Tips for navigating a difficult situation for the good of the family.
Not long ago, Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana made headlines when she said that she is the one who should be First Lady, since she was the president’s first wife. Melania Trump wasted no time in answering: “There is clearly no substance to this statement from an ex. This is unfortunately only attention seeking and self-serving noise.”
Unfortunately, this kind of tit-for-tat, grudge holding, problem, or whatever we want to call it is even more frequent than we could imagine. It happens even in the best families.
The truth is, there are times in life that require us to take hold of all our human capacities: intelligence, will, virtues, talents, gifts — everything — in order to keep the peace with our husband’s ex. And we do it for the good of the family. We can use our emotional intelligence for or against us, stopping to think before talking or reacting. Having a mouth doesn’t give us the right to say everything we think, but having a brain gives us the obligation to think about everything we say.
Like it or not, extended or blended families are on the rise. It’s a topic that we could talk about from many different perspectives, and I will try to do it with as much respect as possible, because even though I’m not in favor of divorce and remarriage, we still have to deal with real life circumstances we face.
Divorce is already a tsunami of pain for children and for the couple; if we add to that pain the ongoing squabbling and fighting of the adults, then the pain will be irreparable. Let’s not do that to our children.
I’ve seen families where everybody gets along. The father with the new wife and the mother with the new husband, and the children: yours, mine, and ours all having a good time as a big family.
And the reason is this: there is a point of union between the exes, an unbreakable bond between them: their children. If they are believers, there is moral commitment that remains as well.
That is, even if you are now the legal wife, your husband still has a moral obligation to his ex-wife. And likewise, the wife has a moral obligation to her ex-husband, even if she has remarried. And more could be said about that, but let’s get down to a more practical and immediate issue: getting along.
To start, if you marry a man who is divorced, you are going to have an ex in the picture, and if they had children, then you accepted the whole package when you married him, with all the pros and cons.
To get along well with your husband’s ex, I suggest reflecting on the following points. They may be challenging, but they are a worthy goal that will also help you develop a deeper charity, fortitude, empathy, and fairness.
- Respect: Your relationship with your husband’s ex will have a lot to do with how she and your husband relate. If there is cordiality and respect, and if they do their part in providing and caring for the children, then you’ll have an easier time. Out of fairness, let your spouse fulfill his moral obligations toward his previous family.
- Empathy: Try to put yourself in the place of your spouse’s ex. She married a man she thought would be her forever love, her husband, her life’s companion, and now that dream is broken. It’s normal that she would suddenly see you as an intruder. You can’t do anything to make her change her mind. What you can do, with your attitude and behavior, is to help her see and feel that you’re not the enemy, that you didn’t “steal away” her husband. If she holds a grudge against you and your marriage, it’s important to remember that you’re not the one who can heal that wound for her. It’s a personal issue that she is going to have to work out on her own.
- Cordiality: Insofar as it is possible to have a heart-to-heart, mature conversation that helps you build bridges, do it. I insist: it’s for everyone’s good. The most intelligent response would be for you to have a relationship of mutual support, where both feel at ease. Set boundaries that are acceptable and reasonable, and respect them. I know it sounds crazy, but it can be done. It’s not that you have to be best friends, but you should do everything possible to have a respectful, cordial relationship.
- Love for the children: Treat her children well and never make any difference between hers and yours. Any woman, not only your husband’s ex, would quickly become a mama bear and show you her dark side if you treated her children badly. There is no woman, no matter how emotionally intelligent she may be — who would tolerate abuse or a lack of respect for her children, or open favoritism.
- Prudence: If a disagreement arises between her and your husband, stay out of it. You need a lot of fortitude to avoid passing judgment. Keep your opinion to yourself, and don’t go running to break eggs over the woman’s head, in case she is being problematic or stubborn. The problems between them are their problems. In any case, talk with your husband so that his disgust with her doesn’t leak over into his relationship with you.
- Don’t criticize her. Much less in front of her children! Remember that she is their mother, and it’s awful for kids to hear bad things about their mom. If you did criticize her in front of them, the only thing you would do is ruin your relationship with them and with their mother.
- Don’t get into the gossip. If you want to keep your relationship with her as healthy as possible, forget the rumors and close your ears to any gossip. And be prudent about what you say about her. If you have nothing good to say, it’s best to keep silent. If you think she has nothing good to admire, try to find it. After all, she was your husband’s first wife and they were together for some reason, right?
- Have clear boundaries. Now, if you are doing everything possible to treat her with cordiality, charity, and fairness, and yet she has zero respect for you and tries to offend you every chance she gets, then I’m sorry, but you can’t allow it. With good manners and with words full of respect — although perhaps she doesn’t deserve it — and without picking a fight, put your cards on the table. Tell her you understand that her pain is what makes her act that way, and that for the good of everyone — especially the children — you want to have a cordial relationship, but if she isn’t ready or willing, then you’ll respect her decision, but from afar. Out of prudence, withdraw and don’t try to take out your frustration on your husband or on her children.
Remember that it’s not an ego or a power game. Your husband’s ex deserves to have her place as your husband’s first wife and as the mother of his children. Both need to work on accepting and respecting each other’s roles in a mature way.
Finding Joy in the Marriage Mess
This article was originally published in the Spanish edition of Aleteia and has been translated and/or adapted here for English speaking readers.