact that our stepfamily issues will continue to be a challenge, probably for the rest of our lives. Our children will continue to need our love and support as they move into adulthood with the wounds from their childhoods. We hope that they will follow our lead by learning these skills to make their first and only marriage succeed. We pray that they will stop the legacy of divorce with all its pain and chaos that Pamela and I have handed them.

Pamela: The great news is that the kids are living with a model of a healthy marriage for the first time in their lives! Gavin and I are absolutely sure now that we will stay together and love each other until parted by death! It feels indescribably safe to have that security!

Gavin: We are committed to helping other stepfamilies find the miracle we are experiencing. We recently co-taught a class with Nancy where couples thanked us for sharing our story! We are sharing our story anywhere asked and with anyone who will listen. Even relationships with our extended families are being healed. Finally we are seeing some positive purpose for all the years of pain and misery. We are not only giving our children a safe, loving, respectful home environment but are helping other hurting stepfamilies find what they were searching for when they married. We are richly and truly blessed.

Nancy Landrum has been teaching communication and stepfamily skills for many years.  If you would like a no-obligation appointment with Nancy, set it up by using this link to her calendar:  https://meetme.so/SpeakwithNancy

FOUR REASONS Why Being a Step-Mom (or Dad) is Hard!

Reason #1: THE STEP-CHILD

You did not conceive, give birth to or delight in the birth of this child.  You did not nurse him or walk with him when he had colic.  You did not see her first smile or gaze with wonder into her eyes.  You didn’t rejoice when he turned learned to crawl.  You didn’t laugh when she said her first word.

For a birth parent there are a million moments with this child that are like invisible threads winding these two hearts together.

You enter this child’s life after age four, or eight, or twelve years of these moments that you have missed.

You are beginning to build a relationship when this child already is tightly bound to his birth mother and father.  No matter what difficult dynamics may be between them, this child is deeply, genetically and emotionally loyal to the two who gave her life.

Reason #2: THE FATHER

He’s a great guy or you wouldn’t have fallen in love with him.  You believe you can help him heal from the trauma of divorce or the loss of his former wife.

What you don’t immediately see is that he feels sorry that his kids have suffered trauma, too.  He couldn’t protect them from the loss of their mother.  Or he left their mother because he was unhappy or the situation was intolerable.  He believes, whether it’s true or not, that he’s contributed to a deep wound in his kids.  He wants to make all other parts of their lives as easy and conflict free as possible to make up for the pain they have felt or are experiencing.

So, he wears rose colored glasses when it comes to his kids.  He sometimes excuses behavior you think needs correction.  He doesn’t seem to notice when they leave their stuff all over the house, or eat candy before dinner, or are rude to you.

And he resents it when you suggest his kids may need more dependable structure in their lives.  After all, what do you know?  You didn’t live through the events that brought them to this place.  You don’t understand that Susie is especially sensitive and must be treated with kid gloves.  Or that Bobbie is just acting out his confusion and only needs time to adjust.

Reason #3: THE MOTHER

You are, in many ways, acting the role of the mother.  You may fix meals, drive to school, do the laundry, and attend sports events,  ad nauseam.  But you do not enjoy the loyalty or the affection of these children.  That belongs to their real mother.

And she may be jealous of sharing her time and authority with you.  She may still be reacting to the pain of her dream family splitting apart whether or not it was her choice.  She may see you in competition with her for her children’s affection.  She may want to punish the former spouse by changing custody plans at the last minute, or taking him back to court for more money.  She might even tell lies about him…and you… to the children!  She may try to engage you in the drama.

And your beloved may be so sick of dealing with her that he is relieved when you take over the communication with her…meaning you are drawing her fire more than him.

Having an adult, mature relationship with an Ex where the needs of the children are put ahead of the convenience of the parents (and step-parent) is an ideal situation.  It even occasionally happens that way.  And sometimes relationships with an Ex that start out crazy gradually become more sane.  (Watch the videos recommended below to see how one father learned to handle his “crazy Ex.”)

But sanity seems to be the rare exception when it comes to broken marriages and custody of children.

Reason #4: YOU, THE STEP-MOTHER

Yes, you too, may be contributing to the issues.  Often you, the “new wife,” believe you can rescue this wonderful man.  You are the salve that will heal his wounded heart.   You will provide the love and stability that these hurting children need.  You will love them all back to health and happiness.  You will be the catalyst for a more positive future.

And then you begin to resent how unappreciative they all are!  You are being taken advantage of and feel used.  You chafe at the lack of authority you have to make decisions and follow through with needed discipline.  You can’t understand why your beloved doesn’t see that Bobby needs firm boundaries, or that Susie shouldn’t get her own way just because she’s throwing another tantrum.

Can’t he see that he’s ruining his precious children?  Doesn’t he understand that you’re giving advice because you care about what kind of adults they will grow up to be?

THERE IS HOPE FOR STEP-FAMILIES

Unrealistic expectations are at the core of so many step-family choices that add to the chaos and pain rather than relieving it.  You cannot force a new, fragile step-family into the happy, well-adjusted family that most imagine being a part of when they marry.

