The Invisible Woman
Have you ever felt like you are invisible in the presence of your stepchildren? Do they refuse to acknowledge you? No hellos or goodbyes? Do they refuse to speak to you? Do they intentionally speak to everyone except you? Do they refuse to make eye contact with you? Are family celebrations, graduations, reunions and weddings just more opportunities for them to remind you that you are an outsider?
This is a very common tactic employed by some stepchildren. Stepchildren of all ages will do this.
As a stepmother, it can be very difficult to gain support from others when this is happening. You’re the adult, you should be able to ignore this behavior. The stepchildren didn’t “say” anything to offend you, so what’s the big deal? The stepchildren are still hurting from the divorce, so you should have empathy for them. In particular, this behavior is most likely to happen in front of people the stepchildren feel will support their efforts… namely other members of your husband’s family.
The other family members may believe you deserve to be shunned, so they don’t speak up. They may feel they are showing your stepchildren support by ignoring manipulative and disrespectful behaviors they witness. These same individuals may not ever tolerate the same behaviors from these stepchildren toward anyone else, but you serve as the exception to the rule. The goal is to exclude you, and some of your new family members won’t mind your exclusion. Very often dysfunctional families will bond over a common enemy, bringing them closer to each other while you will never fit in.
You may feel isolated as everyone in your husband’s family, including your husband, refuses to acknowledge the shunning behavior. You may feel as though your feelings are being dismissed or that you are making a bigger deal out of the behavior than you should. It may be suggested that you just ignore their attempts to pretend you don’t exist.
Since the behavior happens most often when you have no family or friends of your own to witness it, it can leave you feeling very alone, humiliated, and rejected. Those who are there to witness it may belittle your concerns or dismiss them.
Shunning behavior should be taken seriously. According to Dr. Sally Horwatt, Clinical Psychologst, the most powerful emotions humans experience are tied to feeling as though they belong. This is why ostracizing someone is such a powerful weapon(1).
Social rejection is often referred to as the “social death penalty”. Humans are social beings who have an innate need to be recognized and feel accepted. Long-term ostracism can lead to low self-esteem, profound feelings of helplessness, humiliation, shame, and worthlessness. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn.” (2)
Kipling William found that, “people who are ostracized suffer deeply, including the obvious loss of self-esteem and depression, but also including physiological symptoms such as ulcers, suppression of the immune system, anxiety, psychosis (in prolonged isolation, such as prisoners kept in solitary confinement), and a loss of feeling valued or having any meaningful existence. But perhaps more troubling is the rage that is associated with being ostracized.
People who are ostracized may not initially realize what is happening, only having a vague sense that something is wrong, that maybe people are mad at them, and they are often unsure of their perceptions and wonder if they are imagining it. But once it is undeniable that they are being shunned, their pain first intensified, then turns to anger and rage.” (3)
William also writes, “One of the advantages to bullying through ostracism is that it’s a non-behavior and it’s harder to get in trouble for not doing something… It’s certainly a more disguised form of aggression.”
The problem many stepmothers face is the inability to get support, even from their husbands. Husbands (sometimes referred to as Disney Dads) are often too afraid to confront their children’s behavior for fear of losing their children’s love. In a divorced scenario where the children live between two homes, the kids may resent their father if he addresses their behavior and stop coming over. Paralyzed by fear, the husband may resort to trying to convince his wife that his children’s behavior is not a big deal.
Many women in this situation will already be wondering if they are making a big deal out of nothing. With no real support, and others who will dismiss her concerns, some of these women will remain silent as the behaviors continue.
Parents are responsible for their children’s behavior. Similarly, pet owners are responsible for their pet’s behavior. Consider this… Would you agree to be around someone if they owned an aggressive dog and they expected you to stand still while their dog bit your legs? You would expect the dog owner to control their dog. Would the situation be more acceptable if the same person owned several, young aggressive dogs? Would it be less painful because the dogs were younger?
Just because the people ostracizing you are children, does not make their behavior more tolerable than if they were adults. Their enablers are deciding which behaviors you will accept. Only you should be deciding which behaviors are acceptable for you.
One of the most empowering moves a stepmother can make, who is the victim of relational aggression, is to remove herself as the target. For stepmothers of grown stepchildren, this might mean deciding not to accompany her husband to his children’s graduations or weddings. It might mean she send him packing to see his children by himself for some holidays.
While many married men won’t appreciate attending these events without their spouses, this choice puts the consequence of enabling bad behavior back on the enabler rather than on you, the target.
For stepmothers with husbands who have partial or full custody of their younger children, choosing to stay away from them might not be a feasible option.
These situations can commonly be made worse by biological mothers who encourage their children not to acknowledge their stepmothers, who teach their children that they don’t have to listen to their stepmothers or who encourage their children to treat their stepmothers with passive aggressive tactics.
In these situations, it is imperative that husbands and wives agree to a list of expectations from the stepchildren. Perhaps a counselor will be needed to serve as a third party when creating a list of acceptable behaviors and consequences.
To conclude, no you were most likely not imaging that you were being ostracized. You do not need others in the room, particularly those who are biased, to validate that you are being shunned. Pay attention to your feelings, and if you’re uncomfortable, remove yourself. Create a plan that prevents you from having to endure this behavior repeatedly. Get your husband on board. Denial isn’t going to do anybody any good.