How do you reach out to the stepmother or ex-wife in your life?

KaleidoscopeIt's a similar refrain on this site by now: try to get along with the ex-wife or stepmother; it's worth it in the long run; take an honest look at yourself to see how you're getting in the way — blah, blah, blah. But how do you actually GO ABOUT making this happen? What does it look like? Why even bother? What should you expect when you make the effort? Worst of all, what if it doesn't work?

Furthermore, who in the world EVER actually gets along with the "other woman?" Only saints and aspiring authors? Women with poor boundaries? Needy, friendless women? Similarly-attuned, psychotic women?

Before we get to the questions, here's something to consider: what if you wasted the remaining years of your children's lives hating the stepmom or ex-wife — judging her, setting her up, tearing her down — and you could have actually gotten along with each other? What if you made an effort to connect and discovered it was actually possible? Wouldn't you be kicking yourself for all the time you spent trying to prove her wrong? All the extra crap experiences you just assumed were inevitable?

So where to begin if you'd like thing to be better between you two? Here are a few suggestions to mix things up: 

Decide

Rope_bridge_over_waterjpg Just like when you weighed whether to read this article or not to see if it might have anything to offer you, the willingness to explore comes before anything. When you venture forward, however tentatively, you start to get a sense of possibilities; of different habits, techniques or perspectives available to you.

Then… it just wells up all on its own, or it doesn't — an actual decision: to go ahead and try to form a bridge of some sort between you two, no matter where you are now.

Sure, it might be one of those shaky, twisting rope bridges that make you feel like it's going to buck you right off. It might be a sturdy log uniting two cliffs. Whichever the case -- making that initial decision sets new energy in motion.

Before you can make that decision in earnest though, you're probably wondering….

Why?

Dandelion_seed What's in it for you? What if you really just cannot stand the ex-wife or stepmom? The LAST thing you feel like doing is reaching out to her! Cutting her any slack, letting go of your judgments and resentments, making things too easy for her by letting her off the hook, after all the crap she's pulled.

Well… I hear ya.

You might also feel like the whole prospect is just too scary and vulnerable, opens you up to further conflict and chaos, more drama. You may be afraid of what you stand to lose: control; the freedom to not get along if you don't want to; the feeling of safety and comfort from your current vantage point. You might also wonder whether heading in this direction puts you under a certain pressure to always make it "one big happy family" now…

And I hear you on those fears too. Totally reasonable and extremely common. You're perfectly in tune with the chorus!

It's not like Carol (the stepmom) and I (the mom) initially saw any benefit to getting along either. In fact, it didn't even seem possible. Or desirable. We both thought, Why in the world would I ever want to have anything to do with her?!

But let me ask you this: have you ever had a big emotional breakthrough in a relationship with another person? Whether friend, lover, family member, co-worker? I'm sure you had some legitimate grievances, but at some point, you set your objections aside. That's not to say you just blew them off or made excuses for them. Or even passively accepted them. But you also understood that, eventually, there was a way to work around your points of contention; to loosen up and soften — and then you shook hands with the other person, metaphorically or literally.

Can you do the same thing here?

Maybe?

Kinda?

In increments?

Like cleaning out an overwhelming mess, sometimes you just have to start by removing the trash. What you can you remove from your behavior, your thinking, your mental storage box — that is actively negatively or unhelpful?

In the United States, 1,400 new stepfamilies form every day! We can't afford to just leave stepmother/ex-wife relationships in the gutter. With the rate of divorce twice as high for remarried couples with children, there's too much at stake.

So, if you'd be willing to make the effort, even just a little bit at first, here's what you stand to gain:

  • less stress
  • the relief and freshness of collaboration      (eventually)
  • better parenting
  • happier children
  • friendship (maybe, eventually)
  • less anger and bitterness in your life
  • a stronger, more resilient relationship

Okay… actions! What does this look like? How do you do it?

Imagine a sequence

Beachprints We recommend starting out with baby steps — bit by bit, day by day, gesture by gesture. You might begin by simply asking her how she's doing on the phone, or in person, if you'd never normally do that. Offer to loan her a good book you just finished reading or a new CD. Surprise the hell out of her by baking her something, corny as it sounds — some cookies or banana bread or hey, make her some home-brewed beer.

