Dealing with the Other ParentStepcouple Challenges


By January 28, 2010 22 Comments

Have you ever thought about what your stepcouple relationship would be like if you didn’t obsess about the EX? Ever think about the power she (or he) has in your life and the energy she uses? Does your relationship feel more like a threesome than an intimate twosome? Do you find yourselves as a couple colluding in anger against HER (or HIM? And when you look at your stepkids, do you resent how much they look like and act like HER?

If that’s the case, the ex is a DISTANCER and DISTRACTOR in your stepcouple relationship. And you are letting it happen.

The truth is, the EX is yesterday’s news. It’s an old, out of date relationship! Isn’t it time to move on? Time to reconstruct? Now I’m not saying it’s easy or even that you want to. It’s much easier, and it feels much better to be angry at the ex and keep her in a hostile place in your heart. It’s amazing how the stepcouple preys on that negative energy against her. The kids pick up on it and feel torn, confused and angry. No one benefits.

There are many emotional reasons why this is common and hard to change. First there’s jealousy. No new wife or stepmother likes to accept that her partner loved someone else and had a child with HER. That’s a bitter pill. Feeling second fiddle, they have doubts about the strength of the stepcouple’s love and commitment to each other. They also feel inferior because they are not the “real” moms. Stepmoms tend to demonize the ex to feel better about themselves

Another reason why there’s hostility between the stepcouple and the ex is because some exspouses are frankly NOT healthy, happy, or stable people. Many have problems with current life issues and relationships, past and present. Some are unreliable, drug and alcohol affected, angry, and unfulfilled people. Often the new stepcouple bears the brunt of these unresolved emotional problems… sad to say.

I can’t tell you the HORROR STORIES I’ve heard over the years of problems with exes. My job is to help the stepcouple grow in their partnership in spite of the problems with the ex. The stronger the stepcouple, the more support and love they have to raise his, hers and their children. Hopefully over time, the heat and anger with the ex will settle down.

I repeat WHY DO YOU CARE ABOUT THE EX? Is it time to move on and focus on your stepcouple, the kids, and anything else that comes up in today’s stressful world that needs your attention?

Addendum: This is not to say that you should in any way ignore or drop your obligations to preserve the relationship between the ex and her (or his) biological children.

Susan Wisdom
Licensed Professional Counselor
January 26, 2010

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Thanks for this much-needed perspective, Susan. I think every woman partnered with a man with kids needs this encouragement to re-direct her energies and her focus whenever possible, even (perhaps especially!) when an ex-wife in the picture is hostile, intrusive, angry, and attempting to alienate the kids. Often such extremely uncooperative and undermining ex wives have some type of undiagnosed disorder (such as borderline personality disorder) in which conflict is almost like oxygen in a fire–it fuels further conflict. And so, difficult as it is, the best thing is to retreat and wait and live one’s own life.

    I would welcome anyone’s tips–especially an expert like you–about just exactly HOW a woman with stepkids who is dealing with an uncooperative and/or undermining ex-wife can redirect her own focus in order to give energy to the stepcouple rather than the person producing static.

    For those women in less dire circumstances, I really recommend that healthy boundaries are helpful to everyone. There’s no need to shoot for being best friends. Civil and polite can do the trick and save everyone lots of aggravation. Finally, most of the women with stepkids I know and work with know better than to fall into the trap of competing with mom. But for those who don’t, it sure is a no-win situation. I learned pretty quickly to ENJOY the fact that if I wasn’t going to be given any authority by the kids’ parents, I didn’t need to take on any responsibility, either. That can be a great thing.

    Thanks again for the article–I hope it will help lots of women.
    xx wednesday

  • Susan Wisdom says:

    Thanks Wednesday. What you say is true. Many exes are so angry and intruisive that it’s impossible to ignore them. This includes those who go to all measures to make you miserable, ie feckless law suits, abusive phone calls, lies, etc I have to agree that it’s impossible to not let this get to you and drive you crazy. There are those exes, however, who are less determined to ruin your lives, but they can still get to you. The fact is that all stepcouples have to learn to maximize what they have…the partner of their dreams??!… and ignore, dismiss, and/or deal with what they don’t like about the EX. Let her be and spend good energy on relationships that count – your partner and the kids in your life, step or otherwise.

