Your Questions Answered: Difficult Exes

19 11 2009

Hi Jacque,

Could you offer some advice (or point me to the right place) for how to handle an extremely difficult ex-wife/bio Mom? In our case, my dh’s ex-wife is stunningly cruel and disrespectful. She sends us horrible emails with all sorts of untrue accusations and we are also convinced that she makes my stepdaughter fully aware of her feelings towards us. We have never retaliated with disrespectful behavior and we have, on several occasions, asked her to join us in therapy sessions so that we can learn how to better co-parent. She refuses. With this said, I have come to understand that I cannot change her behavior but I can change how I respond to it. Unfortunately, lately I am doing an awful job and I am allowing this behavior to occupy my consciousness much more than it should (ruminating thoughts, etc.). I have practiced some of the excellent tips that you offered to me in the past to disrupt the ruminations. I am now wondering if you have any advice that is geared towards this very situation (or, again, if you can point me to the right place for some thoughtful guidance/support). Thank you very much!

Dear Reader: You raise a lot of issues in your short email! Unfortunately as so many of you know, the more challenging the ex is the more difficult it is for stepmother and dad to create a stable stepfamily home. Putting together a system that works for you and your family will largely depend on the particular dynamics in your home mixed with old-fashioned trial and error.

Take the 100-year view. You didn’t mention how old your stepdaughter is, but remember this: Someday she will be 18. You will still have to deal with the ex but it will be a lot less than you have to now (assuming your stepdaughter is younger than 18).

Create a sanctuary in your home. Make your home a relaxing and fun place to be for you, your spouse, and your stepdaughter. When stressful things happen with the ex, turn toward your husband, not away. Find ways to spend time together. A good relationship with your spouse is the strongest antidote to a tough ex.

Develop a thought-management plan. For a few days, carry a notebook and jot down the times you think about the ex. What sparked it? What did you think? Write down what those thoughts make you feel. Now, make a deal with yourself. Allow the thoughts about the ex only at certain times. (For instance, for a half hour on Saturday at 2 p.m.) Then on Saturday at 2, rant and rave about the ex. At all other times, practice training your brain to stop the nasty thoughts. Here are things that might help:

  • Distract yourself with something else. Call your best friend, go for a run, walk your dog, turn up your favorite music really loud, send a prayer of gratitude to the ex for signing the divorce papers.
  • Practice gratitude. A simple thing really, but research has proven that by making lists every day of the things you are thankful for it can really help alleviate the negative spirals we get ourselves into.
  • Ask yourself who you would be without those thoughts. This is straight from Byron Katie’s wonderful theory which she calls, “The Work.” You have the power to choose the direction of your thoughts. It takes practice, like anything else, but you CAN do it.
  • Add a ritual or reward system that reminds you of your intention to think less negatively about the ex. Every time the ex pops up in your head, do some physical ritual to help you remember. For instance, light a candle and blow it out. When the light extinguishes, so do the negative thoughts. Or track the number of times you successful banish negative thoughts. Then set up rewards when you hit certain numbers. The 10th time you start thinking, “That B*&(#!!” and end up wishing her peace or distracting yourself with thoughts of the day’s tasks or a newspaper story you read, then reward yourself with something wonderful.

Employ your empathy. People are not all good or all bad so work to find something about the ex that you can empathize with. Try putting yourself in her shoes to see if you can understand why she might be feeling threatened. Remember she’s a woman who has been through divorce (even if she wanted it) and that is painful. She likely feels guilt about the breakup of the family and how it will affect her children. She could be scared to be a single mom or afraid that she’ll like your house better than hers. Find your compassion for her and it will make giving up negative thoughs much easier.

Other resources: Besides Byron Katie’s work, you might check out Positivity by Barbara Frederickson and The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Both authors are researchers who have tested out their theories on hundreds of people.

Happy On Sale Day!

