A few weeks ago, I did a Becoming a Stepmom podcast with infidelity expert Dave Carder and ran a wonderful post by Peggy Vaughan, the founder of the Extramarital Affairs Resource Center. It was in response to this letter I received from a stepmom. After thinking about it for a few weeks, Dave sent me the following to post because the affair described by this stepmom includes something more complicated than your average affair. See Dave’s important post below:
I have been thinking of your stepmom email and have wanted to respond to it because it contains a unique component, vengeance! This is not an affair with both partners emotionally involved with each other, drawing nurturance from the relationship, and creating delightful memories with each other. No, this sounds like a plotted seduction with cruelty and destruction driving it. This is war, not love! This is also not the remorse/regret that many divorced spouses experience and who often get involved sexually “for old times’ sake” to comfort each other, to express regret to each, to show forgiveness, and to make up to the degree that it is possible to do so given the circumstances that now exist. The experience described in your email is more like the dynamic of sexual addiction which is to objectify and use the person involved for my own satisfaction and to satisfy my needs regardless of the outcome or how it hurts the other.
Occasionally an individual can express this level of vengeance as a first and only experience, but normally this level, sustained for 7 years, indicates a long standing history with this kind of reaction. This ex wife is stuck, can’t forgive, is unable to move on, and would reject her ex-husband even if he did leave his “new” wife and tried to return to the first marriage. This is about winning-on both fronts of the existing marriage; proving to the husband that he was wrong to leave and proving to the current wife that she has more influence over this man than the wife does. Behavior like this can reflect a long standing personality disorder.
Now the “bad” thing in all of this is that the wife is becoming just like the person she hates the most, the ex-wife. She is starting to get an adrenaline rush out of reacting to the ex just like the ex is treating her. This chemical reinforcement can actually change brain patterns and can create auto response patterns that will make the wife not like herself. This self disgust can actually drive this vengeful behavior, thus making the vengeful pattern a way of life. A new round of vengeance (with its justification) is the only thing that makes the self disgust go away. She needs to remind herself of the saying: Hatred is an illusion of power.
Now for a solution. This husband needs to understand what is happening and to take the responsibility for the separation that is necessary to diffuse the interactions between the two women. The two women will never solve this dilemma by themselves. The following suggestions could prove helpful:
1. The husband might need to apologize to his ex for the betrayal and abandonment (if that is the case). If he chooses to do that, he must be specific in the details of his confession and he must identify (with a best guess) how his behavior hurt his wife. An example might be; “I was wrong when I ____________________ to you. I know this must have made you feel _____________. Will you forgive me? There might be 20 items on this list, and believe it or not, the current wife can often help construct this list! Women are more alike than they are different. She will understand how the ex feels if she can let go of this desire for retaliation.
2. This forgiveness exercise is almost always a first choice followed by clear communication about our (the two ex’s) new relationship pattern. This new pattern can best be described by the word “neighborly”. Treat the ex like you treat a neighbor that you have to live next door to for years.
3. All financial arrangements need to be electronic. No check transfers in this environment.
4. I almost always recommend a life insurance policy, with the minor children (and the ex) as the beneficiary, be established should the husband pass away prior to fulfilling all of his financial commitments to them. This will demonstrate a “good faith” effort to care for the original family and will often speak volumes to the ex.
5. If all else fails, a legal restriction order might need to be put into place after careful documentation of the extended harassment is demonstrated.
6. This husband owes a detailed apology ( in the format described above) to his current wife for getting involved with the ex. His rationale for this experience is understandable and the two of them do need to talk through it. The wife will rebuild trust and respect for her husband to the degree that she feels he both understands what contributed to this and why he did this and shows remorse for his behavior.