Top Stepmother Concern: “His Ex is Making Our Lives Hell!”
When I asked about your top concerns as a woman with stepchildren, this one came up again and again: a partner’s ex who is angry, undermining, and intrusive. Bottom line: this behavior indicates first and foremost that she is unreconciled to her ex-husband’s repartnership. And you are a convenient target for her wrath. Now what?
1. Know what’s going on. Acting out (“Come do chores for me/the kids,” “Give me more money above and beyond the separation agreement,” “Take the kids whenever I say/whenever it suits me with no notice, or ELSE,” etc.) is a classic and sure sign of an emotionally incomplete divorce and poor boundaries. And if your partner is capitulating to these demands, whatever his rationalizations (“I don’t want the roof to leak on my kid’s head”; “If I don’t do what she says I’ll never see my daughter again,” etc) that, too is a sign of incomplete divorce and unhealthy boundaries (feelings of guilt and fear about what his ex might do are actually sometimes a way of staying connected to her, even when that’s the last thing he consciously wants to be). You guys need to sort this out yourselves, with you initiating a completely low-key, compassionate, and non-accusatory discussion about why it won’t do for you for him to continue to be at her beck and call. Be strategic and understanding! Look to the work of John Gottman or my book Stepmonster for communication strategies and formulas that will help you start a discussion that goes somewhere rather than devolving into recriminations. Suggest boundaries that you think would be healthy for your marriage and for his kids (they need to understand that the divorce is real and that dad will always love them even if he’s not the handyman anymore, regardless of what mom’s saying, for example). Ask your husband what he thinks would be good, healthy boundaries and rules. If you need a professional to help the two of you have this discussion, DO IT. Rendering a divorce emotionally complete is a crucial step to having a happy remarriage or repartnership with kids!
2. Ask yourself, Am I unwittingly and out of good intentions doing anything to antagonize my husband’s ex? You may have been fed a line of BS by our society that the only good stepmom is one who looks, acts and feels “just like a mother.” Well guess what, in a culture that thinks of motherhood as something one woman alone does all by herself, nothing could be more antagonistic or provocative to an ex-wife than a “maternal” stepmom. Acting like the kids’ mom will not only provoke her; it will exacerbate the kids’ loyalty binds as well. Regardless of what the kids seem to want, what your husband might hope you will do, and what you feel the kids need, know that when you act “just like a mommy” you are very likely going to set off fireworks. And that will not serve anyone. Lucky you, then. Don’t accept responsibility without authority. Never be a doormat in your own home, of course, but give yourself a break from feeling that you have to go to every parent-teacher conference or get super involved if it feels inauthentic. If a high degree of involvement feels like something you and the kids can accept, bear in mind that you will have to be diplomatic (for example, sharing your parenting opinions with your partner and having him pass them along as his idea rather than yours may keep their mother’s sense of be threatened to a minimum). Simply being what stepmother and marital and family therapist Mary Kelly-Williams calls an ally to your parnter’s kids might not just suit you better–it might go a way toward smoothing the relations between households.
3. If it’s not the case that you are inadvertently antagonizing your husband’s ex, all you can do is wait until she has less influence (when the kids are older, she can’t play custody and visitation games, make unreasonable demands about child support, etc.). In the meanwhile, you might also be able to turn her bad behavior into an inside joke between you and your spouse, or an opportunity to bond, rather than letting it continue to be a source of exasperation, stress, and anger. Try it: reframe your resentment (“I can’t believe I have to deal with this because I married a guy with baggage!”) and shoot for the following mantra: “Every time she acts like an angry nut, she makes us stronger as a couple.” You and your partner can say it to each other every time there’s an enraged voicemail message or unreasonable demand. You might also try saying, “Honey, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this person,” and this will likely prompt your husband or partner to feel understood, compassionate in turn, and perhaps even lead him to say the same to you. Feeling appreciated by a partner can help you weather the worst stresses and storms of stepfamily drama.
4. Understand it’s not your problem to fix. Studies like Dr. Mavis Hetherington’s 30-year Virginial Longitudinal Study and Constance Ahron’s 20-year longitudinal study found that, while there are exceptions, women are simply angrier for longer after a divorce, and behave in more intrusive ways than do ex-husbands. No amount of your reaching out can help an angry ex accept that she is, in fact, divorced and her ex has, in fact, moved on. This is internal work for her to do herself. All you can do is your internal work (“I don’t need to be liked by everyone. I don’t need her approval or need her to like me. I don’t need to prove to her and the rest of the world that she’s wrong about me, that she’s telling lies when she smears my rep.”; “Hopefully one day things will be easier with my parnter’s kids, but I don’t need their love and approval to be happy in my marriage. And it’s useless to pour my energy into winning them over if they’re in a loyalty bind. I need to focus on my mental and physical health and my parntership”)
5. Be wary of overtures of “friendship” from a conflicted ex-wife. There is now significant pressure on ex wives and wives to “get along” at all costs. Sure, it makes sense to keep the relationship as low-conflict as possible This is important for the well-being of everyone, and especially the kids. But increasing anecdotal evidence suggests that women who go beyond civility to “befriend” a husband’s ex may come to regret it, to feel pressured, stressed, entrapped, and more. If your husband’s ex wants to be friends she will do the most friendly thing she can: explicitly release her children from their loyalty bind by telling them to give you a chance, and that doing so will not hurt her in any way, that liking you is not disloyal to her. If she doesn’t take this step (and you’ll know she has or hasn’t by the way the kids behave around you), there is no point in pursuing a “friendship.” She can’t be badmouthing you to her kids out of one side of her mouth and asking you to have coffee out of the other.
So simply shoot for civility and grown up fairness, even when she’s playing dirty. You will never regret not getting down in the muck and mire with your husband’s ex. If you do fire off a nasty email or comment, give yourself a break (you’re only human) and tell yourself you’ll do better next time.
It will help to remind yourself that for some women who are ex wives, conflict is like oxygen to a fire, fueling rage and satisfying a need to engage. Your goal, then, is to deprive her fire of the conflict that fuels it. Then she will die down and subside. She really will. You’re not interesting if you are consistently flat, bland, and simply, flatly, blandly, consistent about your boundaries.
TELL ME ABOUT IT: HAS THERE BEEN CONFLICT BETWEEN YOUR HOUSEHOLD AND YOUR HUSBAND’S EX, AND HOW HAVE YOU HANDLED IT?
Tags: blended family, conflict with ex-wife, divorce, ex-wife, intrusive ex wife, remarriage, remarriage with children, stepchildren, stepmonster, stepmother, stepmother advice, stepmother support, wednesday martin