As a Second Wife and Stepmom one of the first questions I get from new acquaintances is, “So, how do you like the ex-wife?”
First of all, this question ranks in my Top 3 for things NOT to ask a second-wife. Personally, I just think it’s rude. But for some Stepmoms, this is like ripping a scab off a wound that just stopped bleeding. Gross, right? Exactly. Just don’t do it.
So when one of these strangers feels compelled to inquire about one of the most historically volatile relationships of all time – the relationship between ex-wife and new wife – I love to throw them a curveball and watch their expression as I reply: “Oh, the ex-wife? She’s great. We get along really well.”
Crickets. Dropping jaws. Fainting maidens. You get the picture.
Unfortunately, in my experience with the counseling of stepfamilies, it is not uncommon for the first wife and the second wife to be mortal enemies. It’s like watching a lioness guard her cub, only to have the cub boop its mother on the nose and run to play with the younger, better-looking, funnier lioness who now sits at Simba’s right hand. When Kings and Cubs and younger, better-looking, funnier lionesses are involved, things are bound to get feisty.
But you see, lionesses, this turf war is really quite senseless. One thing I like to remind Stepmoms who feel threatened by their husband’s ex-wife is this: You’ve already won the war. He has chosen to share his life with you. He has chosen to place you as his right hand, as his Queen. Now, what more could you want?
Well, I want his ex-wife to stop calling to get him to fix her leaky faucet.
This is fair. This is no longer your partner’s job. But your issue is actually with your partner, who enables this behaviour and doesn’t place firm boundaries. This is super common and very easily fixable.
Well, I want her to respect me as her children’s stepmother.
This is also fair. You are her children’s stepmother. But she doesn’t have to accept that fact in order for it to be considered true. She might hate that you are a younger, better-looking, funnier lioness. She may wildly throw her head about spouting off about the kind of wretched, home-wrecking, not-better-looking lioness that she believes you to be. But her opinion is hers to hold. It is your choice. Will you allow her to decide the kind of person that you are, OR will you decide by yourself what kind of person that you are? If someone called you purple, would you let that offend you? Of course not. You know you are not in fact purple. Use this method to ward off choice names that your husband’s ex calls you.
Sorry, quick tangent. I’m back to where I was going in the first place. How did I become one of the few who gets along with my husband’s ex-wife? Step into my office.
Blame the Divorce, NOT the Ex-Wife
High-Conflict Bio-Mom, or HCBM for short. It’s got to be one of my least favourite terms, and it gets thrown around the Stepmom universe like confetti at a toddler’s birthday party. Do I deny that some ex-wives are harder to deal with than others? Certainly not. But I also don’t think it’s fair to slap a one-size-fits-all label on a woman who lives with such a high level of pain, anger, and obvious unhappiness.
Divorce is one of the most difficult and complex situations that someone can go through. The sense of loss is comparative to the death of a close parent, or to the death of a child. It takes people years to recover and rebuild their lives. Some never fully do.
Grieving a divorce is about so much more than accepting the breakup of a romantic relationship. It requires letting go of an entire life that you once believed you’d have. The hopes and dreams for your future that you once shared with your spouse vanish into thin air. Divorce forces you to create a new identity; whereas you used to identify as Jill, Jack’s wife – now, you are Just Jill. It means having created traditions and rituals intimate to your family, only to have these become distant, heartbreaking memories of a time that used to be. It means financial hardship, and ugly court battles as you fight for what you believe to be rightfully yours. It means saying goodbye to in-laws and long-time mutual friends. And perhaps topping the charts as “worst of all,” it means sending your pride and joy – your own flesh and blood – to spend every other weekend with someone who has caused you so much pain. This hurts even more when there is a new romantic partner — the Stepmom.
Divorce is a completely transformative experience. It causes people to do and say things that are completely out of character. It shatters forever and turns it to alimony payments and visitation schedules. It creates dread around the holidays. It makes parent-teacher conferences awkward and uncomfortable.
