If you are interested in wife/ex-wife conflict but haven’t yet subscribed to StepMom magazine, where I have an article on the topic, you might have a look at an introduction, heavy on the celebs (LeAnn and Cam), on psychologytoday.com
Archive for the ‘his ex’ Category
If you are interested in wife/ex-wife conflict but haven’t yet subscribed to StepMom magazine, where I have an article on the topic, you might have a look at an introduction, heavy on the celebs (LeAnn and Cam), on psychologytoday.com
Let me get something out front: I love Star Magazine. Oh, and Us. I also love The New Yorker and the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. But I’ve got nothing against lowbrow.
The cases of LeAnn Rimes and Cameron Diaz–one a stepmom, one a woman dating a man with young children–might be spectacularly public, but they’re also universal. Each celeb seems to be incurring the wrath of her man’s ex-wife.
Beyond having been cheated on and dumped, what are the roots of ex-wife resentment? What makes an ex-wife infuriated and irrationally nasty toward the stepmother of her children, even when that woman didn’t break up her marriage? Why does she undermine your relationship with her kids and do everything in her power to make your life hell? Hint: it’s not really about money. I write about where Mommy Tiger is coming from–and what you can do if your husband’s ex has it out for the two of you–in the current, second-year anniversary double edition of Stepmom magazine. You can also read an introduction to the article here, on psychologytoday.com
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?
Thanks to all of for your very moving comments/ letters to your partners’ exes and for reading my guest post, “What your child’s stepmom wants you to know about her life” on the No One’s the Bitch web site.
Jennifer Newcomb Marine has written a response, “What Your Husband’s Ex Wants You to Know About her Life.” Very interesting! Have a read and let me and/or Jennifer know what you think:
I have a guest post on Jennifer Newcomb Marine and Carole Marine’s No One’s the Bitch Website today. As you know, I strongly feel that women don’t need the additional pressure of “fixing it” with hubby’s ex. Civility is often a difficult enough goal, and we need to be very careful about siphoning energy away from self-care and tending to our marriage, given how depleting stepmothering is, and how vulnerable remarriages with kids are to divorce. In the spirit of engineering the kind of civility that can make everyone’s life easier, and in the hopes of fostering mutual understanding, here’s my post.
Have a read and leave a comment–what would you like YOUR husband’s ex to know about your life?
I explore the phenomenon of co-wife cooperation and conflict worldwide in my most recent piece for Psychology Today. Have a read–and post a comment please!
There’s a new cultural pressure in town–to befriend your ex’s wife, or your husband’s ex. As you might know from reading my posts, I feel strongly that any woman married to a guy with kids and an ex should feel free to just say no to this pressure–to focus on her marriage and her own mental health and adjustment, given how depleting and decentering the role of stepmother can be and usually is.
But I have to give it up for my friend Jennifer Newcomb Marine and her co-author –and kids’ stepmother–Carol Marine. Like some of you, they chose to put their energy into engineering an effective parenting coalition, and a friendship. And they wrote a book about it: No One’s the Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for the Mother and Stepmother Relationship. They will be talking about it on Tuesday, December 1st on the Dr. Phil Show. Let’s see if he lets them get a word in edgewise…it should be a great show. Tune in…and then leave a comment! Or just let me know here: how would you describe your relationship with your ex’s wife or partner?
I’m not sure many people noticed the presence of Joan Kennedy at Ted Kennedy’s funeral. But I did. Writing about stepmothering skews your vision sometimes, and brings things into focus that interest only you (and, hopefully, other women with stepchildren).
The reason Joan Kennedy would show up to memorialize her ex was clear–she was there to honor a man she was married to for 25 years. But what was less clear, and captured my imagination, was how Victoria Kennedy might have felt about her being there. Happy? Indifferent? Outraged? This is the range of responses women with stepkids I interviewed for my book Stepmonster described when they discussed interfacing and interacting with their husband’s exes in scenarios as dire or much more ho-hum and everyday than a funeral.
It is only within the last 40 years or so that women in remarriages with children have begun to grapple with a new variable, the presence of an ex-spouse. Previously, most remarriages with children took place after one parent’s death. The presence of a mother and ex-wife in the picture invariably complicates things. As stepfamily researcher Mavis Hetherington has pointed out, stepfamilies, like machines, are subject to the law of moving parts. The more of people there are, the greater the opportunities for interpersonal conflict, differences of opinion, and unreconcilable points of view.
