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Community Q&A: Making His Ex-Wife Feel Safe

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, confrontations, and behavior change challenges, we recently introduced our new Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

When I began dating my husband five years ago, his kids and I hit it off right away and I even had a friendly relationship with his ex-wife . . . at first. After we got engaged things changed. The stronger my relationship became with the kids, the more she seemed to look for reasons to attack me.

I have attempted to explain that I am not trying to replace her, but that I truly love her kids and want them to feel at home when they are at our house (we have 50/50 custody). She seems fine after we talk, but then she either ignores me or has a big, dramatic outburst and accuses me of trying to be their mom. I reached my breaking point when she chewed me out in front of the kids at a Little League game last week.

How do I help her see that I only want what is best for the kids?

Keeping the Peace

16 thoughts on “Community Q&A: Making His Ex-Wife Feel Safe”

  1. Dear Keeping the Peace,
    I would suggest being the best person you can be without justifying yourself. By trying to explain to someone who may have a difficult time accepting the situation may not help until she is ready to open her mind AND her heart. Be yourself. The kids are probably your best supporters albeit unknowingly. Let your actions speak for themselves.

  2. I am deeply sympathetic to your letter. Blended families have many difficult challenges, and yours is a common one.

    First, I want to challenge you to master your own story. You mention that the relationship deteriated as you grew closer to the kids and you link those two things together. But that may or may not be true. You don’t know the motivations, hurts, disappointments (which in divorce are many) that might be driving the other person’s behavior. As an example, there might be resentment towards your husband’s remarriage towards you. Or there might be envy as your new family presents an image of an intact family, except that it includes her children. In any case, you might not be justified in assuming that she is always looking for ways to attack you.

    Second, you don’t mention your husband’s role in this, but I wonder if he should be acting to protect the kids from public outbursts of the type you mention. That is his role as their parent and he has the authority to act on their behalf.

    Third, what are the kid’s feelings and thoughts. You don’t mention them, but an attempt to understand them and focus on them might help the ex-wife be more aware of the harm she is causing.

    You might consider counseling as a way to untangle these issues and to ensure that you deal with your own part in them with integrity and focussing on what’s best for the kids.

  3. Ouch! Sounds like you may want to consider having a series of conversations. One of the keys is to keep contribution to the pool of shared meaning – you both want to do what is best for the kids. Perhaps a good starting point would be to ask if the two of you could set some ground rules, based on a desired shared outcome.

    If you can, make the discussion safe. I find that having a cup of coffee at a local diner tends to work really well (it is public, but nobody there really knows either of us personally).

    You may want to mention that the ground rules will only work if both of you work together to set them, and that they may need some fine-tuning. Consider mentioning that you would be open to getting together away from the kids anytime either of you have a concern, or if either of you think a ground rule needs to be changed.

    It is a challenging conversation to have. Hope this helps, and I wish you the best of luck.

  4. One thing that you wrote jumped out at me: “(we have 50/50 custody)” I could be incorrect, but I suspect that legally/technically only your husband has 50/50 custody with HIS children. This shift in your perspective, for example by saying to a friend of yours, “My husband shares custody of HIS children with HIS ex-wife, so they spend every other weekend at our house” may help you see the situation more clearly. As Judge Judy would say, “They’re not YOUR children!”
    The absence of his role in the scenario you paint also reflects this. Perhaps he is intentionally making himself absent from the equation, but I think he needs to be at least a key player if not the LEAD player in the challenging relationshipS between his ex-wife and his children and his new wife.

