Between Home Boundaries
by Ron L. Deal
Many women fear a meddling mother-in-law. But what if you have a meddling ex-wife-in-law (husband’s ex-wife)? Nicole never saw it coming. Since she had a respectful, decent working relationship with her ex-husband, she never anticipated how intrusive her fiancé’s ex-wife, Sharon, would be. While Nicole and Tom dated, Sharon seemed to keep her distance and remain focused on being a mother. Nicole naturally assumed that once she and Tom married, Sharon would decrease her texts, late night calls, and “show-up-at-the-front-door-unannounced” behavior. She was wrong. In fact, as soon as she got married to Tom, Sharon’s troubling behavior increased and kept both she and Tom on pins and needles constantly.
Weddings have a funny way of activating ex-spouses toward one of two extremes. Either they increase movement toward the ex or they increase movement away from the kids (neither is healthy). In Sharon’s case, she moved toward her ex around parental issues and petty requests. Was that because she felt threatened by her children having a stepmother? Because she was still trying to hold on to Tom emotionally? Because she resented Tom moving on after their divorce? Perhaps (but then, only God knows what her motivation is). Nicole and Tom will certainly have theories about why Sharon acts the way she does, but they will probably never know for sure. Nevertheless, they’ll have to deal with Sharon—and do so with unity.
In order to protect their new marriage and blended family, it would be wise for Tom and Nicole to set some boundaries. Doing so doesn’t mean Sharon will automatically respect or accommodate them. But when implemented with humility and upheld for an extended period of time, both households just might find a more respectful working relationship.
Keep conversations focused on parental matters. Tom should take the initiative to have a regularly scheduled co-parenting meeting with Sharon in order to anticipate upcoming parenting matters and communicate his expectation that they will communicate only during that meeting, unless it is an emergency. (Moderate co-parents will not have to resort to this extreme request, but folks like Tom may need to.) Then, if Sharon contacts either Tom or Nicole at another time, they can avoid replying or table the conversation till the next scheduled meeting. In addition, if Sharon tries to engage Tom in more personal topics (not parental ones) he can simply redirect the conversation, “I appreciate your interest, but I’d prefer not to discuss that with you. Let’s focus on what’s happening with the kids.”
Tom should actively head off intrusive behavior. If Sharon repeatedly shows up on their door-step Tom should assertively (but politely) ask her not to. “Do not come over unannounced again. Text me first to see if it is okay. If not, I’ll give you another option.” Unfortunately, this type of assertiveness often falls prey to the ex-spouses manipulation, for example, when they tell the kids that you are being mean. Do not let this type of response detour you from following through. If they get pulled into the situation, tell the kids your request is not theirs to worry about and continue to deal directly with your ex.
Nicole should guard her heart from turning on her husband. An unfortunate casualty of this type of ex-spouse stress is when the stepparent blames their spouse for not stopping the ex-spouses harassment. The last tip suggested that Tom should try to set a reasonable boundary with Sharon, but that doesn’t guarantee that she will honor it. Sharon’s behavior is not Tom’s responsibility and Nicole should not take her frustrations out on Tom. Instead, she and Tom need to work hard to lean on and trust one another as they cope with Sharon’s chaos. Protect your marriage.
Find your resolve. Far too many “good Christian” people cater to irresponsible, malicious ex-spouses out of the fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Sometimes our desire for peace leads us to an unreasonable faith in being reasonable with unreasonable people. Nothing will change the between-home boundaries until you unapologetically stand up for what’s right, become respectfully assertive, and act accordingly. Find your resolve and act.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.