5 05 2009

There are a bunch of books I’ve been telling you all about for a while, and I’m happy to say that you can get your hands on them today! If you don’t see them on the shelf in your local bookstore, you can purchase them from any online retailer. I’m busy building my resources page and will add these books to my list but in the meantime, here’s a description of each to get you started:

bitchNo One’s The Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for Mothers and Stepmothers by Jennifer Newcomb Marine and Carol Marine

What it is: A humorous, yet helpful take on navigating the minefield that typically exists between moms and stepmoms.

Why it’s relevant: Over a thousand new stepfamilies form every day! Imagine all those women out there, dealing with a stepmom or bio-mom and slogging through resentment, power struggles, miscommunication, a lack of shared purpose, and worst of all, boatloads of stress. We need a new model for partnership between the two women “stuck with each other” in this situation. When they work together, marriages are stronger, children are happier, and there’s less hair loss all around.

How it will help people: No One’s the Bitch is the kind of book we wish we could have read when we first met! Ten powerful concepts and true-life stories will walk readers past the point of traditional antagonism and into a revolutionary new approach. They’ll learn how to create harmony and cooperation with the other woman along a spectrum of successful possibilities.

As readers increase the sense of cohesion between the two families, they’ll also regain a feeling of control, mastery, and confidence. Helplessness will be replaced by tools for mastery, conflict will be replaced by communication, and both sides will be inspired by a new vision of an extended family that actually works for all involved.


package-dealThe Package Deal: My (Not-So) Glamorous Transition From Single Gal to Instant Mom by Izzy Rose

In today’s version of Sex and the City, Mr. Big would have kids, and Carrie Bradshaw would look and sound a lot like Izzy Rose, a hilarious and chic new stepmother trying to come to terms with “the package deal.” On any given day, 1,300 women agree to join the ranks of the 15 million and counting stepmothers currently living in the United States, and THE PACKAGE DEAL: My (Not-So) Glamorous Transition from Single Gal to Instant Mom chronicles one woman’s outrageously funny and poignant journey from sophisticated, single gal in San Francisco to married with (step)children in Texas, where she reinvents the stepmother role for a new generation of daring, confident women.

Falling in love turns many women’s lives upside down, but for the millions of women who fall for men with children from previous relationships, love often leaves them wondering how they ended up raising another woman’s kids. At 35, Izzy was a successful TV producer, living the good life as a “middle-class socialite” in San Francisco. She’s perfectly content to be unmarried and kidless—and then along comes Hank, an irresistible Southern gentleman with two kids of his own. In the parenting department, she’s a total amateur, but she does bring one strength to the new arrangement: she speaks the blended family language. She was a stepkid herself.

stepmonsterStepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin

How many times have you picked up a book for stepmothers–only to find that its focus is how you can make things better for the kids and their dad? How often have you sought out support and sympathy–only to get an earful of “you shoulds”? Wednesday Martin, a parenting journalist, stepfamily researcher, and stepmother, believed it was time that someone explore stepmothering in a new way–from the stepmother’s point of view. Stepmonster asks how repartnering with a man with kids affects her — psychologically, socially, economically. It also sets out to explode the myths—like the myth of the blended family and the myth of the maternal stepmother—that have clouded our view of who women with stepchildren are and what they ought to be able to accomplish. Far more than mere replacement parents, Martin insists, women with stepchildren of any age are people first, with their own emotional and cultural baggage to bear.

Going far beyond the usual perfunctory recipes for “how to do it better,” Stepmonster is truly stepmother-centric. It offers real life stories of women with stepchildren gleaned from interviews; first-person confessions from an author who has been there; perspectives from fields like anthropology and evolutionary biology; and a readable synthesis of the psychological and sociological literature on stepmothering, allowing women with stepchildren to see themselves as part of a larger story that is rich in meaning and social significance. On a practical level, Stepmonster suggests, in an unexpected twist, that the Wicked Stepmother may actually be our single best tool for understanding ourselves, and for finding a way to navigate through the stepmothering difficulties that can threaten to overwhelm us. Whether you’re a new stepmother or have been at it for decades, Stepmonster is sure to surprise you—and provide the compassion and understanding you deserve.