On a daily basis, stepmoms contact me because they are frustrated with their husband’s ex-wife.
“She calls multiple times a day”
“She shows up to the house and lets herself in without being invited”
“She tries to make the rules and dictate how the kids will be parented in OUR house”
“She tries to control our lives”
“She makes last minute changes to the schedule without considering the fact that we may have plans”
“She only wants me involved when it’s convenient for her. It’s like I’m good enough until I’m not”
“She treats my husband like an ATM”
“She talk trash about me to my husband and she doesn’t even know me”
Quite simply, these stepmoms are asking for advice on how to get the ex to STOP.
Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you can relate on some level.
Well, I have good news and I have bad news.
The good news is – it isn’t about the ex.
The bad news is, in many cases this is actually an issue with your husband.
Yes, we love to blame the ex for the extra stressors in our stepfamily life. Yes many times their behavior can impact our day.
But the truth is, most of the time, issues with the ex are actually issues with how your partner is RESPONDING to the ex
People treat us the way we allow them to treat us.
It all comes down to boundaries
You have to set boundaries – especially in high conflict co-parenting situations
Doing so can both a slippery slope and a complicated task – but it’s still totally doable AND necessary.
Perhaps this is how their relationships has always been.
Perhaps your husband found it easier to co-parent this way prior to starting your relationship.
Perhaps he’s trying to avoid conflict and just keep the peace.
The question you both need to answer is
Are you okay with it being like this 6 months, 1 year and even 5 years from now?
If the answer is NO – it’s time to get some boundaries in place.
Here are 10 ways to make that happen, or better yet, here are 10 conversation starters for you and your partner.
1.PLAY THE LONG GAME
It’s important to look at the big picture here. I just asked you to think about 6 months, 1 year and 5 years from now. The truth is, the way you respond to stressors now is setting you up for how things will be in the future.
People often avoid setting boundaries because they don’t want to start conflict or have tough conversations.
This is NOT playing the long game. If you’re playing the long game, the sooner you start the better.
2. AVOID EMOTIONAL CONVERSATIONS
Often, when we stepmoms feel like their boundaries have been crossed, we have an emotional reaction to our partner which ultimately leads to an argument. This does not solve the problem, in fact it makes matters worse.
Now, not only is there an issue with an ex, there is an issue with our partner about the ex.
Next time you feel like a boundary has been crossed – do your best to table the issue, especially if the conversation isn’t going well. Calm down and then come back to the conversation with cool heads.
Chances are your partner is also triggered by the crossed boundary and already has his back up expecting you to react.
Think about it from their perspective – not only do they have to deal with their ex, they also have to deal with you. It can be a lot for one person to handle.
Make a commitment to not have these emotional conversations.
When things get heated in our marriage, one of us will often say “look this isn’t productive, let’s talk about this later” While one of us usually wants to keep talking – setting this boundary has been a game changer for us. the person with the cooler head always follows through with shutting the conversation down.
I highly recommend that you make this commitment before your next heated discussion.
3. EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHAT BOTHERS YOU AND WHY
I often hear stepmoms tell their partner that they need him to set boundaries with the ex.
That’s’ all the say. You need more boundaries.
What the heck does that even mean? Boundaries can mean different things to different people. It’s a very vague word.
You need to explain what bothers you, why it bothers you and how it makes you feel.
Your partner is not a mind reader. We can’t expect our partners to understand what we’re feeling. The insecurities and emotions that come with step-motherhood are those that only a stepmom can fully understand.
4. COMMUNICATE TO UNDERSTAND
We often communicate with the intention of getting our partner to understand OUR perspective.
But it shouldn’t JUST be about OUR perspective and what WE THINK is the right way.
Take the time to really understand WHY your partner responds the way he does. Chances are he has a reason – and it may just be a good one.
5. COME TO TERMS
You need to come to terms with the fact that this person (the ex) is always going to be apart of your life. She isn’t going away. This is your cold hard truth.
