For stepmoms who may be feeling like they’ve somehow failed because their relationship with the ex is anything but friendly, here are some thoughts on why it’s really OK—and why you’re not a failure—if you’ll never be BFFs with your stepchildren’s mother.
Stepfamily dynamics are complicated.
Up to 72 percent of remarriages with kids end in divorce, according to the Virginia Longitudinal Study of Divorce and Remarriage conducted by pioneer stepfamily researcher E. Mavis Hetherington. The multi-tiered complexities of stepfamily life make it challenging for couples to survive, much less entertain, a relationship with their partner’s ex. However, it is more than a worthwhile goal to achieve at least a modicum of Basic Etiquette 101—being cordial and polite—when one is interacting with their partner’s ex.
It’s not always best for the kids.
Wednesday Martin, PhD, contributing writer and author of Stepmonster, explains: “Francesca Adler-Baeder of the National Stepfamily Resource Center summarized findings from experts’ research and clinical experience that when exes are very chummy and cordial and spend a lot of time together, children are likely to experience confusion and wonder why they divorced in the first place and may continue to nurture fantasies of parental reconciliation.” Martin goes on to say, “Bending over backwards to engineer a ‘perfect world’ for kids of any age post-divorce is not necessarily doing them a favor. While the impulse is understandable to ‘keep everything exactly the same,’ it is not healthy. Things change after parents divorce and helping children develop resilience and a sense of confidence that they are loved is more important than spending holidays with an ex and potentially confusing them, if that doesn’t work for you as a couple. And if it comes at the cost of one’s personal emotional comfort and safety, it is a disservice all around.”
What she thinks of you is none of your business anyway.
Because it is so rare for moms and stepmoms to get along, you shouldn’t be overly absorbed with or preoccupied and concerned about what the ex thinks of you. It serves stepmoms well to remember how difficult, and potentially fickle, relationships with an ex can be. The reality is that you have enough on your plate without the added burden of worrying about cultivating and maintaining a friendship with your partner’s ex.
Here are three reasons why it’s really OK if you’re not BFFs with your stepkids’ mom:
1. You should be spending your time working on your relationship.
Stepfamilies are complex. It takes a lot of time and energy to manage the inherent issues associated with merging individuals together. When a stepcouple’s relationship has reached dire straits, it’s likely that their time has been swallowed up by the needs of the children, the exes and life in general. The solution? Focus on your relationship! If we’re going to talk about what’s best for the kids, what is best is that they don’t experience another divorce. Period. Research clearly shows that the new marriage must be the top priority; the couple must act as a team if they are going to beat those dismal remarriage divorce statistics. Schedule a weekly date night and an occasional weekend alone together. With your partner, nurture the relationship you want to last well after the children leave the home.
2. The kids don’t need you to be friends with their mom.
In fact, for some kids, it feels weird when mom and stepmom get too close. What the kids do need is for you to conduct yourself with dignity and integrity when you interact with their mother, even if you have negative feelings for her. If you’re a stepmom dealing with an angry ex who is constantly taking your partner to court over the minutest of details, sending long and intrusive texts and emails day and night, and calling non-stop until a response is given, know that dealing with this kind of stuff without blowing your top qualifies you for sainthood! Remember, taking the higher road has never hurt one’s soul. Avoid gossiping (this is different than venting to your good girlfriends), ruminating about or talking ad nauseam to your partner about his ex. It’s unproductive and takes the focus off the two of you and the enjoyment you could be having together.
3. You should focus any extra energy on yourself.
Being a stepmother is the most challenging and stressful position within a stepfamily. Therefore, self-care is critical to a stepmom’s well-being. Still feeling guilty for tending to your own needs? Want another reason to focus more on you and your marriage? How about this: Studies are increasingly showing that our society’s “kids first at all costs” mentality is actually hurting children by producing a generation of narcissists who haven’t learned how to problem solve for themselves. Let’s be honest. You are with your partner despite the fact that he has kids, not because he has kids. Take care of yourself. Pursue your dreams and your goals. Focus on your marriage. Focus on being kind and civil to the children of your partner when they are in your home. Be an ally to your husband as he navigates his way through parenting. In the big picture of your life, you’ve got bigger fish to fry than trying to be BFFs with your partner’s ex.
In an ideal world, everyone would get along great—the exes, the kids and the in-laws. But then again, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be divorce in the first place.