Expert Q&A: Dealing with “Ex-Envy”
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Q: I am newly married to a wonderful man with two children, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I am jealous of the time he spends with his ex. What can I do to get over it?
A: Like it or not, when you marry a person with children, you are usually gaining not only an ex but often the children's extended family on birthdays, holidays and other celebrations. The truth is that your new spouse is a Package Deal that you might not have chosen under other circumstances. Loving your spouse means being sensitive, supportive and often selfless for the sake of your new stepchildren and your partner's parenting priorities-which typically include the ex. As a step-parent, my husband and I vowed to build easy relationships with the family of his daughter. We spent many holidays and Mothers Day together. We built new traditions.
And if your spouse is a good parent, he or she will most likely need to coordinate childcare decisions with the ex. Sometimes, unhappy marriages become better ex-relationships. Perhaps, for example, the couple discovers they are incompatible as spouses but good as co-parents.
Even in bad previous marriages there is a history of shared, pleasant memories and traditions. In-laws may have positive feelings toward the ex-who is the biological parent of their grandchildren. Imagine the complications when spouses are business partners with ex in-laws! All this history and connections mean that new spouses can feel like a walk-on part in an on-going play.
But just because your partner shares laughs and spends time with the ex, chances are, you don't have any reason to be jealous. Here is a quick guide to help you manage being a new spouse and instant step-parent.
1. Rectify. If you have any doubts, concerns or confusion about your spouse's relationship with the ex, talk it out now. Of course, it's best if you do your homework early in the relationship before you fall in love and marry. Yet, sometimes once you are in the marriage, unexpected situations may challenge your understanding and good will.
Good questions for you to ask in your talks are: What are the good and bad feelings you have for your ex? What are you hoping to avoid in this new marriage with me? What situations do you foresee as being difficult-and how would you like to handle them? What do you see in me that is different from your ex?
Most importantly, ask: What role do you want me to play in raising your children? The general role of a step-parent is to serve as a sounding-board for the parent's ideas, feelings and actions regarding the children. Step-parents come in lots of varieties such as "backstage" step-parents and "starring role" step-parents. Every situation is different. Step-parents, for example, might attend parent-teacher conferences.
2. Reassure. Some of the techniques that have worked for my remarried couples address those uncomfortable feelings of jealousy and being "left out." For instance, some of the couples decide in advance how many text or phone messages to send each other. This arrangement allows them to stay in touch but not feel left out or "checked up on." These couples also promise a "full report" when the spouse comes home.
It's not unusual, for example, that exes still cut the other person's lawns, repairs the car or gives advice on fashion and dating. You should discuss how much "help" and "rescuing" is enough-or too much. And remember, exits and returns are sweeter and trusting when you and your spouse kiss, embrace and compliment each other.
3. Revise. Life and people change. Maybe the ex marries an abusive person, and your spouse wants custody. Or, the ex gets divorced again and reverts to relying more on your spouse for a while. You will need to face unexpected situations with flexibility and teamwork. Brainstorming and developing approaches together forms a "love shield" that protects against your developing doubts about your partner's feelings for you.
4. Recreate. Experiment with establishing new traditions so that you and your spouse can forge that special feeling of closeness. Just because Christmas "has always been at Grandma's," you don't have to feel "stuck in someone else's life." Experiment with new schedules-and, if possible, include the ex.
Strong relationships can weather change and challenge. The more you work as a supportive and secure team, the more you will strengthen your bonds.
Stay strong, smart and sweet.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."
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