 

It doesn't have to be this big awkward deal, where your efforts are sticking out like a sore thumb. And there's no reason to hang yourself out to dry like laundry on a pole. Try to choose a gesture that fits for you — the level of vulnerability; something appropriate to her interests; something that lets you save face if she's not jumping for joy over your magnanimous deeds.

The whole point is to signal a reconciliatory tone on your part, a change in status from adversaries to possible alliances. Wouldn't you start wondering what was up if she took similar steps with you? It would get you thinking, huh?

If you really want to be bold, you could ask her out to coffee. Just the two of you. Find something that has to do with the kids that you'd like to share, like a finished report or project. Keep it short and sweet.

If you'd like, you could send her an email or letter, asking her if she'd like to join you in making things better between you two.  Even if she says yes, the internets are riddled with tales of one-step-forward, two-steps-back, so don't expect miracles. But don't expect a disaster either!

I KNEW this was never going to work!

Butting_goats What might you expect from your efforts? They say forewarned is forearmed and in this case, it goes both ways. For her, forewarned might mean, aha! I have time to muster my defenses! Fine - she wants to craft some lovey-dovey dance of friendship between us, well first I'm going to show her in exact detail how she's made my life miserable!

And for you, it's good to know in advance that it would be perfectly natural for her to react to you with fear and anxiety, a sense of competitiveness, anger and pissiness, or like the biggest victim in the world. Annoying, isn't it? Especially when you're being so generous and high-minded!

On the other hand, she might actually respond to you with a tentative wariness, a cautious sense of openness and curiosity. She might just be willing to guardedly see what you're all about — and there's your chance to forge a bridge. Talk to her about what might be possible between you two, what a relief it would be to not be enemies anymore. Respect the fact that you both have different priorities, feel wounded by different experiences in the past and may not even choose to engage with this person were you not stuck together, as you are. You still have much to gain if you can both agree to a truce.

And see really, it didn't!

Dirty_armchair So what if you reach out, heart and soul dangling by a thread, and she basically throws it all back in your face? There's a psychological technique where you imagine the worst possible scenario all the way to its bitter end and then ask yourself: would this kill me? Could I get over this? Can I pick myself back up and move on and eventually let this go?

Same thing here.

Let's say you end up in an argument. She hauls out her whole laundry list of your offenses, your mistakes and flaming failures. She couldn't give a damn about any stupid truce. The words "friend" and "(insert your name here)" will never be linked together in a million years if she can help it. Matter of fact, YOU are a total idiot for even trying! Probably you're only doing so because you KNOW how wrong you are in the first place and you feel guilty, with all the shenanigans you've managed.

Well….

I sigh with you as you're sighing.

These things happen….

But.

It is perfectly possible to pick yourself after such a dust-up, brush yourself off and regroup. You're going to be fine….

Take some deep breaths in the car. Listen to music you love. Get though the immediate moments afterwards and emphasize to yourself that she has her issues, you have yours and you're each responsible for handling your own garbage.

Call a supportive friend, but make sure it's the right one. Meaning, someone who's willing to listen with a neutral ear and call you on your self-righteous shit if need be. Someone who understands your overall goals of wanting partnership and harmony, and will wend their way through your emotions with that outcome in mind.

Go exercise to blow off steam and release negative energy.

Meditate, watch mindless TV. Do whatever it takes to let go….

This is going to be the last thing you want to hear, but at some point, you may be ready to try again.

Rinse, lather, repeat

You're the only one who knows whether it's possible to establish any sense of cooperation and communication with the other woman. But before you bound onto the Bandwagon of Scorn, ask yourself if you're taking the easy way out. Most stepmoms and ex-wives hate each other. And most women are happy to just leave it at that, convinced it's really the other side's fault.

What a shame….

Springtime_dreams …Because women are masters of emotional gymnastics. We're the trapeze artists of transformation. The gurus of group hugs after a nasty verbal marathon that leaves most people bewildered and drained.

See if you can give it another go — another time. Give yourself some space to settle back into yourself; adopt the Zen discipline of a no-gossip policy; follow up on anything you said you would.

Practice doesn't always make perfect. But actions taken from a place of humility and good intentions always have their own inherent, rewarding grace….

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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