(this article was first published in StepMom Magazine, March 2010 edition)

Stepmoms, are you looking for a tool to help you navigate the muddy waters of stepfamily life and strengthen your marriage at the same time?  Look no farther than the shared language that you and your husband already possess.

A shared language. All couples have one. It began when you were dating your husband and you called each other pet names. These pet names communicate that you care about one another and also operates to draw you closer together. As your couple history increases so does your shared language. Over time, you progress from simple nicknames to creating a private vocabulary that reflects your many shared likes and experiences.

Married couples who use a coded conversation have a greater relationship satisfaction and report more playfulness and resilience than couples who don’t according to the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. A shared language is especially important and powerful in bonding you and your husband in your stepfamily. Your shared language strengthens your connection as husband and wife and helps you maneuver through difficult stepfamily challenges.


Forges a closer bond.  When you possess a shared language, you are saying to one another that you both care enough to develop your own private world. And in stepfamily life, where you are sharing your husband from the minute you say “I do,” having something that belongs to the two of you exclusively is priceless. No stepkids allowed! And this unique code isn’t limited to your home. Vocabulary is mobile and goes where you go.

My husband and I have a code word for when we want to be alone and the kids are home. All one of us has to say is “I’d like to hang a shelf today” and the other one is racing up to the bedroom. It’s an inside joke. But whenever that phrase is spoken, the other knows exactly what it means.

Shows you and your husband as a unified team. Coded conversation conveys that you and your husband are allies in your home. If your children pick up on the fact that you have this secret code, don’t fret.  It communicates that you both hold each other in high esteem and that you are a united front. What a healthy and positive message to send to your children.

Many stepmoms report feeling like an outsider in their own homes. This shared intimacy creates an exclusive club with only two members – you and your husband.

Relieves tension and stress. As stepmoms, it can feel as if we are continually dealing with hurt feelings and emotions. Often we are fighting the same fights with our stepkids or dealing with the same issues over and over involving our husband’s ex-wife. Code words are highly effective tools for stepmoms to relieve anxiety while juggling the trials of stepfamily life.

I personally, have some struggles with my 8 year-old stepdaughter. Her behavior towards me can be verbally abusive at times. When my husband notices what his daughter is doing, he’ll come up to me and say “I love you,” in a playfully sarcastic tone. By saying that to me in the way he says it, he is communicating that he appreciates that I am not returning her backlash and that he is thankful that I am allowing him to handle the matter. Usually, he can get me to crack a smile and thus diffuses the storm that has been brewing inside. His smile and playful “I love yous” are a gift to me during this emotionally charged time. I return those “I love yous” when I am very thankful for his demeanor in a difficult situation.

Inside jokes and funny code words have the ability to break tension and help you both feel more relaxed. Humor goes a long way in a marriage and so it is a good choice to formulate some funny code words or phrases to use during trying and recurring times. The most important factor to remember when using humor is that you both agree on it. If only one of you finds the word or phrase funny, it won’t work. It can actually alienate the person who does not find humor in the code. Make sure you both agree.

Preserves your time and energy supply. As a stepmom, how often do you feel like you are running on empty? Issues in your stepfamily drain your energy supply and leave you with little time and motivation to pursue your own dreams and aspirations as a woman and as a couple. And how often do you and your husband have the same conversation about your stepkids?, about visitation?, about his ex-wife?  I bet you can recite these conversations by memory.  Code words are truly priceless at replacing a conversation that is often repeated, saving you time and energy.

Transitioning kids between homes can be very challenging for both the children involved and for you and your husband. When kids go to the other parent’s home, they often have different rules, different meals, different everything and there is an adjustment period for everyone when they return to your house. You and your spouse have to deprogram the kids and give them time to get reacquainted with your rules. That is not always easy.

In our home, our code word for this time is “detox day.”  When the kids blow into our house, throw their belongings on the floor, and the first thing out of their mouths is “I’m starving”, my husband and I turn to each other and say “detox day.” With those two words we have just communicated that we are expecting a bumpy day, we understand why it may be more challenging, and that we need to give the kids and each other a little more grace. Two words say all that. Our code saves time and energy that we can use later to focus on each other.

Using a physical signal to convey a message to your husband without uttering a word also spares your time and energy supply from becoming depleted. These coded behaviors tell your husband how you are feeling without speaking. You can leave a wine glass on the counter to say, “I’ve had a bad day at work and I want to unwind.” You can tug on your earlobe when you would like your husband to notice the kids’ behavior.  Whatever your signal, it communicates so much with so little.

My husband and I have a very powerful signal we refer to as “iPod therapy.” If I am wearing my iPod, and not working out, it signals my husband that I’ve had a tough day with the kids and I may be in a less than happy mood. I don’t have to say a word to him. He is grateful for the heads up and he doesn’t ask any questions. iPod therapy is both calming for me and communicates to my husband that I’m in a self-induced time-out. Husbands don’t typically want all the details. They love talking with shared signals and code words.  No need to relive the challenging day in detail. You fast forward to the bottom line – I had a rough day and I need a little space. Having a safe signal that lets your hubby know you are a little cranky without a conversation can benefit both of you. He doesn’t have to be your processing partner and you don’t have to engage in a disagreement if he doesn’t see things your way. A win win for all.

It’s playful & fun. There is no denying that it is fun to come up with codes and catch phrases. You probably already have many code words and signals. If not, it’s a fun night to sit down and brainstorm together. And each time you use your new words, you’ll fondly recall the time you invented them.

Everyone understands the importance of not badmouthing a child’s biological parent in front of them. Yet sometimes we need to discuss that person and maybe not in the best light. It can be fun to think up a neutral code word for your husband’s ex-wife.

Because the biological mother can be such a factor in your life from the role she plays in your stepchild’s development to the impact she has on visitation (and changes to it) to her relationship with you and your husband, “the factor” is a great code to use when referring to her.  It’s a neutral word, fun to say and it’s not offensive to your stepkids or their mom if it is decoded.

How can you utilize your shared language to strengthen your marital connection? The codes themselves are not as important as the fact that you have them and utilize them. Have fun with this and enjoy the benefits of your own private club.


So what do you think? Are coded conversations between you and your husband helpful? Would love to hear from you.

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