When it comes to money, watch those emotions fly like hard-hit tennis balls between you and your partner, between your partner and your partner's ex, and between you and your partner's ex. (If you're a combined family, you may also face problems between you and your Ex too!) All the experts suggest trying to separate financial and emotional problems between the exes so that they can be dealt with individually.
The Ex Is Always There, Somewhere
Jon is fed up with his wife's ex and voices it clearly. “He's part of our life, and I don't want him here. My wife and I are building a home together—I'm raising her kids. Why does this man, who I have nothing in common with and don't respect—I despise how he treated my wife and the kids—why does he have to be a part of our financial decisions? I feel as though he's taken up invisible residence in the corner of our living room.”
It's hard knowing you don't have “all” of your partner. It's hard to remember that she had a history before you and that the “history” involved kids who now have a big impact on your life. It may be a difficult mouthful to chew, but because there are kids involved, your partner's ex's financial matters are your financial matters, too.
I Kid You Not!
Theresa and Joe's relationship with his ex is strained, at best, and many of their fights are over money. One day, Theresa slipped her stepson Tom $10 as he got on the commuter train to go back to his mother's house. Tom's mom called Theresa in tears and screamed at her that she was trying to buy her son's affection.
Keep these points in mind:
- It's your partner's job to work out the money situation with the ex (after all, it's not your Ex, though sometimes you put so much energy into worrying about the creep that it feels that way).
- Pettiness and hassles go hand-in-hand with exes and money negotiations. Be cool, even though you may find nasty things being said about you as well. “I struggle with these kids, and he's off buying a fancy computer and going out to dinner! Where does he get off!” says your partner's ex, ignoring the facts that this same ex refuses to work more than part-time, that you use your “fancy” computer for your work, and that you entertain clients at restaurants as part of your business.
- You stay out of it.
- You have little or no control over how money is spent in the other household. Here's a complaint so common it verges on stereotype: No matter how much child support you and your partner send, the kids turn up on visiting day in threadbare clothing. This is a battle you will rarely win. Decide if it's worth fighting. Tolerance and an ability to remember to breathe deeply are wonderful assets for stepparents. Try to cultivate them.
- Medical and dental care should be included in a child-support agreement. Stepmother Emma argues about toothbrushes and dentists. “Can't their mother share the cost and responsibility of taking care of her own children's teeth?” Emma growls. “Then again,” she says in a catty tone, looking around to make sure nobody can hear her, “you should see her own teeth. I guess she just has different priorities.”
- Money is the great cover-up and catch-all. Other issues, namely emotional ones, hide behind money arguments.
- Money arguments can be an excuse for rehashing the old relationship and hanging onto old ties (even if the relationship has turned ugly). Lynette's partner has almost daily contact with his ex as they squabble about money arrangements. “They're still bonded in this totally weird way!” she complains.
- If your partner pays child support, the ex may feel dependent. This is not a good situation. When people feel dependent (or are dependent), they tend to get odd.
- It's hard but necessary sometimes to ignore and put up with an ex's “poor little me” syndrome. Be fair, make arrangements your conscience can live with, and ignore the rest.
- While some exes and new partners manage to plan their finances all together, this is not possible or even desirable for most families.
Disneyland Daddy Syndrome (or Moneybags Mama Syndrome) is a condition suffered by parents who feel guilty, resentful of their ex, and/or estranged from their children. Its primary symptom is being too generous with the kids in terms of money and material things.
The Great Money Toss
Throwing money at a problem doesn't make it go away. There's a set of unfortunate syndromes known as D.D.S. and M.M.S.—Disneyland Daddy Syndrome and Moneybags Mama Syndrome. The primary symptom? Too much generosity when it comes to the kids. D.D.S. and M.M.S. are usually suffered by noncustodial parents, and these are usually their causes:
- Guilt and loneliness. The Disneyland Daddy misses the kids, and when he does see them, he uses money to substitute for daily care and affection.
- A desire to one-up the ex. Moneybags Mama is furious at Dad. “I'll show him what a good parent provides!”
- A need to feel important and loved. Disneyland Daddy never sees the kids, barely talks with them, and has little emotional connection. “A new Nintendo 64 will make Junior love me!” he thinks.
Of course, parents with D.D.S. and M.M.S. are hopelessly deluded. Pampering a child with money or expensive gifts solves nothing. It won't bring the child closer to them (either emotionally or in terms of time spent together), it frustrates the custodial family's sense of what is appropriate, and it teaches kids how to use manipulation to get what they want.
I Kid You Not!
Men have been the traditional money-earners in our society, and though this has changed dramatically, many old attitudes hang on, trailing like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. Many men feel guilty, irresponsible, and unmanly if they aren't supporting all their children in the style to which they were once accustomed. Remember that moms are just as responsible as dads for their children's support.
Junior, the Guilt-Broker
The stepkids often get in on the money act (especially if there are already money tensions in the household). Don't be blackmailed by cries of “My Mommy would let me have it.” Kids need to learn that different households have different priorities. You can be gently assertive about this without trashing the other bioparent. (“In our house, we don't buy expensive electronic toys. We'd rather spend the money on good books and outings together.”) (Trashing the other bioparent is never a good idea.)
Always talk about money in a straightforward fashion. Kids adjust well to less money and privilege if you communicate the situation in a respectful fashion and in ways they can clearly understand.
Money envy is normal. You may agree in theory that financial affairs between your partner and your partner's ex are not your business, yet you may feel agitated about the time your partner spends negotiating. You may feel envious of the possessions and privileges of your partner's ex, especially if you are struggling to help support your stepkids. You may even feel envious of the presents your partner buys for your stepchild. Try to remember that envy and jealousy are emotions that rarely make you feel better in the long run.