What to Do When Your Husband's Ex-Wife Dominates
Tips for Setting Ground Rules in Your New Marriage and Not Letting Exes Run Your Relationship
Dear April Masini,
My husband lets his ex-wife run the show. It's driving me crazy and we fight about it constantly to the point that it's stressing out my step-son. Whenever I tell my husband how damaging his ex-wife is, he changes the subject. Am I supposed to continue letting her make me nuts? I can't take it any more and feel like I'm going to explode--or ask for a divorce. Do you have any advice to help me save my relationship?"
April Masini's Advice :
Dear Second Wife,
Step away from the curb! That's my advice for any woman whose husband is allowing his ex wife to run the show. When you marry, you marry his family -- whether it's wacky in-laws or strong ex-wives with children who are in your custody for part of the time. And if you're marrying a single dad, children are part of the package. Even if he doesn't have custody of them at the time you are marrying him, he may, down the line. And if he has children - or if you're a man marrying a single mom -- the children and their biological parents are all part of the package you are getting into.
So, assuming you're a law-abiding citizen, the ex-wife, no matter how domineering or kooky, is here to stay -- and she should be as the mother of your step-son. When you dishonor the mother, you dishonor the child. Again, regardless of how nuts you think she is, she is still your step-son's mother. Regardless of the divorce. Regardless of your status as step-mother. So be careful about speaking badly of her in front of her children who are also your step-children.
In fact, the best advice any future or present step-mother can take is to always speak kindly and respectfully of a child's parents. Speaking badly about a child's biological parents when you are a future or present step-parent may get you ahead in the short run, but it will cause irrevocable harm in the long run. So speak carefully. Children listen.
Boundaries Help You See On Which Side The Problem Lies:
The advice I give to all my clients with this kind of issue is to draw up boundaries. What this will do is to make it clear that this problem is between you and your husband. (Of course your stepson is in the middle. Any problem between you and your husband will affect your stepson. Don't confuse this problem by blaming the ex-wife.) Limit your communication with the ex-wife to as little as possible. This may be hard for you to do -- harder than you think. Do it with a benign intention. This will allow the real problem to emerge.
For instance, if his ex calls you to find out where her son is, get yourself out of the middle, and tell your husband to call her back. If the child is old enough, tell the child to call his mom back. By putting the burden of communication on your husband and his son, you will take yourself out of the middle. You may feel that it is your responsibility to return the call yourself. But until you let that go, you will be engaged in the problem. Step out of it, and allow a boundary to form between yourself and your husband's ex.
Is It Him, You, Or Her?
This allows you to see if your ex and your husband are able to communicate. If they are, then you should step out of the way and allow them to handle all the custody and other arrangements that affect their child. If you are uncomfortable with that communication then you need to deal with your discomfort with your husband. However, if it becomes clear that your husband and your ex are able to communicate just fine, and she is still bothering you, then you need to recognize that she is trying to make trouble, and be vigilant about your boundaries. If your husband is still attached to his ex-wife romantically, then you will be able to see that more clearly. Regardless of what the problem is, setting boundaries will give you a clearer picture of what is going on and why you are bothered.
When you do spot a problem, be patient and understanding if possible. It is easy to jump to conclusions -- like thinking that your husband is still interested in his ex or that he is even seeing her. When divorced people have a child between them, there is always a bond there and it never goes away. It is sometimes difficult when these divorced moms and dads marry other men and women without children, who do not have first hand experience with this. The bond between the divorced parents can often appear to be romantic and threatening because both parents love their child. It is difficult, but important, for the spouse who is not the biological parent of the child to understand that loving a child does not mean your spouse is in love with the child's parent.
New Marriage, New Boundaries:
What is probably happening in your particular situation is that your husband has not set up good boundaries for this new marriage. Before you blame him, remember how hard it is to transition from being single to being married. The same is true from being in one marriage to being in another. Often, you expect things to run the same way in one marriage that they did in another. This is not always the case. In fact, it's rarely the case. And when children are involved, things can get easily volatile. But luckily, there is an easy way to set up boundaries in your new marriage that are not always apparent.
Custody orders need to be followed to the letter -- for now. If the child is supposed to be picked up at a certain time and place, then that is what has to happen. No changes -- unless the custody order allows for them, and if so, they should be in writing, in advance. While this may seem stringent, it will help you to avoid feeling that the ex-wife is "running the show." The "show" will be run by the custody order.
That's what these documents are for. To alleviate stress from anyone overstepping bounds. To your surprise, your husband may resist this change. That is because many people are creatures of habit, and if he and his ex have been ignoring the custody order and doing things their own way for a long time, it may feel like a step backwards for him to revert to the custody order. But again, that is why they are in place. They spell out who is supposed to be where when. They can even spell out the number or amount of phone calls the parent may place to the child when he is in your custody at your house. In fact, you may want to give your stepson his own phone line so his mom can call him directly and not bother you.