I hate my husband’s ex. I wouldn’t help her save her life. If she were drowning, I wouldn’t even throw her a rope.”
– Ginny,41

My husband’s ex-wife was a bad wife, a bad mother, and now she’s dead – thank goodness!”
– Diane, 42

Of all the stepfamily relationships, dealing with your partner’s ex can be the most difficult. It’s a relationship built on suspicion: she doesn’t trust you, and there’s a good chance you don’t trust her. If you’re not careful, things can spiral out of control very quickly, and you’ll end up like one of the poor souls quoted above – blinded by anger and full of hatred in your heart.

Like it or not, unless an ex is dead or has run off to Bermuda, you’re going to have to deal with them. In fact, 28% of stepmothers reported handling 50% or more of all contacts with their husbands’ ex-wives. (Artlip et al., 1993) If the relationship between you isn’t a functional one, he or she may do everything within their power to make your life difficult, and it’s going to mean a lot more stress in your lives.

Empathy for the ex
A positive relationship with your partner’s ex starts by having a good understanding of the situation. So let’s start with what we hope will give you a decent helping of empathy towards this epic foe of yours.

Love is a powerful emotion, and when it dies, a lot of carnage is left in its wake. Broken promises, shattered dreams – it all comes crashing to the ground in a spectacular mess. Maybe he cheated (maybe even with you). Maybe she was verbally abusive. Maybe they’re upset that their former partner didn’t try hard enough to make things work before kicking them to the curb and running off with the next best thing. Whatever the case may be, there’s baggage there…and enough hurt feelings to last a lifetime.

In addition, lovers typically make themselves vulnerable to one another. We let this person inside our inner wall of defenses. They know us like few others do. So when things go south, it’s easy to feel especially insecure. This person who rejected us also knows our deepest darkest secrets. When you walk into the family, you’re entering this vortex of swirling emotions.

“Visions and shattered dreams don’t die easily,” state Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman. “Images of what ‘could have been’ linger on, haunting our memories for years to come. …Remarriage ensures loss just as decisively as death does. Anyone who has been married and whose former spouse has remarried knows this feeling. We remember where we were on the day of the remarriage just as clearly as we remember where we where when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.” (1993, p. 133; or when 9/11 occurred, for our millennial stepparents.)

When the ex looks at you, there’s a good chance he or she is conjuring up all of these painful feelings anew. You’re a symbol of their past failures, the thing that went most wrong in their life. Even when both former spouses were equally thrilled to be rid of each other, the animosity built up throughout the course of a failed relationship can be significant, and is often transferred to you by association. The idea that you might succeed where they failed makes them uneasy.

As if to throw salt in their wounds, you’re not just swooping in on his or her former mate. You’re also intruding upon the thing they hold nearest and dearest in this world: their children. Most parents in America today are conditioned to be rather possessive when it comes to their children. They are taught to think of their kids as an extension of themselves, and are constantly surrounded by the mindset that any little deviation from the plan will ruin the dreams they have for their kids. A big part of their psyche is tied into parenting. There’s also a good chance she misses her kids when they’re away, and are jealous of all the time you’ll be spending with them.

It takes a strong, secure person to handle all of these perceived threats well, and unfortunately, this simply isn’t something a lot of people do well. You might be upset because you’re merely trying to live your life and have encountered this bitter pill who seems to hate you without just cause. “What did I ever do to her?” you think to yourself. But from his or her point of view, you’ve already kicked out their teeth and rubbed their nose in cow dung. It’s not anything you did per se, it’s simply an extension of the situation.

Approaching the situation with realistic expectations in mind
Another thing that gets people in trouble is that they go into the situation with sky high expectations. It would be great if you and your partner’s ex could become best of friends, but this seldom happens. Expecting too much can leave you disappointed and ultimately disillusioned.

First of all, you should expect conflict. Each of you has two different lives, 2 different schedules, and one set of shared children to bounce back and forth. Even in the best of circumstances you’re going to bump heads once in a while. Someone will get caught in traffic or otherwise be late picking up the kids or dropping them off, making the other late for an appointment. Someone will want to take a vacation at the most inopportune time, or otherwise throw a wrinkle in the other person’s plan. Even when the two of you get along quite well, these things happen.

Other times these unrealistic expectations are fixated around the children. Stepmothers “often express the feeling that they should receive a ‘thank you’ or some demonstration of gratitude for what they do for the ex-wives’ children. This rarely happens. Ex-wives do not say ‘thank you’ to new wives. Stepmothers who expect gratitude, even when they are raising the children, are setting themselves up for disappointment.” (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 144) Even if secretly he or she does admire or appreciate your effort, it’s going to be hard for them to acknowledge as much. Besides, you shouldn’t need validation. You married a spouse with children, and taking care of those children is part of the responsibility you agreed to. Parenting has always been a thankless task, and stepparenting is no different.

Focus on the positive
Stay focused on the positive and think about what a productive relationship with the ex will mean for your family:

  • More scheduling flexibility
  • Less stress in your life
  • Cooperation on parenting
  • Someone who might be a resource rather than an enemy
  • Someone who will encourage rather than hinder the relationship with your stepchildren.

If things get difficult, remember that you’re doing this to make your life easier, and that the rewards are worth the cost. Be civil and cooperative for YOUR benefit, not theirs.