Remember, the goal here is to find a healthy way to deal with the extra stress that everyone is comfortable with. There is going to have to be some give and take. It’s going to be something you’re always going to have to work at.
Setting boundaries isn’t something you can check off a “to do” list. Life can get muddy. So can boundaries.
6. UNDERSTAND THAT THERE MAY BE GUILT AND LOYALTY ISSUES
We have to remember; this woman is the mother of our husband’s children. There may be some guilt /loyalty issues involved with your partner’s reaction.
Some see this as a bad thing. It’s not.
It means he’s an empathetic and loyal person.
7. ASK FOR SOME EMPATHY
Chances are your partner may not fully understand why you feel the way you do. That’s okay.
I’ve shared this disclaimer with the stepmoms in The Exclusive Stepmom Community – but it seems appropriate to share here too.
I often will say to my husband “you don’t need to understand or agree with how I am feeling, I just need you to respect this is how I am experiencing things right now”
This statement is gold when it comes to problem solving in a relationship.
8. HEAR HIM OUT
Remember, if you want him to respect your position, you need to offer him the same courtesy. Hear him out.
There have been times
in my marriage when I didn’t understand why my husband reacted the way he did to some of our stepfamily stressors. It was so frustrating because I thought he should respond in a completely different way. However once I really heard why he tackles things the way he does, I had a whole new sense of understanding and respect.
We can get so caught up in our own experience that we forget to look at the other side.
Hear him out.
9. IDENTIFY THE ISSUES
Sit down and talk about the areas in co-parenting relationships that need work. Where do you need more boundaries?
Reflect on past and identify areas that have caused stress.
You may even want to write a list. There is something therapeutic about getting things on paper.
10. PLAN WHAT YOU’LL DO WHEN THESE BOUNDARIES ARE CROSSED
What you’ve been doing obviously isn’t working. If it was, you wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.
The best way to set boundaries is to get clear on them. Talk about how you have reacted to these situations in the past and share why it is or is not working for you anymore.
Then, plan how you’re going to respond when it happens again.
For example, what are you going to do the next time your husband’s ex calls attempting to dictate how things will be run in your home? How will you respond?
What’s your husband going to say the next time she calls you names or puts you down?
Make a plan.
11. BE PROACTIVE
While there will be situations where you respond in the moment, there are also situations where you can be proactive.
It may be worth having your partner send an email to advise the ex of changes.
For example, if you don’t want her walking in the house and making herself a sandwich at drop-off then you need to communicate that with her.
If your partner is no longer going to engage in back and forth meaningless conversation/conflict, it may be worth sending an email letting her know that to minimize conflict moving forward you’re only going to be responding to issues pertaining to the kids.
If you’d like communication to be strictly via email, you need to let her know that.
REMEMBER: It’s not what you say it’s how you say it.
Communicate in the most non-threatening, matter of fact, empathetic way. The goal is to minimize conflict not start more.
And hey, if it doesn’t exactly go that way – cut yourself some slack. We’re all a work in progress.
12. BE PATIENT WITH YOUT PARTNER
This may be a process. It’s not going to be solved in one conversation. Old habits die hard.
13. ALWAYS CONSIDER WHAT’S BEST FOR THE KIDS
When implementing new boundaries, always bring it back to the kids.
What’s in their best interest?
Sometimes stepmoms set boundaries our of principal, but the kids are the ones who end up suffering. Remember, it’s not about doing things for the ex. Sometimes it’s about showing the kids that they can depend on you no matter what – even if it ultimately benefits her too.
14. ANTICIPATE BACKLASH
When boundaries are set, there is typically backlash. Expect it.
Often the person who is affected most by the boundaries, tries to push them. They want to see how serious you are.
Stay consistent. It will pass but know it may get worse before it get better.
Demonstrate that you’re serious about this change and they’ll have no other choice.
If you back down when the backlash gets worse, you show them that they can continue to get their own way (by the way, this is true for any relationship)
Then you’ll be back at square one.