Your Questions Answered: Missing My Stepdaughter

8 06 2010

Hi Jacque,

I guess I should give you some of our history. My husband is from KY and was married to his ex for 1 year before she began cheating on him again. They had a prior engagement that he broke off once he discovered her infidelity. However once he took her back she was magically pregnant shortly after that. They married after my SD was born and like I previously said the marriage only lasted one year with many separations in between. I had met my husband, he was here in MD for subcontractor work, the weekend before he split with his then wife. (My stepdaughter was 16 months old at the time.) We were engaged after 5 months and married on our 1 year. BM was in the habit of denying my husband from seeing his daughter unless it was convenient for her etc. so a court order was put into place. My stepdaughter began coming home every other month for two weeks and then an additional two weeks for summer vaca and alternating holidays. My stepdaughter and I love each other very much and are as close as can be expected. Her mother is a tyrant and she would rather live with us but unfortunately there isn’t anything we can do at this point to make the change.

My stepdaughter started kindergarten last year and the transition was very hard for all of us. Another court order was put into place to address our time with her since she was attending school. BM remarried at the beginning of this year. So my stepdaughter has had many changes to overcome and through out it all she has always seemed to enjoy our nightly calls or at least would talk for a few minutes.

The last month or so has seen a lot of bickering from BM, who doesn’t want to follow our order, and there has been a drastic change in stepdaughter’s disposition on the phone. Most of the time she barely answers the phone before saying bye and hanging up. A few times we have gotten her to talk but I just don’t know how to deal with this rejection. My problem is that I miss my SD terribly when she is not home but talking to her at night has sustained me. Now I don’t know whether she is depressed and doesn’t want to talk or she is receiving hand signals to hang up the phone. BM only has her cellphone in the house and I know she doesn’t give my stepdaughter open access to it to call us.

Do you have any tips for me to deal with this sense of loss when stepdaughter is not around? Thank You

Dear Stepmom,

I want to thank you for loving your stepdaughter so much. The loving heart of an adult is a gift to any child of divorce. You didn’t mention how much time you get with her or what your spouse’s relationship is like with his daughter, so I will answer this with some of the clues that I sense here.

Maintain a vision of love. Your stepdaughter is going through some challenging times. One of the great difficulties of stepfamily life is that we simply have no idea what is going on at the other house. We have to rely on our observations, the things the ex says, and clues left by the children, but it sounds like this girl is caught in a loyalty bind. You were right to point out that your stepdaughter is going through some tough transitions: school, a new stepfather. That alone is enough to cause a child to act out. If Mom is badmouthing Dad and you to their daughter on top of the changes, that can have a dramatic affect on how she acts toward you. You didn’t mention if her treatment of her father has changed but that would be another indicator of a girl who is caught in a loyalty bind. (She wants to feel loyal to her mother and so she must cut ties with you in order to do that, for instance.) During this time, maintain a vision of love for your stepdaughter that encompasses the big-picture view. Hopefully someday she’ll be able to return your love. But for now it sounds like it is far too complicated and far too painful for her to do so.

Be consistent. Children respond to consistency in action. They pay attention to what we do. And over time that has an impact on their sense of selves and their world-view. If it’s possible, continue the phone calls but instead of asking her questions about her life (this could make her feel like she is ratting out her mom) instead share things with her about you. Chat about an age-appropriate movie or book or world event. Tell her about your best Halloween costume. Take the pressure off of her and she’ll thank you in the long run. And if she doesn’t thank you, I’ll do it for her. THANK YOU!

Educate yourself about childhood developmental stages. You didn’t mention whether or not you have any children of your own. If you don’t, then do a little reading on the developmental stages of children. Believe me, it makes it a lot easier to accept and understand a kid’s bad behavior if you understand why it’s happening. Sometimes a surly face is caused by their age and stage in life and not because they’re mad at you.