  5. Dear Keeping the Peace,

    Being a mother of two sons of divorce myself, I understand how the mother feeling hurt. My children’s stepmother is great. She has been married to my kid’s father for a while. We’ve had our bumps in the road of course, but one thing I can appreciate about her is that whatever she feels or doesn’t feel about me as a mom. She keeps that between their father and her. She doesn’t bad mouth me to my kids and I don’t bad mouth them either. If I have an issue with the kids, I address it with their father directly and not his wife. Divorce leaves deep wounds that can eventually become scars with lots of time and work. But in the meantime, you must use wisdom and have a huge amount of patience as long as you are married to their father. A divorced mother is accutely protective of her children–like a lioness with her cubs, for reasons she herself may not fully understand at this time. But patience and taking the high road on your part with her will be vital to the overall the family dynamics….graduations, marriages, holidays, births. There are so many opportunities for this mother to be reminded that her family has been broken up and whatever hopes she had as it relates to their father and their relationship is done. This mother has to deal with that truth and she may not know how to do so just yet.

  6. @T. Richard

    As someone who grew up having four parents (my parents divorced and both remarried), I respectfully disagree with you and Judge Judy. In my situation, I lived mostly with my mother and stepfather and saw my dad and stepmom every other weekend. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with all of them and they had good relationships with each other. Because I only saw my stepmother every other weekend, I did tend to see her more as a stepmom than a mom (no reflection on her or on how much I like/love her), although my dad always was, and will always be, my dad. However, because I lived with my mom and stepfather most of the time, my stepfather was my dad, too. It would have been very sad if he had chosen to look at me as HER (my mom’s) child — I’m fortunate that he always considered me to be his child, too, although never at the expense of my “real” dad.

    So, bottom line, I guess I would challenge folks’ thinking and say “Who says you can only have one mom and one dad?” How is a child harmed (in fact, isn’t a child benefitted by) having multiple loving parents, as long as the child is ready and willing to accept them? I think this is especially the case if the divorce and remarriages occur when the child is still very young (as in my case) — I can see that perhaps a situation with a teenager would be quite different.

  7. I find this article very interesting because I too am living this situation. As a child of divorce, I learned early on the “roles” in divorce, the new “woman” in my fathers life and so on. I read through all the suggestions written by others regarding this article also. I have tried them all over the past 3 years, to this date, the mother of my significant others children refuses to meet with me and have coffee and talk, refuses to believe that I have no desire to be the “mom”, refuses to accept that I have asked all 3 children simply to be a friend and maintain a healthy and respectful relationship with me. We (myself and their 3 children) certainly have dealt with some tough situations but have always managed to talk them over and work through them, albeit difficult. Over several discussions, my significant other and I do not know what else to do anymore, we have watched an ever deeper wedge be driven by the childrens mother between them, and finally believe and understand that although I may be willing, the mother of their children may never be willing and we need to accept that. You can’t have a mutual understanding when one side refuses to understand. I found this article to be of incredible relief knowing that at least so far, we have been doing and trying the right things or at least what’s been suggested. I truly feel for “Keeping the Peace”. Thanks so much for publishing this article for those of us in this type of situation.

  8. Your step-children are lucky to have another person that loves them and is on their side.. In regards to your situation, though, there could be a couple of things happening here.. ‘Bio-Mom’ probably still has some unresolved feelings about her former relationship with the father of her children and/or is somewhat immature/not self confident. I have this same situation with my step-children’s mother. Just a warning, it may not get better. My situation only recently got better when the kids became adults.. 13 yrs after I came into their life. The best thing you can do is take the high road. You may need to have a stress ball handy, but if you can refuse to fan the flames, that would be best. If she continues to berate you in public, it’s only going to make her look bad. That said, though, if she gets really out of hand, especially if it is at your home, or somewhere else that could be considered ‘your turf’, your husband should step in.

