Marriage: Q & A with Dr. Dave & Donalyn Currie—Problems with the “Ex”
My husband and I are both on our second marriage. Our problem is his ex-wife. She’s always in his face, whether it’s about the kids, or money…if it’s not one thing, it’s another. We’re both so stressed about it that we end up fighting. I don’t want our marriage to be wrecked by her. What can we do?
Dave: There is a good reason why second marriages have an even higher rate of failure than first marriages. Building a lasting marriage is tough enough in our world today, but when you add in the complexities of blending families and dealing with ex-spouses, the pressures on a remarried couple can be overwhelming. But there is hope: you don’t have to become just another sad statistic.
Donalyn: As you and your husband address this problem, you must do so as a team. Even though he is the one fighting it out with his ex-wife, you have an important supportive role to play. You can be his sounding board, the one he can unload his feelings with, and his biggest encouragement. He needs to have someone in his corner.
Dave: That’s right. If he’s feeling attacked, he needs you to be his safe place to land. It is always tougher when he gets upset and unfortunately takes it out on you. But as you encourage him, do so in a positive direction. When his ex escalates things, help him to not be intimidated, but also help him to not respond out of frustration. Help him rise above it. Some relationship will always be needed so civil with healthy boundaries is essential.
Donalyn: That’s not easy, because when your man is being attacked or hurt, you want to jump in and defend him. You may even want to excuse or justify his angry response, but in the long run it will only make things worse. So you need to find that balance between supporting him and helping him to act in a way that is more beneficial in the long run. Focus on being there for him, and don’t get caught up in tearing down his ex.
Dave: As the second wife, I would recommend that you stay out of the actual battles. Don’t get sucked into the vortex of the conflict. Disengage from it as much as possible. When you do have to interact with your husband’s ex, treat her with respect. That can go a long way towards diffusing the situation.
Donalyn: Help your husband come up with a game plan in dealing with his former wife. In fact, it may even be a good idea to go to a counselor together to help you establish some healthy guidelines for communicating with her. And if you’re really brave, you might consider inviting the ex wife to a session with a counselor to work through some of the issues and to put in place ground rules for your relationship going forward.
Dave: And yes, as much as you may wish for her to just go away, the reality is that you will need to have a relationship with her for the foreseeable future. Until the kids grow up and get married and support payments cease, she is going to be part of your life. That being the case, you have a choice to make. You can choose to be patient, to overlook offences, and to make the best of the situation. Or you can choose the path of bitterness, anger and conflict, which will put more stress on your marriage and produce misery for everyone involved.
Donalyn: I know what you’re thinking, though: “If you only knew this woman….” We’re not saying it’s easy. You will have to bite your tongue on many occasions. You may need to limit interaction with her to the bare minimum, or resort to e-mail and text messages instead of face-to-face and phone conversations. But regardless of how she behaves, you can make the decision to respond kindly. You need to rise above. Hopefully, her pain and bitterness will subside over the years.
Dave: This can’t be emphasized too strongly. Fighting parents are only hurting the kids and making a difficult situation worse. Continually remind yourself of the benefits of having a good working relationship with her. When she attacks you, try to extend grace and understanding to her as much as possible. There is an amazing set of wise words that have anchored me many times and there’s no EX involved. The truth is “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (from the Bible-Romans 12:17-18). If it accomplishes nothing else, you will be a good model for your kids of how to make the best of a bad situation.
Donalyn: Speaking of the kids, keep in mind that your husband’s ex-wife is still his children’s mom. They still need to love her and honour her. Don’t carelessly hurt the kids with your actions and words about their mother. Instead, choose to speak positively about her as much as possible. Keep the problems between the adults; the kids don’t need to hear the details, and they should certainly never be expected to take sides. The more positive you can be towards their mom, the more highly they will think of you…especially as the stepmother.
Dave: That’s true. Don’t focus on the need to assign blame or trying to portray yourself in good light. With every year, the kids will see things more and more clearly. They know where the blame truly lies, and if you are treating their mother respectfully, it won’t be with you.
Donalyn: Now, switching gears a bit, you stated that you don’t want your marriage to be wrecked by your husband’s ex-wife. To guard against that, you need to ensure that she does not become your central focus. Instead, concentrate on the good things that the two of you have going for you. Sometimes we get so focused on our problems that we forget about the good things we have, and our relationship doesn’t have a chance to grow and flourish. Limit the amount of time you spend talking about her and keep working on your marriage and have fun together.
Dave: If you are struggling in your relationship with one another, ask yourselves if you are truly fighting over her, or if she has just become an excuse to blame your problems on. Carve out the time to cultivate a stronger relationship. Date more. Don’t let your life revolve around the problems with his ex, but give your marriage top priority. As you do this, you will be able to face the outside problems and pressures as a team, rather than letting them pull you apart.
Donalyn: There are some great resources out there to help you work through all the issues surrounding remarriage and blended families. One great book is Saving Your Second Marriage Before it Starts, by Les and Leslie Parrott.
Dave: Above all, ask don’t be hesitant to go to God for help. He is the one who tells us to love our enemies (ex’s) and to try to live at peace with everybody. Ask Him for wisdom, patience and strength to handle this situation in a way that would be best for all and honor Him.
© Dr. Dave & Donalyn Currie, June 2010