You can't fix what was wrong with your partner's previous relationship, and you can't make yourself into a better match. All you can do is be yourself and work to make your relationship the best that you can. It can be quite a temptation to learn all you can about the ex (what he was like in bed, what her body looked like), but steer clear! It's not going to improve your relationship; it will only make you crazy.
Don't Be Wicked
Be aware: Some ex-partners have a great working relationship when they are single, but the moment one of them has a new partner, watch out! There's a new person in the mix, and that “replacement” tends to bring out the worst in people.
If you're a woman with the same last name as the first Mrs., you may have some uncomfortable experiences as you're mistaken for each other. It can be uncomfortable being the second anything!
Loyalty Issues and the Kids
The kids are not stupid. Actually, they are very sensitive. The rivalry between you and the ex, spoken or unspoken, has a strong effect on them. Whether or not you express it verbally, kids will recognize the conflict of loyalties from day one. This can (and often does, in fact) lead to some real schizo behavior on the part of the stepchild. One day he may really seem to like you a lot. “We're getting close,” you say. The next day he cuts you colder than a winter wind in northern Alaska as he rebels against you and pulls away.
“I had a real hard time with my stepmom,” Cathy says. “It wasn't anything about her. I just sometimes couldn't be around her. I felt like if I loved her that must mean there was something wrong with how I was treating my mom. I mean, my stepmom wasn't my mom, and though she wasn't really trying to be my mother, I felt disloyal to my mom.”
Like many stepkids, Cathy dealt with her loyalty problems by talking about her mother to her stepmother at every opportunity. “I wanted to clearly let her know that I had a mother, and that my mom was much better than my stepmom.”
As a stepparent, it's vital not to play into these kinds of comparison games. Ignore them, keep a straight face, and pretend you are immune to them, no matter how you feel inside. Remember the positive intent of a negative behavior. Children are worried about loyalty, and their awareness of people and their feelings is very positive (and developmentally appropriate).
Money Battles, Visitation, and the Ex
Between custody/visitations logistics and money issues, the ex may hold a lot of power in your life. It's important to note a few things here:
- Try not to let your animosity about the ex's actions and attitudes about custody and money affect how you feel about the children.
- Don't set yourself up as the antagonist against the evil ex. You and your partner are partners.
- Though you may have little control over these particular issues, you do have a great deal of control over how much emotional control the ex wields in your household. He is the past; you are the present and the future.
Face to Face
In an ideal world, your partner is over their relationship, the ex is over their relationship, and so are you. Everybody sets about co-parenting the children in a sensible, humanitarian fashion. If you can achieve this, bravo! A strong working relationship between the ex and the step is the best gift you can give the children. This kind of relationship is optional, however! If you are not ready or willing to be friendly with your partner's ex, you do not have to do it. It may be the ex who doesn't want to deal with you. Give it a shot, but if you're cut cold, pull back, baby.
- Try to keep a sense of humor when the ex throws a hissy fit if you're spotted in the same county where she lives. It's her problem, after all.
- You'll get mega-bonus points if you are gracious about attending social events where “He” is going to be. Remind yourself that you are the partner, take three deep breaths before entering the room, and imagine yourself as royalty. Treat yourself with respect in uncomfortable situations, and others will treat you that way, too.
- Imagination can be cruel, transforming unseen people into monsters, geniuses, or beauty queens. If the ex is taking on mythological proportions for you, sometimes the best thing is for you and the ex to meet. A couple of minutes together will remind everybody that most human beings are really just that—human beings.
I Kid You Not!
Sometimes it's the two ex-partners who can't be in the same room or even share a telephone line without hissing like angry cats at each other. And sometimes the step comes in to save the day, making the arrangements, running interference, and picking up the kids. You never can tell.
When the Ex Remarries
Many of the problems stepparents express about the ex disappear once the ex remarries. The relationships are more balanced, because instead of two against one (and a lonely one, at that) there are two happy couples. Relationships between exes and steps are often easier and less loaded with jealousy and resentment. The past is clearly past. The relationship is clearly over. Money issues often clear up, too.
But it's not always so easy for the kids. They have another relationship to accept, and a parent's remarriage is always a time of insecurity, especially if the new step has kids: “Am I still part of this family?” “What role will the new stepparent play?” “Will I even like the new stepparent?” It's important for you and your partner to reassure the kids just how important they are to you. A parent's remarriage often does affect how and where the child is cared for. You may be required to step in to do more active child-rearing. It can be a very hard time for a child.
The new relationship may also be a challenge for your partner, who may feel that the ex's new partner is a rival for the kids' affection. Be sympathetic. You already know what it's like to feel jealous or competitive in that way; share your wisdom and compassion with your partner.
Be prepared to deal with a little nostalgia. Fight your jealousy, and give it a little time to pass. No matter how evil or creepy the ex is now, she or he was once a person your partner loved and was making a life with. But now that era is over.