  9. I too have been a step mom to my step son since he was 8 years old. His Mom jumped from relationship to relationship and was in and out of his life until he was 16. When she wasn’t around life was great. When she was it was chaotic. She was very threatened and refused to meet on any ground rules. She was the Mom. My step son asked me not to attend his games/concerts as a teenager because his mom made such a scene. I respected his wishes out of concern for his feelings. He knew I would be there to support him otherwise. He lived with her from 16-18 and hardly attended school due to her substance abuse, he was taking care of her. When he found out he would not graduate he was angry at us. Even though we tried telling him this would happen. My husband and I discussed it and He met with her and told her that we would pay her child support for one more year if he attended every day at an alternative HS to get his diploma. She needed the money so she made sure he went. He is now 30 and I have a good relationship with him. He has told me that I have been a great mom and role model for him and apologized for not telling me earlier in life. I was shocked and very pleased. You never know how things will turn out. If you can work with her great. Otherwise, have your husband try to deal with her. That usually works best, it did for us. Just keep being consistent in your message of love and acceptance towards the children while they are in your home. You may never be “mom” but they may view you as a second one later in life. Take the high road. Time for Dad to step up. Consider what the kids want as well. In any case Dad should attend all events even if you are excluded. Mom may still object but she has much less grounds to do so. Good luck

  10. Keeping the Peace~
    Unfortunately, no matter how much you love his kids won’t matter to them, or to his ex-wife. He should not have remarried having minor children: he should have focused on them, and only them, until such time that he can focus on others i.e., a serious relationship. I would end this relationship immediately as there is way too much baggage. You are already seeing the effects and you aren’t even married. It’s not fair to his children for them to see him spend his time with you, and focus on you. What happens if you have children with him? Then they’ll witness their father raising some other woman’s child(ren). Again, totally unfair to the child. You should think long and hard about this marriage before you dive into it~be prepared for lifelong struggles and heartache.

    1. @ Jacki M- Ridiculous! you sound like the “EX” who doesn’t want her Ex-husband to move on with a new healthy relationship after yours ended! The fact that he remarries or moves on after a divorce does not take away his ability to “focus” on his children! I am a step mother to two children ages 9 & 11 and my husband is an amazing father to his children, he is very much involved in their lives and their activities. Baggage? Children are not Baggage, the Ex wife in my case has a total of 6 children with 4 different men and collects child support from 3 of them. These children are simply a source of income for her, she does not work and yet finds it necessary to have the children enrolled in all day (7am to 6pm) camp yet refused to allow them to go on a week vacation with my husband and I, every other weekend when the children are not with us they are sent away to other relatives homes! this woman is an ex stripper who found a way to semi retire from her profession by using children! A man has just the same amount of right to move on after a divorce as a woman does. My husbands ex married not too long after their divorce, yet she managed to destroy any relationships my husband attempted prior to him meeting me. His ex did try to break us up as soon as he found out we were getting married and continued to try after we married, unfortunately for her I was not a pushover and I stood my ground and my husband did not allow her to interfere in our lives anymore!. In fact they do NOT communicate other than by email or text, her verbal attacks were not going to be tolerated nor allowed again. His children love me and I love them very much and that’s all that matters, SHE DOES NOT MATTER. Period.