  • Susan, I love the emphasis you put on the marital relationship in this piece. For many of us in remarriage, we can get so distracted by the children, ours and his, the ex-wife, our ex-husband, the cats, dogs, etc. etc. It is so easy to lose the sense of “us as a couple” in the middle of all the chaos. You are right to point out that basically we all need to grow up and grow up quickly. No one likes to think of their husband with another woman, but the reality is that most of us remarry men with an ex-wife and children. That is the reality and it is pointless to get in a power struggle with Reality.

    Being a stepmother is one humbling proposition. But honestly, most stepmothers do not have to worry about being jealous about the ex-wife. There was most likely a clear and definite need for the divorce. You are wise to point out that space needs to be given to one’s husband and their ex-spouse so that they can communicate clearly about the needs and parenting of their children. Jealousy is never a good thing in a marriage, so trust is critical.

    I did take exception with this, “The truth is, the EX is yesterday’s news. It’s an old, out of date relationship!” If there are children involved, there must and needs to be a current relationship. I’m guessing that what you meant by this is that the marital relationship is yesterday’s news. And that is 100% right. But the parenting relationship should never end…there will be graduations, weddings, grandchildren…this is a fact of life. Stepmothers who do not support the parenting relationship are setting themselves up big time, and they will be the ones to suffer the most when resisting this natural relationship.

    You are right to point out that some of the ex-wives are not healthy individuals. This would be true for stepmothers as well. No one has the exclusive rights to Crazy! But more often than not, the ex-wife is not crazy and not dysfunctional, just as the stepmother is more often than not, not crazy and not dysfunctional. We would all be wise to relate to everyone in the stepfamily system with compassion and understanding. I think because of the competitive nature of women with other women (yes I said it and I meant it), the ex-wife/stepmother relationship is especially challenging and if we would all put our egos aside, things would run much more smoothly for everyone.

    In my work with remarried couples, almost 100% of the time they come in for help, it’s because there has been so much focus on the kids and the ex-spouses that the marriage relationship is in the tanker. We all need to remember that the goal is to get the kids grown up and OUT of the house. We need and must make our marriages the #1 priority. The divorce rate for second marriages is ridiculously high for a reason. Too much focus on everything but the marriage.

    Weekly date nights must be sacred. Vacations away with NO children are a must when one can afford them. Public displays of affection are good for children to see. Children do feel more secure when they know that their parents are happy and in a good and solid relationship.

    As for Wednesday’s point about the intrusive and uncooperative ex-wife…no easy solutions but I have found that no one has power unless we give it to them. Being a strong marital team will help take care of this kind of ex-wife. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries are critical when it comes to anyone who is being inappropriate, intrusive or unreasonable. And in some extreme cases, legal action must be taken if the ex-spouse is interfering in ways that are destructive or oppose the agreed upon parenting plan.

    Wonderful piece Susan and a great reminder to us that we didn’t marry our husbands so we could inherit an instant family; we married them because we loved them and they happened to come with some baggage! I imagine we’ve brought in some ourselves.

  • A.J. says:

    Excellent reminder. I started my marriage with the idea that our relationship would always come first. For the most part, I have been able to stick to that goal.

    I have learned to let the kids’ mom just be — she is who she is, and I won’t ever be able to change her. So, it’s not really worth my time to fume and stew about her actions and choices.

    I do have control of where my own focus lies, and it is with my husband.

  • Susan Wisdom says:

    Thanks A.J. You set a good example for us all. Great job of boundary setting and prioritizing your attention and focus.

  • Kim says:

    I agree, we need to focus on the current marriage, the one we are in, not the one our partner left behind. And, I liked the comments about compassion. We ALL need it. Great ideas coming out here . . .

