You may have heard many horror stories about the ex-wife and stepmother not getting along. True it does happen but the good news is that it’s not impossible. To help understand why many stepmothers have a difficult time getting along with the ex-wife and what you can do to get along with the ex-wife, I have interviewed therapist Tom Mathews, MA, MFT.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Business from California State University, Sacramento and a Master of Arts degree in Psychology from Chapman University. I am currently a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist serving the greater Sacramento Valley. My clinical specialties include working with individuals who have histories of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, teens that are struggling to function at their optimum and families who need assistance with respect to blended family issues.”
Why do so many stepmothers have a difficult time getting along with the ex-wife?
“When assessing the dynamics involved in blended families, it becomes very clear and obvious that the potential for conflict among the involved adults can be considered ‘˜high’. The relationship between stepmothers and ex-wives is often complex and can lead to significant conflict. In my experience the conflict seems to stem from one or more of the following:
1. The ex-wife’s emotional pain surrounding the divorce. The depth of grief and loss from the divorce can result in an inability or unwillingness to accept the stepmother. This can be especially true if the relationship between husband and stepmother was born out of having an affair.
2. Parenting plan conflicts. Many families of divorce have orders from family court regarding custody agreements. These orders tend to be very specific and are focused on what is in the best interest of the child/children. Specifics such as where exchanges need to take place, when the exchanges take place, who has the children on any given holiday, etc. are identified in the court order. These orders tend to create stress among the adults involved because of the controlling nature of the orders. This stress, if not adequately dealt with, can breed significant conflict among all the affected adults including the stepmother and ex-wife.
3. Fear: Fear tends to be a common concern among ex-wives in the sense that they worry their children, while in the care of the stepmother, are not being cared for in a loving manner resulting in some level of emotional damage. In many cases, the ex-wives fear that the stepmother is trying to replace the children’s mother. This fear often leads to a sense of mistrust towards the stepmother.
4. Jealousy: Jealousy can arise within the ex-wife as well as within the stepmother. Among a multitude of other reasons, the ex-wife may have jealous feelings towards the stepmother because of her own insecurity, and the stepmother may have jealous feelings towards the ex-wife because of the amount of time the father spends communicating with the ex-wife. There can be many reasons for these intense feelings of jealousy, but ultimately these feelings can promote conflict and discord.”
What type of impact can conflict between the ex-wife and stepmother have on the marriage?
“The impact of the conflict between the ex-wife and the stepmother can be minimal or it can be very detrimental to the marriage. In low conflict relationships, the impact would be considered “minimal” and would most likely be the healthiest dynamic for the child/children and the marriage. However, as the magnitude of conflict arises, so does the potential for emotional harm of the children and additional stress in the marriage. The impact in such situations could be devastating. Such conflict can destabilize the marital relationship, thus jeopardizing the marriage and ultimately could put the children at risk of experiencing another failed attempt of having an intact family.”
How can the stepmother get along with the ex-wife?
“It is very difficult to give a simple answer to a complex question; however, I think there are a few things a stepmother could attempt when trying to get along with the ex-wife. First, the ability to forge an amicable relationship with the ex-wife should begin long before the marriage occurs. Stepmothers need to understand that they are not just marrying an individual, but that they are becoming an integral part of a blended family. With that insight, it would be prudent for a ‘˜future stepmother’ to improve their understanding about the needs of the children and to fully understand her role within the blended family. For example, stepmoms should honor and respect the relationship(s) between the children and their mother. This includes refraining from making disparaging remarks about the ex-wife, placing her own needs lower than the children’s needs, and if there is conflict between the children’s parents to allow them the opportunity to find resolution on their own so as to avoid additional conflict based on a power struggle. Second, the stepmother should attempt to reach out to the ex-wife in a non-threatening manner to forge a healthy line of communication. It is vital that the stepmother hear the concerns of the ex-wife and validate those concerns. While I fully agree that the father and ex-wife need to continue to co-parent the children and that the stepmother needs to be supportive in their co-parenting efforts, the stepmother’s efforts to reassure the ex-wife that she understands her role can go a long way to reduce conflict and increase the chances of getting along. Lastly, stepmothers need to understand that it may take a significant amount of time and effort to reach a level of harmony with the ex-wife. It is important to remember that everyone involved in a blended family situation goes through the processing of intense emotions and experiences situations that require time to fully adjust and adapt. Patience is a key factor in developing accord with the ex-wife.”
What last advice would you like to leave for a stepmother who is having a challenging time getting along with the ex-wife?
“I would remind her that it is normal to experience struggles and challenges when coping with blended family issues. Learning how to have a low-conflict relationship with the ex-wife can take a lot of time and effort, but in the long run, such efforts have significant dividends when looking at the children’s mental health and protection of her marriage. Additionally, if she feels like her efforts have not been conducive to establishing a low-conflict relationship with the ex-wife, I would encourage her to find a psychotherapist competent in blended family issues to determine if there are therapeutic options that could improve the overall relationship with the ex-wife. I have been involved with many blended families and have conducted many conjoint sessions with stepmothers and ex-wives. I have witnessed the benefits of being able to discuss these issues face-to-face resulting in resolution and significant conflict reduction. Stepmothers need to maintain patience, maintain a healthy perspective, and make every effort to have effective civil communication with the ex-wife.”
Thank you Tom for doing the interview on how someone can get along with the ex-wife. For more information about Tom Mathews and his work you can check out his website on tommathewsmft.com.
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How to Stay Happily Married with Children
How Blended Families Can Blend with Success