There are exceptions, of course, and much is made of them. With all the media hoopla over the last several years about Bruce and Demi and Ashton (and now Bruce’s wife, Emma) being best pals and spending holidays and vacations and evenings out together, highly cooperative, extremely chummy co-parenting involving all partners has a new, high-gloss visibility. And I found in the course my research that this means another great expectation is dogging women with stepkids: you have failed somehow if he and his ex-wife, and YOU and his ex-wife, aren’t enthusiastically doing holidays, birthday parties and slumber parties together for the kids. It’s what they want and need, after all (it’s not, actually, but more of that later).
This expectation percolates even before the marriage happens many times: I have received many emails from women asking me, “Do I have to invite my husband’s ex to the wedding?” Most of them have no desire to do so, but feel enormous pressure to go ahead and send out the invitation anyway. The pressure comes from the ex herself, the kids, the in-laws and in some cases even the husband-to-be. It also comes from the culture at large: we seem to have collectively bought into the idea that post-divorce and remarriage reality “should” be easy. Indeed, other women told me that they were expected to go to Christmas or Thanksgiving every year at their husband’s ex’s place–and even do so without complaint. “I felt like it was modern and hip to do every holiday over there, but I hated it,” one woman told me. “I put my foot down but it was surprising how many of my friends thought I was being petulant or unreasonable.” Once again I am reminded of pioneering stepfamily researcher Lucille Duberman’s insight way back in 1975: “A stepmother must be extraordinary in order to be seen as merely adequate.”
The “you should include the ex in everything starting with your wedding, make her and your husband friendly, and be friends with her yourself” expectation is so enormous, and so unrealistic, that it bears careful exploration and dissection before we simply discard it. On this charged topic it might be best to let the facts and the research speak for themselves.
1. High conflict divorces are stressful and unhealthy for children. Exes can address this by shooting for civility rather than BFF status. Mavis Hetherington found that the vast majority of exes are doing something called parallel parenting, in which they more or less stay out of each other’s way, and that the vast majority of kids are, to Hetherington’s surprise, doing quite well with this arrangement.
2. Hetherington and stepfamily researcher Francesca Adler-Baeder, who is also coordinator of the National Stepfamily Resource Center, found that highly cooperative and highly friendly co-parenting arrangements between exes were actually confusing for children; Adler-Baeder told me in a conversation that such relationship are as detrimental as high conflict ones, leading children to wonder, “If they all get along so well, why did they divorce, and what’s the point of being married?” Everyone being civil or even kind is great; love and closeness all around between exes and between a wife and and ex-wife is confusing for kids of all ages, numerous experts tell us.
3. Remarriages or repartnerings with children are remarkably vulnerable and have dramatically higher rates of divorce or dissolution than first marriages. Siphoning attention and energy from the partnership into an attempt to “fix” a relationship with the partner’s ex can have disastrous consequences for the couple. So feel free to put your focus on your partnership, not on your partner’s ex.
4. For all kinds of reasons, women are more relational and affiliative than men, deriving our self-esteem from successful relationships and often feeling anxious and even depressed when we cannot engineer them. Keep this in mind when it comes to your parnter’s ex. You do not have to be best friends with this person for co-parenting to work, and it’s not your job to repair what your husband and his ex broke.
5. Keep your eyes open, however, for opportunities to transform civility with his ex into something warmer. Sally told me she was pleasantly surprised when, thirty years after she and her husband divorced and he remarried, she found herself having much in common with her former rival. They now discuss their kids, grandkids, and more. “We’re both mothers-in-law now, and there’s a lot to dish about,” Sally told me recently. My friend Jennifer Newcomb Marine and her ex’s wife Carol Marine wrote a book, No One’s the Bitch, about their own personal journey from mutual disdain to respect and even affection for one another. It’s a good read and a helpful guide, but that does not mean making friendship with his ex your life’s work is a good idea for you. If your husband’s ex exacerbates her kids’ loyalty binds intentionally, for example, or has a personality disorder, your efforts will drain you and perhaps even feed into her sense that you are in the wrong and trying to “make up for it.”
6. Feel free to stay out of the fray completely, and to buck the pressure to work a miracle with his ex, with whom your husband may well be in a conflictual or high-conflict relationship. Never going much beyond saying hello on the phone when she calls is fine, too. Lots of women have no relationship with a husband’s ex beyond that. Why get involved in the logistics, planning, drop-offs and pick-ups and more if it increases opportunities for conflict and your husband can do it himself? A nice hello at the school concert is fine; you don’t have to sit next to each other and go to a diner together after to be a good person, a good wife, or a good stepmother.
Part of succeeding at being a woman with stepchildren is knowing that other people’s expectations (many of them ridiculous, such as, “You’re failing if you aren’t going on vacation with his ex”) need not become your own personal burden.
Great Expectation #3: “It’s Easy for My Cousin Trudie’s Best Friend/ Darlene in Accounts Payable/ That Lady on TV, so Anyone Can Do It!”Monday, August 24th, 2009
Why do some women with stepkids seem to have it so easy? Or, put another way, Why are you struggling when my friend Patty’s co-worker is doing really well with being a stepmother?
