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I can’t help but be surprised at the number of stepmoms who are thinking about leaving their partners (or have left) because of his ex. It’s not that I don’t understand why these women would want to run and never look back, but it saddens me that their situations became so bad that they felt it was the only option.
So for those of you who remain but find yourself challenged by the ex on a daily basis, here are some ways to prevent her from having so much power over your life.
She can’t call the shots for your family
Mom probably hasn’t adjusted her vision to include you – in any aspect – even though the reality of the situation is that you are very present. Therefore, there will always be conflict where she’s concerned. Because you are a part of your partner’s and stepchild’s family, you and your partner have to be the one calling the shots for your family. If you let the ex dictate what should happen in your home, then you’re letting her manipulate her way into your house and relationship. The couple is in charge of their household and must stand in their power.
Acknowledge that these are extraordinary circumstances
If you’re kicking yourself for getting so wrapped up in the negativity of the ex, quit it. Stop thinking that this should be as simple as other relationships you’ve had. It’s not like having a toxic coworker or friend that you can remove from your life if you choose. You’re not blood related to her, so there’s no positive history with her or unconditional love to fall back on. And you didn’t choose to have children with her, so you didn’t get here (directly) by your own choice. You’re faced with her because of choices made by the man you love. Yet you’re paying the price for his choices, which can feel very unjust.
It’s easy to obsess about the unfairness of it all, but that’s just one more way you’re giving her power. So give yourself a break and acknowledge that this is one of the most challenging types of dynamics you’ll ever encounter. In fact, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re still standing.
Close the door on no-win situations
Some situations are just impossible. And by impossible I mean that no matter what you do or how hard you try, there’s no appeasing the other household. You know the type of situation I’m referring to. It’s as if you’re standing there telling someone that the sky is blue and they’re yelling at you to “stop saying the sky is red!!!” It doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing rational about it. And there’s nothing you can do to change it – because it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Yet, inevitably, that will be the situation you end up spending all your time and energy on. That is a mistake. When you’re able to see that you’re backed against a wall with very little chance of resolution – shut it down by disengaging. Don’t validate her absurd accusations by responding to them. Instead, turn your attention elsewhere.
Take responsibility for letting her in
If the ex is causing conflict between you and your partner, it’s because you and/or him have let her. Think about it, regardless of what she’s doing or saying, it can only cause conflict if you choose to react to her by turning on each other, instead of supporting one another. If your partner lets her do things that are clearly disrespectful or threatening to you, or if you obsess about her, engage her when she acts out, or get angry with your partner every time he makes a choice you disagree with, then you’re giving her a power she wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s up to you and your partner to keep your relationship intact and keep her on the outside.
Additional ways to minimize her impact
- If you must discuss her, set aside a fixed amount of time to do this. Set a timer, and once the timer goes off, put her away.
- Create boundaries around talking points. It’s vital that your partner create these boundaries. The focus should be the kids. If she tries to veer off into the personal, your partner should remind her that he’s not interested in discussing those topics. If she continues, he should leave the conversation.
- Retrain your brain. Get out of the habit of thinking and stressing about her. Focus on what’s going right in your life, don’t ruminate about the past. Stop reliving every awful thing she’s ever done to you. My favorite method is to add a helpful mantra as an event to the calendar on my phone and then set it to alert me 3 times a day. For example, “I am peaceful and in control of my life.” After about a month you’ll have a new habit of NOT thinking about her drama.
- Remember that whatever is going on with her – you can’t fix it. Even if you were correct in your assumptions and knew the perfect thing to say to her, you are the one person she is unable to hear it from.
- Whenever you find yourself getting upset about her, stop yourself and use that energy to do something nice for your partner. The goal is to focus more on cultivating a stronger relationship and less on things that steal your happiness.
- Find humor where you can. I’m the last person to think any of this stepfamily drama is funny, but after you’re repeatedly called a liar, from someone who consistently lies, even when she’s under oath, you just have to laugh at the absurdity. Find the funny in the ridiculousness of it all.
In order for your relationship to survive the difficulties of someone so intimately connected to your family, you and your partner must support each other. You must listen to each other and be kind and forgiving when missteps are made. You must maximize the strength of your marriage and minimize the ex’s effect on you. Your family is counting on you.
Ready to regain your sense of freedom from the ex? Join my 2-week, online Intensive: Dealing with the Ex
This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SM Magazine.
© 2015 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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Clients ask me all the time, how much communication between my partner and his ex is normal and necessary? Obviously this depends on the age of the kids, whether or not there are mental/physical/emotional issues that require more frequent communication, and how healthy the relationship between your partner and his ex is. Younger kids will require more frequent communications, while by the age of 16 most communication can be directly between teen and parent.
In his book “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle,” Benjamin Garber, PhD gives some excellent guidelines around communication, advising co-parents on exactly what is “too much.”
- “It’s too much when it’s constant. Barring emergencies, most co-parents seldom need to communicate more than once a day. Many manage with a single communication each week or each parenting period, whichever is briefer.” So unless there’s a constant crisis at your home, those multiple texts a day are unnecessary.
- “It’s too much when it’s intrusive. Co-parenting communications that edge beyond the kids’ needs, interest, successes and failures and into adult personal matters aren’t necessary.” As soon as a co-parent starts to wander into topics outside of the kids (assuming the other parent isn’t interested), it’s time to shut down communication.
- “It’s too much when it serves to keep you artificially connected. We must never use our children and our mutual responsibility as their caregivers as an excuse to maintain adult relationships.” Some ex-wives love to use their kids as an excuse to stay connected to their ex. They’ll share inappropriate, personal details of their lives, believing that sharing a child with someone gives them lifelong rights to invade their ex’s personal space with continued, unwanted communications. They might invite them to dinner or ask them for drinks, because it’s “best for the kids.” No. What’s “best for the kids” is a conflict-free home. And that often means limited communication if you’re dealing with a difficult ex.
- “It’s too much when it becomes harassing, abusive, intimidating or otherwise destructive.” Insults, judgements, continuously bringing up the past and past grievances, blaming and accusing – these are all destructive and may require extreme boundaries, such as a communication restraining order.
If co-parents have a mutually respectful, friendly relationship and communicating more often works for them and their current spouses, then great! Otherwise, these guidelines are helpful in letting parents know that you don’t need to be in constant contact about the kids to be effective co-parents.
© 2015 Jenna Korf All Rights Reserved
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You might also enjoy:
- How to create boundaries with the ex
- 5 tips for divorcing a high-conflict personality
- Stepmoms, you have the power to choose peace