    An ex needs compassion for all kinds of reasons and sometimes it’s just because she’s doing the best she can and she may or may not make the best decisions, but that’s life and one moves on. Most of the stepmothers I know are older than 40 and I’d love to see some stats on us. ARE we jealous of the ex at this age? Are we examining every move of the ex and not able to move on? When I found myself obsessing, it was actually my “clue” that I was going into peri-menopause. I knew it wasn’t my normal pattern, so I dealt with my health and voila, there is no more obsessing. I really do think the issues are different when we get into this decade, or at least they take a slightly different slant.

    As for the stepmother side of things, we need compassion too. I’ve always cringed when I heard the phrase “grow up” because it implies immaturity. Let’s face it, a woman could be THE MOST mature person on the planet and struggle with the dynamics of a stepfamily and being a stepmother. It takes you off guard, it trips you up, it is a regressive experience from a relational point of view. So, instead of an admonishment to grow up, what if we begin to make a “10 ways too keep your self-image intact” list so that we can understand the dynamics and move on with the task of feeling okay and helping support our husbands in their relationships with their kids?

    The stepmothers I know need compassion for all kinds of reasons and most of the time it’s because they’re trying too hard to fit in and find their place within the group. Again, this is no small task and we all have had our “days” when we needed to back up and regroup and begin again with a different perspective.

    So, that list includes . . . ???
    Celebrate your marriage with date night.
    Make time for the two of you solo.
    Have cell-free hours during the week when you don’t have the kids, even if you’re home.
    Allow for others’ anger, it’s normal in a stepfamily. (could we agree on this one instead of “don’t take things so personally?)

    and, so on . . .

    Thanks for taking my comments.

  • Susan Wisdom says:

    Hi Kim –
    I love your ideas of what works for you. Thanks for sharing!
    Anyone else want to share their successes and coping skills when bad stuff stuff happens?
    Kim is right – None of us are MATURE AND GROWN UP when we’re feeling badly. Give us a break!

  • elizabeth says:

    My partner’s ex was not an intrusive person and I have been able to ignore her existence pretty much: except that apparently she made two of her children into proxy warriors in her war against me and my partner.

    So while it may be fairly easy in some situations to ignore the ex herself, it is often almost impossible to ignore, or not be obsessed with, the alienated children, especially when they are abusive, angry, and violent.

    So I’ve had to learn to ignore them too. It took ten years. Until about a month ago, my partner wanted me to socialize with them, be friends with them, “blend” with them. But finally he realized that this compromise–I’ll be happy with him if he’ll let me avoid them–sort of works.

    The irony was that he only wanted me to socialize with the mean kids. He didn’t care if I never saw or had a meal with the ones I got along with! When I pointed this out, he seemed to realize that there was something odd about this. Something maybe a bit perverse. And he stopped insisting on it.

  • Susan Wisdom says:

    Hi Elizabeth –
    What I love about your comment is how the two of you were able to talk about this problem and work out a solution. Congratulations and thanks for sharing with others.

  • Peggy says:

    Hi Susan!

    Great article – and I can’t emphasize enough that the marriage relationship must come first. My husband and I are our own base camp – support, unity, mutual trust, friendship, and love – we make daily deposits into our marriage relationship. Daily. Through actions, words, and displays of affection, we’ve created a bubble around our marriage. No one can become a wedge between us – not his kids, not my kids, not his ex-wife. And speaking of the ex-wife, I kicked her out of my head a long time ago. We have a good working relationship, but she has been known to take a dive in the deep end head first every once in a while (last week was one of those times) – which means, Hubs and I wrap an extra layer of insulation around our marriage bubble 🙂


  • Kim says:

    Thanks to everyone for their balanced perspective on this. It is so easy to get caught up in all the drama surrounding everyone else (my husband and I had only been married two months when his ex-moved, literally, across the street from us- yes, we can wave to her through out windows ), and lose sight of you, your marriage, and the love you have between you and your husband (which makes it all worthwhile 🙂 ).

  • Samara says:

    Love this and agree, let’s stick to our own marriage. To some point the ex is inherently part of ones life when it comes to the children/issues like that, but it’s easy to obsess on this. Thanks for your perspective. And neat site, I came via Wednesday Martin! I wrote some of my own thoughts on where I’m at in OUR situation this past week on my site, would love your feedback.