Protect yourself by understanding stepfamily dynamics. All of the stepfamily folks will tell you “don’t take it personally.” And they are right. This girl’s behavior is not aimed at you. Or if it is, it’s not because of you. It’s because of the situation she is in. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to shut off our feelings! Nor should we. But you need to protect your own feelings by educating yourself about stepfamily life. (Read Between Two Worlds by Elizabeth Marquardt to understand children of divorce, for instance.) Work to develop other ways of finding validation and love besides your stepdaughter so that you feel like a whole, strong, lovable person NO MATTER WHAT. Even if she doesn’t want to talk to you (or can’t because it will hurt her mother,) you are still a glorious soul who deserves love and appreciation. NO MATTER WHAT.

Meet other stepmothers. Having other women to talk to can help normalize your experiences. Find a group of ladies who can help you brainstorm positive ways to overcome your stepfamily challenges. (The upcoming Stepmom Circles Retreat would be a great way to meet other stepmoms!)

Build positive experiences. When you do see your stepdaughter, have fun together! Work on ways to connect in the time you do have and she’ll remember those moments when she gets to make her own choices about who she is going to call or visit. And that day will come faster than you think.

Infidelity Post Update: Vengeance

13 10 2009

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.

When your Husband has an Affair with his Ex-wife

15 09 2009

Visit Peggy Vaughan’s website Extramarital Affairs Resource Center at or check out her book The Monogamy Myth and To Have and To Hold: A Personal Handbook for Building a Strong Marriage and Preventing Affairs, which will be published in February 2010.

By Peggy Vaughan

This can be a crazy-making situation as you try to comprehend why your husband would have an affair with his ex-wife? Maybe you could comprehend an attraction/temptation to someone ‘new-and-exciting.’ But what in the world would make him turn to the woman he divorced – when there must have been problems and/or hard feelings toward her at that point. What changed?

Well, there’s no ‘rational’ explanation – because this is not a rational action. But there are ways to gain some understanding of how/why it may have happened. While this naturally feels very ‘personal,’ his actions do not necessarily have anything to do with you or the state of your marriage. So the first step is to avoid ‘comparing’ yourself to the ‘ex.’

One way to think about this is to realize that what happened is based more on the difference between the role of being the ex-wife and the role of being the spouse – not about the particular people who fill those roles. For instance, if you had been the ex-wife and she had been the current spouse, he would likely have wanted to have an affair with you.

Understanding some of the factors that may contribute to this happening.

Their shared history:

Regardless of the feelings between your husband and his ex-wife at the time of their divorce, there was once a time when they loved each other. And as time passes, the ‘bad times’ may begin to recede, leaving them to recall the ‘good times’ when they were in love. (This is somewhat like the way we revise our thinking about a person who dies. Even though we may have become quite removed or even bitter about them when they were alive, after they die we’re more likely to recall the ‘good things’ about them.)

Also, most of us tend to always think ‘the grass may be greener’ in whatever alternative scenario might be in our heads. For instance, when you make a certain choice (like marrying the first time), you’re likely to gradually become more focused on the problems in the relationship and see some alternative as more desirable. Then if/when you make a different choice (like getting a divorce), you’re likely to gradually become focused on the loss you feel about being alone, leading you to fall in love with someone new and get married again.

As this pattern continues, the next step is that after some period of time in the new marriage, you again begin to be more focused on the (natural, inevitable) problems that develop in marriages over time – leading you to consider alternatives (one of which is recalling the ‘good times’ in the first marriage and feeling more open to the first wife. And for the ex-wife, it can be heady to see your ex-husband seeing you in this new, more favorable light. So (without rational considerations) both people can get caught up in the relationship that once was.

Their children:

Having children from the earlier marriage automatically means he will have a life-long relationship of some sort with his ex-wife. While that can be a difficult fact to swallow, it IS a fact. So the challenge is not how to avoid the contact, but how to manage it.