  11. I am too in this situation. I have been married to my husband for three years, and with him for seven. His son is 9, and my relationship with his sons mother has had its bumps and bruises. At times, she has been friendly to me, then completely cut me out, and got angry with me.
    I know in my heart of hearts that I have never over stepped a boundary and have always been very good to her, and that it was never really about me or my behaviour, but about her own feelings towards the situation. Blending families is really difficult, and can instigate feelings of jealousy and bitterness. I have other friends in the same situation, either as the biomum or as the stepmum, and one thing I find, is that stepmums often disregard the feelings of the biomum, and that the relationship tends to improve after stepmum has children, and is able to finally understand why biomum feels so protective.
    Until you have a child, you cannot know what it feels like for her to have to hand her children over for half the time to someone else to mother them. Be mindful of that, and remember that you are in charge of her most prized possession, the very reason she gets up in the morning.
    One thing that is important to remember, is as others have said above, they are your husbands and her children, not yours. It is difficult as a stepmum when you are so highly involved in your stepchildrens life not to act like their Mother from time to time. And that is fine, and necessary at times. But at the end of the day, they have their own Mum – and by the sounds of it, an active, involved and committed Mum. Be respectful of her role in their life, and her feelings about your role in their life.
    One thing I have always, always done, and I think that has saved my relationship with my stepsons Mother – is that I never engage with her in regards to things involving my stepson, unless she directly asks me to involve me. I leave all the communicating regarding stepson’s routine/school work/care arrangements/etc for her and my husband to work out. Quite often, through general conversation she will ask me something about changing care arrangements, and I always say to her “I’m sure that won’t be a problem, but you should talk to *husband* about it”. If she asks me to be directly involved in something, then I do get involved, but I am mindful of keeping a respectful distance, and only helping out when asked.
    I am deliberate and careful and try to communicate with her in a way that shows I take an interest and care about her childs welfare, but that I am an independent observer. Try to put yourself in her shoes, and imagine the roles reserved, and you having to hand your own children over to her for half the time.
    Another thing that was important, was separating the lives slightly… even though you want to be there to support your stepchildren at times, like little league games, sometimes it’s better to leave their Mum to enjoy it, especially if it is on her time with the children. When my stepsons mother and I had problems a few years ago I consulted some of my biomum friends, and in the end made the decision to only attend stepsons events on my husband’s time with stepson, or with my husband. I never attended alone, and I didn’t attend on weekends when it was my stepsons time with his Mother.
    I can honestly say this was the best thing I ever did, and as a result, my relationship with my stepsons mother has improved tenfold. She genuinely consults me now on things, even though I don’t expect her to. She feels comfortable around me, and we have a friendly relationship.
    But at the end of the day, we aren’t friends, and that’s the most important lesson to learn.

  12. @Shannon J.

    I think you make an excellent point here, that I also tried to make. As the stepmum, its not my place to make arrangements, or deal with things with my stepsons Mother, unless she asks me to.

    Also whatever I think of her, or whatever she thinks of me is not important. We dont need to have a big talk about why Im not overstepping her territory – by engaging in a relationship with her children, Im already peeing her in piddle pool as far as she sees it.

    I think its best to keep these relatiosnhips business like and respectful.

  13. I would ask you to examine whether you might be overstepping your bounds as the step-mom. What behavior do you engage in that might be provoking her to feel defensive? Specifically what happened the day she chewed you out at the game and accused you of acting like their mom?

    If, after close examination, you feel you are not trying to behave as though you are the kids’ mom, you might have a conversation with her to ask what you did that caused her to think that you were overstepping your boundaries. If you can’t come to an agreement, maybe you could at least get her to agree not to make these accusations in public but to come to you privately to talk about it.

    Good luck!

  14. @Jacki M
    Wow–that seems like a pretty radical position.

    I disagree that this relationship should end immediately. Life is messy and sometimes remarriage is part of life. This can be worked out and even if the biological mom continues to misbehave, its not an intolerable situation.

    Good luck!

  15. @Jacki M

    I also think this is quite radical position. There is no reason why parents can’t have a relationship in their lives while raising young children. Parents who stay together still have to nurture their relationship and include a significant adult in their lives. Children feel safer as part of a stable family even if it includes non-blood related adults. If the new couple has children then the children will just watch their parent raising their additional siblings. That’s pretty normal I think.

    Keeping the Peace I really empathise with your position. I am in a similar position and have tried to find mutual understanding but eseentially the step-children’s mother is not part of your family and you haven’t got a relationship with her to establish safety and common ground. You can only control your own family unit and you can set more solid bnoundaries to keep yourself and your step-children safe from what you perceive as threatening behaviour.

    Your partner needs to take the lead in protecting you and the children in this situation. It may be time to reduce communication with the ex rather than increase it in my view. As an adult she will need to deal with her own feelings of hurt and disappointment. You cannot help her in this and I understand that you feel you need to. You and your partner are the source of her pain and she will need to seek relief and healing from a different source that she trusts.

    All the best!

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