Some married couples are lucky enough to get it right the first time and get to spend a lifetime together. But other individuals often wait to get it right with their second or third attempt at marital bliss. While they may then find their perfect partner, they or their partner or both often bring an ex-spouse into the new union. This usually is the case if one or both of the partners has children by a previous relationship.
There are two different types of ex-spousal relationships. The first involves a congenial relationship between the ex-partners and the focus of the relationship is on the well-being of the children. This is the ideal ex-spousal relationship. However, it is not the norm. The second involves a war between the ex-partners which often forces the children into the middle of the battle where they tend to become tools. Most ex-spousal relationships fall within this category.
Often when ex-spouses remarry, one or both exes see the new spouse as a threat to their position with the children. They are under the misguided notion that the new spouse wants to take their place as mother or father. Jealousy is aroused and what might have been an uneasy truce between ex-spouses now becomes a full fledged battle for the affection of the children. In these relationships, it is often the assumption that “anything goes” as long as it influences the child against their parent and the parent’s new spouse. Some exes go so far as to accuse the other parent and/or their spouse of child sexual abuse, child endangerment, neglect, withdrawal of financial support, brainwashing, and even kidnapping. Little regard is given by the warring spouses about the physical, emotional, and mental welfare of the children who are caught in the middle.
The war between exes comes in several types: one ex will target just the ex-spouse, or just the new spouse or both. Either way, the party that suffers the most in these relationships is always the children. In order to minimize the trauma and emotional backlash from warring exes, here are some suggestions for coping as the new spouse:
- Accept that there is no manual to teach you about the strategies of winning in this battle. It is survival of the fittest and you should be prepared for bloodshed. There will be full frontal and even sneak attacks. There will be injuries, hostages, and collateral damage. In every sense of the word, you will be at war. That being said, there are ways to survive and even conquer.
- Support your spouse. Your spouse is going to be either the main target and/or the tool the ex tries to use against you. Either way, you need to be supportive of your spouse. If your spouse knows that you have their back, that you stand with them in whatever position they take with their ex, the less likely the ex can come between you and your spouse. Knowing that your partner is on your side enables both spouses to face the ex as a united front.
- Be calm. A person who does not respond makes a poor target. The goal of the warring ex is to get a response. If you are calm and unruffled, your spouse will be calmer and the ex will fail to elicit the desired responses from you. Not only will your spouse remain calm but so will the children when they are with you and the extended family will be calmer as well.
- Do not react. The ex will do everything in their power to get you and your spouse to react poorly. Do not give them the satisfaction. Do not retaliate. Do not resort to name calling, backbiting, talking negatively about the ex (especially to the children or in their presence) or trying to threaten the ex with court proceedings. In other words, do your superhuman best to ignore the ex. This will be difficult at times but you should do your best to refrain from attacking the ex when you are conversing with your spouse also. If you absolutely need an outlet for all the negativity that your spouse’s ex is generating, then journal and write everything you think and feel there. Just avoid leaving your journal out for anyone to pick up and read.
- Document everything. Accept that at some point the warring ex will threaten or pursue legal intervention. Write down everything the ex says to you, to your spouse, to the children, and to others. Date everything pertaining to the ex. Make sure you keep proof of bills paid, monies spent or sent in relation to the ex and to the children, verification of any expenses covered by you and your spouse in regards to the children, etc. Any interaction you have at all that can somehow involve the ex should be noted, documented, and dated. Not only will such information help your case if you are dragged into court but you will also have proof of any bad behavior or accusations made by the ex.
- Avoid litigation. Sometimes this is not feasible but if at all possible, do not allow things to escalate to the point that you, your spouse, the ex, and the children get dragged into court. The losers here will be the kids, every time. If you must go to court, ask for mediation instead. Judges are not always impartial but a mediator is most always an objective third party.
- Remember the victims. Do not allow yourself to forget who the victims of the war really are. I can not stress enough how important it is to maintain a positive relationship with the children. Not only are the kids the spoils of war that the battling ex is trying to gain but they are also the ones who stand to lose the most. If you want to be the winner then make sure that your relationship with the children is one of mutual respect, acceptance, love, and understanding. They may not get to express their appreciation for you in the ex’s home but in your home, they will know that they have a safe, secure place to settle.
- Do not get angry. Anger is an insidious emotion. It not only covers you but it covers every one around you, your spouse, your children, your stepchildren, your extended family, the ex. No matter how well deserved, how righteous, how justifiable you may think your anger is, just let it go. Anger never helped anyone. It will lead only to bad feelings from those you love and want to support. When you feel anger coming on, go back to #3 and #4.
- Limit contact. Exes want to have as much contact with your spouse as they can get. If they can drive a wedge between you and your spouse, they will. With your spouse, decide when contact with the ex is appropriate. I suggest that all contact be limited to those issues that deal solely with the children. If the ex wants to talk about something other than the kids, cut them off at the pass. Walk away, hang up the phone, refuse to respond to the text, do not answer the email. Do not forget to document the contact and the topic of the discussion but also do not allow yourself or your spouse to be drawn into a discussion that will only end up in disaster. If it has nothing to do with the children then neither of you has any need to talk to the ex.
- Maintain your distance. It is not always feasible for you and your spouse to uproot and move yourselves but where ever possible, maintain distance from the ex, both logistically and figuratively. Do not move next door. Do not attend the same religious meeting house. Do not work in the same building or office. Minimize the direct contact you have with the warring ex. There is no need to give them any more ammunition by allowing them unnecessary access to your life.
- Put your marriage first. If you and your spouse are struggling, not only will the ex gain more ground but the children will lose whatever stability you could have offered them. Your marriage should be your first priority. Make time for you and your spouse to get away from the war and recuperate. Work on strengthening your bond as husband and wife and the parenting part will follow along naturally enough. Set aside time that is sacred to you both. This means that the ex can not be allowed to interrupt your time together and neither can the children. If you keep your marriage strong, then the ex will have less of a chance of making you both miserable.
- Smile. There is no greater victory than making your opponent think that they are losing. If you remain cheerful, even when you least feel like it, the ex will think that they are losing and then by default, you will be winning. Not only will it infuriate the ex (a nice way to retaliate without anyone suffering) but the children and your spouse will be positively affected by your cheerful demeanor. It is the best way to come out on top.
I would love to be able to say that “this too shall pass” but the truth is, the moment you married, you entered into a long-term and often life-term relationship with your spouse’s ex. That being said, it is important to remain focused on the reason you married your spouse in the first place. If you permit the ex to destroy your marriage, they will. If you refuse to allow them to do so, they can not. The winner here can be you, your spouse, and the children if you plan your part in the war correctly.