The first reason is that women with stepkids don’t always tell the whole story for fear of being judged. In spite of what your well meaning, totally ignorant friend thinks, her cousin’s best friend’s guitar teacher’s sister is likely not telling the whole truth when she breezily responds that stepmothering is “fine.” Why on earth would she tell the whole truth to and share the gory details with a relative stranger when she knows how harsh the judgment would be? In my experience, when you hear a story of a woman with stepkids who has “no problem with his kids whatsoever,” you’re hearing a highly edited version of the real story. A stepmother who seems not to struggle at all only seems that way.
And those women who really do have very happy outcomes and very little struggle are–wait for it–lucky. I don’t say it to be nasty. Or to denigrate their achievement. But plenty of women work very, very hard at being stepmothers and don’t have great outcomes. Those who do, do because all the factors that lead to stepmothering success are there, like when all the planets line up just so. The factors that lead to successful stepmother adjustment are:
1. A completely uninvolved, or completely supportive mother to the stepkids. This frees them from the loyalty binds that otherwise cripple stepmother/stepchild relations. When kids believe “Liking stepmom means killing mom,” there’s nothing much you can do. When, on the other hand, the kids’ mom tells them she really wants them to have a relationship with you (as did the amazing Jennifer Newcomb Marine, co-author with her kids’ stepmom Carole Marine of No One’s the Bitch), things can fall into place and stepmom and stepkids can build a relationship. But you can’t make her give her kids that permission, and most of the time, a mom doesn’t.
2. A husband or partner who puts the marriage or partnership first (yes, first) and makes it clear to the kids that stepmom is cherished, here to stay, his partner for life, and to be respected. When he makes this hierarchy clear, everyone adjusts better, and his wife feels partnered and supported in ways that will help her navigate the normal sturm und drang of stepfamily life.
3. A developmental moment that works. Teens and young adults are notably unreceptive to getting a stepparent. It’s part of their developmental imperative to separate, not to blend. Not much you can do about that.
4. A good temperamental match. You didn’t raise them from birth. Their personalities, quirks and beliefs may be miles away from your own and incompatible with what you care about. In any case, the temperament of her stepkids, and how it fits with her own, is another one of those variables that we don’t have control over.
There is unlikely, it’s true, to be love all around all the time with your stepkids. Good enough, however, can truly be good enough. And your marriage or partnership can be strong and satisfying even if your relationship with your stepkids is imperfect. The key (or one of them) is remembering that almost all steprelations are imperfect. Given that reality, great expectations can lay you low. But lowering your expectations of what you “should” be able to achieve with his kids and how you ought to feel about them can help you feel good. Great, even.
My stepdaughter would deem the title of this post totally random. And it sort of is. But there is a deeper logic, sort of: these are the ladies and places I want to call to your attention–and thank.
Hey Childless Stepmoms Chat (www.csmchat.com), thank you for calling Stepmonster “our readers’ new favorite book.” That’s nice! This website is doing something so important: providing a forum for women with stepchildren and no kids of their own. It can be a tough spot, and at Childless Stepmoms Chat, these women can sound off and find support. So check it out.
Izzy Rose’s website, www.stepmothersmilk.com, is outrageous and sassy, yet supportive and stabilizing, like your favorite plunge bra. She wrote a kind and flattering review of Stepmonster. But being Izzy, she made it very funny, proclaiming that Stepmonster aided and abetted the following transformation: “I went from ‘I suck’ to I’m totally normal!” She suggests that every stepmother needs Stepmonster on her nightstand (I want to know what’s on and in Izzy’s nightstand. She is, after all, the type of woman my grandmother referred to as “a pistol”; I’m thinking there would be some cool stuff in there). She also called me smart and so on. But really I just want to share lipstick with her and have a look at her shoe collection. When you read her book, The Package Deal: My (not so) Glamorous Transition from Single Gal to Instant Mom, you’ll know why. I’m going to review it in a couple of days, because two can play THIS little game, Ms. Rose! Stay tuned.
And last but not in any way, shape, or form least, Jennifer Newcomb Marine and Carol Marine are saying that No One’s the Bitch. And that’s saying a lot, since they’re talking about each other, and one of them is The Ex and the other one is The New Wife. With two teen girls in the shared custody picture. Woah there, nellies. How did they do it? And should you try? I will have a LOT to say about this book, starting with the brilliant title, and Jennifer and Carol’s remarkable and inspiring achievement, in the days to come. Meanwhile, you can join them at www.noonesthebitch.com (jeez, I have title envy just typing it…)