And so, while it might be easier to blame the ex-wife for being a terrible human, instead I encourage you to do what I have done. Blame the real culprit for an angry ex-wife: Divorce. If you learn to impart compassion for human suffering within your day-to-day, your life as a stepmom is about to get a whole lot easier and a whole lot more meaningful.
Be the Bigger Person. (ALWAYS)
If your husband’s ex-partner is the type who is verbally or physically abusive, controlling, manipulative, or just straight up mean, then I really do sympathise with you. In some cases, it is warranted to involve the authorities. Abuse is never acceptable. But if you are responding to the way she chooses to behave by turning around and calling her stupid, or a deadbeat, or a narcissistic you-know-what, then I’m sorry but you are no better than she is.
You can be mad at me for saying that. It’s ok. But it’s still true.
You see, you have 2 choices when you’re faced with an erupting volcano. You can stay and watch hot lava spewing from the top of a mountain. You can feel your heart race as you know this lava is going to mummify you and turn you into a relic for the people in year 2412 to dig up and find. OR, you can run as fast and as far away as you can, and vow never to stand so close to a volcano again.
Now what kind of person would stand and let hot lava engulf their bodies? Exactly. Consider an Ex-Wife who likes to spontaneously erupt as a volcano that you should run away from. Don’t let her lava swallow you up. You don’t want to be a relic. Eventually she will probably run out of lava and turn into a beautiful, flowering mountain. And when she does, she will remember that she has never held power over you.
You see, the problem with engaging in any kind of negativity that she brings around is that it sucks you in. It’s so hard to remove yourself from a situation when you’re emotionally involved. I want to tell you a story.
My husband and his ex-wife have always held their son’s birthday parties together, even after being very freshly separated. There came a time when my stepson also wanted me to be included; he wanted all of his parents together as he celebrated another year of his young life. Since we have always been a parenting team who has acted in the best interest of the child, it was a given that when he wanted me there, I would be there, regardless of how his mom (or I) felt. He was turning 9 and he wanted to go to Laser Tag. This was the first time that I would be in the same room as the ex-wife. I had extended her 2 previous invites to meet me, both which she emphatically declined. I allowed her this choice and chose not to take it personally. (Ok that’s a lie, I totally thought she was a snob. How dare she! But, I eventually got over this.)
At Laser Tag, I was so nervous I could puke. Was this woman going to tackle me in the dark and suffocate the daylights out of me? Was she going to poison my drink? Were two grown women going to erupt in a Jerry Springer catfight and ruin a little boy’s 9th birthday party? I hoped not, but I did not know.
My husband had a conversation with both of us (individually) before the birthday party, telling each of us that we needed to not act like children. He knew very well how we both felt about each other, and he was worried that his son would look back on this birthday party with shame, had the 2 most important women in his life decided to make his day about them.
The entire time, I was catching evil glares from the sister of the ex-wife. I have sisters. I can guarantee I know how the 2 of them talked about me. My husband was preoccupied with his son, and I was all alone in a chaotic building teeming with children and terrible music and eye-daggers from a woman I didn’t know but I was certain that I hated. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I had no wine. I had no sisters present. I was really, truly alone – and I was the enemy. The outcast. The one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other.
But then, something remarkable happened.
My husband’s ex-wife had smuggled some adult beverages into Laser Tag. And – you can’t make this up – she offered me one. Her olive branch was a Palm Bay. Maybe we weren’t so different after all. Maybe she wanted peace as badly as I did, but just didn’t know how to make that happen. Maybe she had been struggling with her own feelings of inadequacy while mourning the end of her marriage. Maybe she hated the fact that her son had taken a liking to me. But in that moment, our relationship completely transformed.