This means avoiding a situation where he ‘lives in two worlds,’ functioning as a father to his children from the earlier marriage completely on his own (as a separate world) from the one with you. Regardless of your feelings about his ongoing relationship with the children, they are the innocent victims of this situation. So it calls for treating them with kindness and compassion – both to their face and behind their back when talking to your husband about them. (As you know, all children can be ‘difficult’ at times, but the normal issues with children become greater when they’re dealing with the fallout from their parents’ divorce.)

But more directly to the point of not leaving your husband to lead two separate lives… the degree of ‘closeness’ between your husband and his ex-wife is affected by how much of their joint parenting is done separately from you. For instance, discussions about the children’s activities or issues involves all three of you, so (for the sake of the children as well as for maintaining the integrity of your marriage), you need to be involved in all of it. Granted, dealing with his ex-wife can be problematic under any circumstances, but especially once there has been an affair. But being ‘civil’ and ‘adult’ in dealing with her is still your best path to maintaining and rebuilding your marriage.

Important Note:

While in most instances, an important part of recovering is severing all contact with the third party, this is not a reasonable option when children are involved. This continuing contact does create a greater challenge for rebuilding the marriage; however it CAN be done. I’ve seen it happen many times – even when the child/children are conceived during the current marriage. I’ve been greatly impressed and inspired by the women who have successfully managed this kind of difficult situation.

As strange as it may seem, this focus on the child and the situation as a whole can sometimes lift people out of a very narrow focus only on their own personal pain. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it can become the “glue” that holds the couple together in their effort to recover and rebuild. This effort by both the husband and the wife in trying to deal with this enormous challenge can serve to draw them together. In fact, the most critical element in the recovery may be the degree to which the husband and wife can make a joint effort to face this challenge together and shift their focus to the future rather than dwelling on the past.

This doesn’t mean ignoring or denying the reality of what has happened. It just means following the guidelines that are generally helpful in recovery from affairs.

Here are some Key Steps Involved in Recovering:

(Each of these points is discussed at length in my book, The Monogamy Myth.)

—Accepting the fact that it happened (no more “if only…” or “why me?”)

—Understanding the complex reasons for affairs (not just “personal failure”).

—Deliberately focusing on dealing with it and talking openly about what happened.

—Allowing time to heal.

—Believing it’s possible to recover.

What about the Future?

A good marriage is a great blessing, not to be taken lightly or put at risk without a lot of patience and commitment to working through problems as they arise – even problems as difficult as this one. Life has many twists and turns, and the older we get, the more we realize that it’s more important to protect and preserve what’s good about the present.

It’s always a little dangerous to suggest that a marriage can actually become stronger after an affair—because some people will use this as a way of “justifying” an affair, saying that it “helped” the marriage. I have NEVER seen an affair “help” a marriage. What does sometimes happen (as happened with us) is that the work we did together—and the rock-bottom commitment to honesty that we made together—did force a stronger bond than we had had before. It wasn’t the affairs that helped our marriage—(they could just as easily have destroyed it)—it was the way we dealt with this crisis that made it possible for us to grow stronger as a couple.

This is true of any life crisis. It can destroy you or it can strengthen you. (Christopher Reeves, just one of many examples, comes to mind.) So it is with a marital crisis like affairs. It, too, can destroy your relationship—or it can lead to actions that wind up strengthening it.

When someone is in the early stages of dealing with the devastating emotional impact of a partner’s affair, it’s difficult to hear that it’s possible (with lots of time and effort by both people) to eventually come through this with a stronger marriage. On the other hand, it can be helpful to understand that it’s possible for this to happen. Recovery doesn’t have to mean simply “surviving;” it can actually mean “thriving.”

Once we worked through my husband’s affairs (a process that took 2 to 3 years), we developed a relationship that was stronger than it had ever been before the affairs—and probably stronger than it ever would been without having faced this and dealing with it together. This is NOT to say I would have voluntarily gone through this experience in order to have the relationship that we developed, but it certainly helps to put the whole experience in perspective.