And yet there are proven guidelines that help the unique dynamics of a step-family work more smoothly.  I said “more smoothly” because step-family life is very rarely smooth.  It is multiple times more difficult to navigate around the issues and personalities in a step-family than to deal with the normal ups and downs in a first marriage with shared birth children.

Visit this page on my website to listen to interviews of several real-life step-couples who have successfully dealt with all of these issues.  Hearing their stories is far more effective and powerful than if I were to give you a list of guidelines in this article. Their experience is inspiring and their solutions are practical and duplicatable! 

  • Hear Jeremy and Lisa’s story and the valuable lessons they’ve learned.
  • Listen to James and Kim share some things they did impressively well.
  • And you must hear how establishing a few house rules made a big difference to Sherman and Alexa.

http://nancylandrum.com/stepping-twogether

Jeremy and Lisa’s Stepfamily Story

Jeremy and Lisa are former coaching clients.  The stresses of stepfamily living had brought out the worst in their communication methods.  They diligently learned and practiced better communication and conflict management skills.  In addition, over time, they adopted better strategies for managing their children and a difficult relationship with an Ex.

This month you’ll be hearing more about the upcoming Stepping TwoGether course that is launching on March 23rd.  Go to the Stepping TwoGether page at www.nancylandrum.com to listen to Jeremy and Lisa’s inspiring story.

And my personal thanks to Jeremy and Lisa for so generously and vulnerably sharing their stepfamily experience!

Is Love “Lovelier the Second Time Around”?

I’d like to ask Frank Sinatra, who’s crooning voice made this lyric popular, “Then why is the divorce rate much higher for second and subsequent marriages?”

Our culture is still trapped in the unrealistic assumption that stepfamilies are no different than a first family.  That belief is a weak, untrue foundation on which to try to start building a strong marriage and family.

It’s a shock when you thought you had another chance at love.  A chance to do it right this time.  A chance to heal, not only for yourself but for your children.  After escaping one nightmare, you didn’t expect to find yourself in the midst of another.

The truth is second marriages never start out the same as the first one. To begin, for many, the honeymoon is very brief.   Most are immediately thrown into the turmoil of resentful kids, new, unknown relationships, crazy Exes who refuse to co-parent with respect, leftover “issues” from the previous relationship, sometimes crippling financial demands and legal battles.

How can a new marriage and children be nurtured and grow in this toxic atmosphere?  It IS possible, but it requires two things that most second marriages don’t get in time to save them and their children from painful mistakes:

  1. Education about the unique dynamics of new stepfamilies and the strategies that get them successfully through those first few fragile years, (and beyond) and
  2. Good, effective communication skills: speaking with respect, listening with understanding, conversations that lead to agreement, and ways of handling anger when you want to take your frustrations out on any creature unfortunate enough to be in your immediate force-field.

The average length of time for a stepfamily to stabilize is 5-7 years.  I spoke with former clients this week who have finally reached the stepfamily honeymoon stage.  They’ve been married for six years.  She said the first year was “hell.”  He said, “1000% of the stress came from my crazy Ex.  She’s still crazy, but we’re handling it better.”  Their kids are doing well considering the chaos in their Mom’s home.  And this couple knows they are giving their kids the example of a stable, respectful, loving marriage and home life that will inform their belief that a loving, lasting marriage is possible.

I’ve been there.  My husband Jim and I survived the catastrophe caused by our poor communication and anger management skills.  We finally adopted a sane stepfamily strategy that stopped the constant fighting.  We found a coach that taught us how to talk to each other…say what we needed to say…but  say it without attacking each other.  She taught us how to vent our anger safely in a journal, or by hitting a bucket of balls, or pulling weeds in the garden so that we could then have a sane conversation about our “issue.”  We learned how to share our feelings rather than our opinions.  We developed empathy for each other’s difficult roles which made resolving “the issue” much more possible.

You can learn the skills and stepfamily strategies that work for most.  The communication and anger management skills can be learned by my online program called the Millionaire Marriage Club.  It’s relatively painless.  All you need is a computer and 30 minute blocks of time combined with your determination to exchange what isn’t working for what will work.  Go to my website, www.nancylandrum.com, to learn about the Millionaire Marriage Club.

In a few short weeks I’m launching a live, online pilot class called Stepping TwoGether: Building a Strong Stepfamily.  This class teaches the strategies for successful parenting and step-parenting as well as the importance of making your marriage a high priority.  Or you can click the link below to read about our story…the ugly first years, followed by sixteen years of honeymoon before Jim passed on.  You may glean some lessons from reading about what we learned.

If you’d like to speak with me and discuss how I may help, click on this link to choose a convenient time for a brief phone appointment with me:  https://meetme.com/SpeakWithNancy

P.S.  You may find some issues familiar to you in this free download: The Landrum Stepfamily Story.

Nancy Landrum has been teaching relationship skills to couples for twenty-five years.  Her signature book, How to Stay Married & Love It! Solving the Puzzle of a SoulMate Marriage, is lauded by both professionals and clients. See other resources on her website, www.nancylandrum.com