I really and truly believe the reason that there was a Palm Bay olive branch extended was because I let her decide when she was ready to allow me into her life. I am at a place now where I believe I’d be okay regardless of whether or not she accepted me. But I also feel like the ticket to having her accept me was that, until she was ready to accept me, I didn’t force myself on her. I didn’t create needless drama. I didn’t show up, dressed up in a skimpy outfit, at her house to pick up her son for our weekends with him. I didn’t try to take her place as her son’s mother.
And so, I really encourage you to consider, the next time that Bio-Mom is coming for your jugular with her lioness claws extended, ask yourself what your role was in her behaviour. If you can really and truly say “nothing,” then I also encourage you to just brush it off. It’s not easy to be the bigger person. But it always ends up being worth it.
Communication Goes Through your Partner. (ALWAYS)
Trust me when I say that I know ex-husbands and ex-wives are not the best at communicating. Inevitably, if a relationship has broken down, this means that they were not champions at honest and productive conversation. But it is not a stepmother’s place to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs, to discuss visitation, or to discuss parenting and discipline issues (unless those issues are within the walls of her own home). While I agree that there is no one-size-fits-all answer for stepfamilies, I still disagree with a stepmom having to step into the role of mediator between her husband and his ex-wife.
There is no such thing as ex-parents, only ex-spouses. This means many things, but ultimately, it means that parenting responsibilities should still fall on the biological parents, even if they absolutely can’t stand each other. A child of divorce needs, for his own self-esteem, to see that both his parents care enough about his well-being to come together and decide how to raise him, even if they are raising him from separate houses.
If parents cannot put their own adult issues behind them for long enough to pick up and drop off their child from the doorway, then these parents should both seek counseling. Yesterday. If need be, then they should go by what the courts have decided for them. But if your husband can’t figure out how to walk up to a front door and collect his own flesh and blood from a woman that he created them with, and you decide you should do it for him, then you are allowing him not to be a parent. And that’s not cool.
Look, I’m not judging you for doing it (if you do). It might be easier that way. Your husband might really, really not want to do it. You might really, really not want him to see her. I get it. But those kids belong to him and her. And if they can’t figure out how to arrange something as simple as a drop-off, then how the heck are they going to figure out how to successfully co-parent? I mean, you can walk into a random store and pick up pizza. Why can’t you pick up your own kids? Think about it.
Even with as pleasant as my husband’s ex-wife and I are now with each other, we still have never had direct communication on the phone or via text message to discuss her son. Visitation, doctor’s and orthodontist appointments, sick days, discipline issues, absolutely anything parenting related should only go through biological parents or the court system if parents cannot figure it out on their own.
I believe this also has a higher purpose in that it shows that you are not trying to be a threat to her place as the child’s biological mother. In your own home, you are in fact the female head of your household. In her home, she is the head. If every time the kids get dropped off, you get a nasty message from her telling you how much she doesn’t like you, and doesn’t respect you as the kids’ stepmother, then I need you to do one thing, and one thing only.
Block that number. Pop lock and drop it. If she can’t communicate with you respectfully then girl, it’s not worth your stress to allow her to turn you into a lava-engulfed relic. Run away from that volcano, and run fast. You deserve better.
Seek Outside Help
Finally, if you think you’ve tried all the aforementioned tips but you’ve still come up empty, or if you figure there’s just no way these things could work for your family, then I’d really highly recommend looking for some professional help. I mean, I did. And it changed my life. So much in fact, that I became a Certified Stepfamily Counselor. Stepfamily dynamics can be a tricky little minefield to navigate, but once you have some solutions, it gets so much easier. There are also lots of good Stepfamily coaches and counselors out there. (If you want more info about working with me, click here). When you’re knee-deep in the muck (or lava) of Stepfamily life, sometimes it just takes a fresh pair of eyes and some good strategies to be able to move forward.
A happy home is priceless. And you deserve to live in one.
What are your biggest challenges with your husband’s ex-wife? What have you done lately to overcome them? Do you feed into the drama, or do you choose to rise above it? As Stepqueens, we are committed to ending negative Stepmother associations. How have you recently risen above the Stepmonster label?