  • Kris says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments and fresh perspectives. I’m new to the world of stepmom blogs and wish that I had discovered this sooner in my relationship. My BFs ex-wife has been a dysfunctional distraction for almost the entire year that my stepdaughter has lived with us. Between lawsuits, alienation, disturbing phone calls, requests for money, etc. the stress has been overwhelming. My relationship has suffered tremendously, to the point that we are taking a break, but working on dating and trying to mend our relationship. I will continue to follow the blogs and read as much as I can because it’s making a huge difference in my personal path to clarity.

  • Joy101378 says:

    I think that putting the focus on our own marriages is a great idea…the one thing I would say in rebuttal is that it is often the husband who brings the ex-wife into the current relationship. I can breathe deeply, choose to not care about her, and decide that she has no impact on my life…but if my HUSBAND doesn’t do the same thing, then it’s futile. If my husband puts her wants and needs before mine, if my husband consults her on things before he consults me, if my husband makes decisions with her that affect MY time and I am not consulted…then THAT’S why I care about the ex.

    • Susan Wisdom says:

      That changes the situation, doesn’t it? Then it becomes an issue between you and your husband. If he talks with his ex before getting your feelings, opinions, thoughts etc, she’s in the loop …and you’re not. Maybe he thinks he’s doing the right thing. If so, can you talk with him about discussing stuff with YOU first and HER SECOND. Tell him, “I don’t want to resent HER, but please talk with me first. That way I don’t have to resent her …or you either. See if that works. Good luck

  • Joy101378 says:

    Oh I agree with your advice – I think the point I was trying to make is that putting all the blame for “caring about the ex” on teh current spouse is not always fair or a good reflection on reality. I think a good number of women who have problems with the ex have those problems due in large part to their husbands. So I just wanted to point that out. When you ask the question, “why do you care about the ex?” there are many, many answers, and not all of them within our control.

    • Susan Wisdom says:

      So the answer to the question, “Why do you Care About the Ex” is “because HE still cares about her.” That’s the piece that doesn’t feel good. I don’t blame you.
      Thanks Joy for clarifying this, Joy.

  • […] read a post by Susan Wisdom called “Why Do You Care About the Ex?” which addresses the reasons why some StepMoms focus on the BioMom.  One sentence really resonated […]

  • Annie says:

    I agree with Joy in Reply 16. For the first 2 years of our relationship, I turned my head the other direction. And she is the psycho type…breaking into our home, cutting up my things, texting and calling my husband constantly, telling her sons lies about me when she doesn’t even know me, stopping by our home unexpected on holidays, etc. But when you don’t feel supported by your husband, and you have talked to him over and over about how you feel, it does put a whole new spin on things. After awhile, you do start caring about the ex. Every little thing starts to grate on your nerves and you begin to resent everything. Some days I question if the misery it puts me through is even worth it. It is ever present.

  • The ex says:

    Ten years after this article originally posted, I still feel a need to reply. As someone who is the ex, was once a step-mom herself to his kids and been there, and now dealing with his new wife… I am irritated and disappointed that there are so many articles about the “crazy ex-wife” and very little about the new wife who is genuinely jealous their man had a life before them. This article is greatly appreciated because tge jealous new wife DOES exist. And it can be irrational. I know this because my daughter and I are living it. I am stable. I have moved on. I do not want him back. I asked for tge divorce and I do not regret it. I am DONE. SHe may have him and I want them
    happy. I would welcome some semblance of a respectful partnership with StepMom because sometimes…my ex is a pain. A new wife who I can rely on and not be hated by would be WONDERFUL sometimes to just help manage things a little. I don’t ask much. Just basic respect. So if you are the new wife and your are jealous of the ex and while she has maybe had some arguments with your now husband, and she has been nothing but nice to you personally…maybe it’s you. It is also MOST DEFINITELY about you if your anger extends to your step-child and the step child is a good, sweet kid.

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