No matter where you are on the spectrum of ex-wife/stepmother relations, you can't go wrong if you use the basics.
Let’s say you’re stuck with Annoying Aunt Edna at the Family Reunion, or Creepy Boss Earl at the office party. In those two instances, you’d be in the type of familiar situation where you’d have to buck up, play nice, and grit your teeth and bear it - unless you wanted to jeopardize your job or become the next unwitting victim of a familial whispering campaign.
So you’d lean on your manners. And maybe lean hard. You’d put in the effort required to nod your head while the other person droned on and on; got too close to your face with spiked-punch breath or potato-salad breath, or asked inappropriate questions about when you were going to have your first/another kid. You’d nod, and say umm-hmm. You’d smile here and there, even if it was plastered onto your face like spackling. Maybe you’d ask a follow-up question to show you were listening, all the while looking for a way to make your getaway.
It’s not bad that you’re looking for an escape - after all, you’re not obligated to want to be Aunt Edna’s or Creepy Earl’s best friend just because they’re talking to you, but you’d do the right thing, put in your time, restrain the impulse to bolt from the room or picnic table with your arms flailing, and when it seemed right, you’d flag someone else down or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom.
You’d think of something.
Well, that same little dance of tolerance, that same age-old ritual is what’s required with the mother or stepmother in your life, at first, if you ever want to get along with her.
But why? you whine. Isn’t it enough that I’m already forced to see her regularly when I can’t stand the woman? Isn’t it enough that I have to hear her damned voice on the phone whenever I call their house? Or hear stories about her from the kids, or the ex-, or my partner, or from mutual acquaintances?
She’s already interjected herself into my life in a way that I never asked for. Now I have to be NICE to her as well?
We’re not actually asking you to dip down inside yourself and discover a veritable well of warm and fuzzy feelings, if the warm feelings just aren’t there. (Although, by this point, we are hoping that you’re starting to allow for the possibility that they might one day actually develop and surprise the hell out of you).
What we ARE asking you to do is go through the little ritual, the structured dance, even if you’d rather she lived on an island all alone, far, far away. Perhaps with just one coconut tree and very little in the way of shelter.
We’re asking you to greet her with the little pleasantries and fillers we all use to talk to people we don’t know or necessarily want to spend time with, (like the cashier at the store, a co-worker with habits that grate on your nerves, or an overbearing neighbor) — to think ahead a little bit, to be considerate. Use your manners. All of them.
Think about this: what happens when a store clerk is actively rude to you? Immediately, all your defenses go up and you do what you normally do, based on your personality (crumble, strike back, go over their heads to complain, do something passive-aggressive, etc.). YOU know when you’re not being treated with just the “normal”, requisite amount of good manners in an instant.
The ex-wife or stepmother in your life picks up on the exact same thing.
But what happens when that same clerk is at least saying “please” and “thank you” and “have a nice day” to you, along with their gruff manner, brusque movements and lack of eye contact?
If you can see that they’re making at least that rudimentary effort, suddenly it’s so much easier to depersonalize their negative behavior: Maybe they’re just having a bad day, you think to yourself. Maybe they hate their job or they’re dealing with a difficult marriage or bad childcare or they’re buried under a mountain of debt, working here.
Suddenly, you may have compassion for them. You may see them as a real person, someone who’s struggling to keep their head above water just like any old regular person. Just like you.
And so you reach into yourself and magnanimously offer a smile or reassuring word, perhaps putting some extra warmth or effort behind your own wishes for a nice day.
THIS is what manners can do: they let the other person know that they are valued simply as a human being. Manners equalize, depersonalize bad behavior, help one empathize.
Lean on your manners with the other woman, even when you don’t want to. Perhaps especially when you don’t want to!
On a subtle level, you’ll be signaling a softening up on your part to the other person, an intention to respect and connect. Some part of their subconscious will perk up and pay attention, as in, hmmm, something’s different here. I don’t detect so much “enemy energy”. What’s going on?
That heightened attention is a very good thing. It can pave the way to openness on their part and next thing you know, you might find yourselves creating one small moment of meeting each other halfway.
You can’t go wrong with manners, even if the other person initially doesn’t respond. You’ve set a new tone, created an opening, signaled a sea change.
What's the state of your etiquette?
© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved