Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette
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Old 07-24-2010, 12:27 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

I am a 46 year-old woman in her first marriage with a 60 year-old divorced man with two adult children, ages 24 and 21. We've been married for five years, and involved in a committed relationsihp four years before that time. My hustand had been married to his ex-wife, by all reports a very intellectually accomplished but critical person, for 28 years. Although they had separated in 2002, and divorced in 2004, his ex-wife has let us both know that we were selfish to marry as quickly as we did -- seven months after their divorce was finalized. Up to and following that time, his ex has made it clear that she did not feel comfortable having me present at any activities involving her sons, from the mundane to the profound, where my husband would wish to attend. This includes the boys' many sporting events (school or otherwise) other extra-curricular activities. (On these occasions, I would wait at home, or at a local Starbucks until the late evening when they finished.) I understood this at first, since she has been most consistently involved in their school lives, and did not press the matter. But soon pressure came from both the boys, who did not want to upset their mother, that I was not welcome to appear -- even for a day -- to shared (staggered) family vacations to Maine (the ex took two weeks, my husband took two weeks) even though the boys could bring their respective girfriends to the sacred family spot. This expanded to the younger boy's high school gradulation (I was advised it would cause too much hurt and ill will), and various birthday dinners for the two sons that the ex had organized. This has continued for the full five years of our marriage. Predictably, I have felt alienated by and enraged with my hustand who, it seemed, has been unable to assert himself with his ex or his sons because they have all minimized their contact with him out of anger. My husband and I have spent a few short stints in highly ineffective couples' counseling, mostly involving issues surrounding the vacation and the fact that the only vacation that would be taken all year (2 weeks in Maine) excluded me. The other looming issue has been my desire to have children of our own. Prior to our marriage, my husband had indicated that he wanted to have children with me. Over the last several years, he has reversed position citing our considerable financial problems arising from his divorce settlement and his obligation to finish paying for his two son's college educations. I should note that while we both work (we're both lawyers), I've worked part-time for over eight years while I've completed my doctoral coursework and dissertation.

After all this context, the real trigger issue was raised three weeks ago. My husband has always related to me that he does not communicate much with his ex-wife because the conversations have degenerated into her angrily blaming him for everything that went wrong in the marriage. While I've accepted this account as true, I've noted that they communicate through email and, it seems, on other occaions. Three weeks ago, his younger son had a 21st birthday, and as is customary, she planned a big party with all of his friends. While it seemed as though it was unclear whether there would be a family dinner or a party, or whether I was even invited (although my husband was invited, as always, and has recently pressured me to allow him to go to these functions without me because he is missing out on important events), I later became aware of the fact that he had spoken to his ex-wife three days before advising me of the fact that there was a birthday dinner the very next night, and that the consensus was (the boys, the ex, etc.) that I was invited. The rub: I had asked all week whether he had any communication with any party to alert us as to plans.

Yesterday, while at work, I walked into my husband's office (yes, we both work together), and seeing me, he started to put the phone down, saying "I'll speak to you later" in a warm tone usually reserved for me. When I asked him who he was speaking with, he said it was his ex-wife. She had recently had several set-backs at work and personally, and my husband stated that he was just speaking with her. This cozy, insular tone with his ex is very new and unsettling for me. While I never wanted my husband to have a raucous and vicious relationship with her, it was a simple dividing line because so much of his remaining energy has been about pursuing the forgiveness of his sons (and allaying his guilt for leaving their family and for meeting me). I should also mention that we live five blocks away from his ex-wife's house in a neighborhood that I do not like because my husband wanted to be close to the boys. The dilemma I'm having is two-foldi) I am feeling rageful for my extreme marginalization for the sake of his core "real" family (my perception) and the lack of focus on anything that we two as a couple could work on, be it children to buying a house, to spiritual exploration; (ii) I find that I do not trust my husband, because I feel that he is unwittingly chasing his rather formidable ex-wife's approval, and now due to the current circumstances, she is in a weak position, and he can feel needed (a core need in his psyche). The already precarious imbalance in our relationship, where my husband has had a family and a 28-year marriage with a woman who is clearly unwilling to accept my existence or any reminder of my existence, is in jeorpardy of teetering over if, in my opinion, he begins to put anymore energy into exploring a "friendship" or something other with her. For years, he has indicated that he did not want a friendship with her because he was angry about all the hateful things she said about him (and me). Any thoughts about ex-etiquette, and what I could reasonably ask my husband to consider and to do in this situation?
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Old 07-24-2010, 08:44 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Default Re: Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

Previous marriages and former spouses are very complicated issues. How the situation should be handled is very specific to each individual situation, depending on the people involved, the issues that evolved to cause the end of the marriage, and a whole lot of other factors that you can't really even put a name to.

The first thing I want to say is that when children are involved, it is pretty much impossible to cut off all ties to that former spouse, and therefore it would be unreasonable of you to ask him to do that. Children are a connection between two people that never goes away. I don't mean that they might get back together because they have children; what I mean is that they share children who will one day marry, one day have children of their own, who might (knock on wood) have a health crisis or some other major disaster and need their family (including both Mom and Dad) to rally around them and see them through. This requires Mom and Dad to be able to put aside their own issues with each other, their anger, disappointment, whatever, and be there for their children - or miss out on those important events. And if they miss out on those important events, they will one day come to regret that, and it's entirely possible they could blame that new spouse who, in their perception, caused them to miss that. So, the first thing you need to do is accept that since they share two sons, he will have semi-regular contact with his ex-wife.

With that said, that contact can take many forms. For my ex-husband and I, it usually involves a courtroom and a judge. We cannot get along at all - a large part of why we divorced. Therefore, most of the time, when we need to communicate, we communicate through the court system because it's the only effective way we get anything done. My boyfriend, however, has managed, after many years to develop a casual friendship with his ex-wife (they don't have children, but still). So, it's entirely possible, especially after 28 years together, that they could reach a point where they are/will be friends with each other. Honestly, that's a good thing - especially for you. Friendship can't occur if bitterness and resentment are still there. Which means that she's getting over that stuff, and therefore might be more willing to include you in family events (as evidenced by the decision to invite you to the recent birthday dinner).

Living near the ex...while the kids were still kids, or in school/living at home, it's understandable. He wanted to be close to his kids, so he could be there for them and still be as much a part of their lives as possible. But, at 21 and 24, they are moving out and moving on now, so I don't think it's entirely unreasonable for you to suggest moving. I would not suggest moving to another town or another state, but to suggest moving to another neighborhood would not be outrageous.

Children of your own...he's 60. That's older than both of my parents were when they became grandparents (courtesy of me). That's older than MY grandparents were when they became grandparents. It's entirely possible that, although he indicated he wanted children with you before you got married, that he has simply realized that he is getting older, that his kids are soon going to be having kids of their own, and that he just doesn't want to start all over with another child at his age. It doesn't have to mean anything bad about you, your marriage, or the status of his relationship with the ex. It could simply be a matter of, "Wow, I'm 60 now. Do I really want to try to keep up with a toddler and deal with school events and all that again? CAN I even keep up and deal with that stuff?" and deciding that the answer is no. It is something you should talk to him about, if for no other reason than to find out what he's thinking on this topic. If he says no to more children, that is the point at which you decide if having children is that important to you or if you love him and are willing to give up that idea.

The whole non-inclusion in family events that has gone on all these years...this one is a real toughie. My boyfriend met my kids when we'd been dating about 3 weeks. I included him in our family as much as possible - he has always been welcome at family dinners, birthdays, Christmas, etc. and he's always known that. Of course, my ex-husband is not involved in my children's lives, and so isn't around to demand otherwise. If he were, I would still invite my boyfriend and I would fight my ex to do so. But then, I have custody, so I have no fear of not seeing my children if I anger my ex. Your husband is on the other side - with no custody, he always has that fear that if he angers her, she could potentially prevent him from seeing their sons. It's not legal, and he could go to court and fight it, but often the parent in that position finds it easier to go along and not risk it. You can push him to try to get him to stand up to her, but in the end, he's going to do what he wants and unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it.

Sorry this was so long. I tried to address as many of your concerns as I could - hope I helped a bit.
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Old 07-25-2010, 12:48 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Default Re: Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

As far as having children is concerned, I'm sure I do no have to tell a 46 year old woman that men say and do almost anything to get you but don't often live up to all of it. You want a child(ren) and feel your clock is ticking. Men of your husband's age feel no such pressure or inclination. He has BTDT. The only thing he is looking forward to now is retirement and grandchildren....you know, the little ones who are cute and fun to have around, but then they go home.

Obviously, I have no personal investment in your life or your marriage and hope you don't take offense, but I resent you wanting a man his age to have any children. The reason is for the child's sake. No 10 year old wants a father to look like great grandpa....or great-great grandpa. He will be embarrassed until he's grown. Adulthood is when we begin to appreciate and truly love our parents. But frankly, there is no guarantee your husband would make it to 80-something years old. I think it is extremely selfish for someone his age to have a baby. But you didn't ask for all that, did you? The thing is, you are not considering this is also the way your husband feels. The last thing he wants to do is reveal any sense of insecurity and especially anything that alludes to his age. It is something he faces and thinks about but not something he readily or openly confesses to the world and not to a much-younger wife. Consider also, he simply wants to settle down.

I considered trying to itemize your concerns to address as many of them as I could. I changed my mind because suffice it to say, what you are going through is very common. Every word you wrote is echoed on step parent forums all over the internet, only they are not nearly so nicely and civilly written as yours. They are mean, contentious, scornful - you name it. But, you'll receive a lot of support if you want to consider those types of forums, as opposed to a marriage forum. After sorting through responses, you will also receive some helpful advice.

Also suffice it to say, I understand how you feel, which is also felt by other stepmothers like yourself. No doubt you are aware of the divorce rate here in the US (assuming you are in the US), but did you know the divorce rate for second marriages is twice as high as that of first marriages? Your concerns and complaints are precisely the reason - the baggage from the former life and marriage. Like I said, your words are repeated everywhere - exact same problems with different people. Unfortunately, I have no answers for you. No one else does either. While I might normally be inclined to suggest you stand up for yourself, I know you won't get anywhere except divorce court or resolving to live your life as hubby's second class citizen just like you already feel. Attempts to rectify the situation will only cause you more frustration, cause that much more contention in your marriage, and cause you to lose respect (and love) for your husband.

Hubby's inability to stand up to the ex and children on your behalf is, well, also common (I know I sound like a broken record). Many men begin practicing guilt parenting for fear of what is called PAS (Parent Alienation Syndrome). They fear the children won't love them or won't want to spend time with them if they don't spoil the kids and let them have their way. The men also fear the ex will turn the kids against them with her pernicious tongue. So naturally, your husband feels powerless to take your side. The last thing he wants is to insist his ex and children be considerate and respectful of you because that might lead to him not being included either. Therefore, you ultimately become the sacrificial lamb.

Your husband now pursuing or participating in a "friendship" with his ex is pretty much along that same vein. It behooves him to be cordial at this point because she is being cordial, and he takes his cues from her. She was angry and hateful and now she isn't. He follows along. He feels (and fears) he must. Whether he enjoys it, well they were married for a long time but aside from that, it places him in her good graces. You have every right to resent this, but it is nearly impossible for him to apply more boundaries than she, herself, imposes. Her placing boundaries on you is acceptable to him because you don't affect anything where his children's relationships are concerned. Him placing boundaries on her is potentially devastating because she holds all the cards.

So, what do you do? There are some things you can surely insist on, things that have to do with the two of you continuing to build your life together. If you want to buy a house, then put your foot down and insist on buying a house. Or, go out and buy a house and move into it. Tell him he is welcome if he wishes to join you. Let him know it is asking too much of you to live your life by his approval and in every way that only he wants. It is not necessary to live so near his children. Convenient perhaps, but hardly necessary. You refuse to keep your life on hold for no legitimate reason, while he ignores your wishes.

Additionally, point out to him his different voice and that you do not appreciate him speaking to her in that tone. It is just too intimate and way too disrespectful to you. You do realize, of course, it will get you nowhere. He will do it anyway and just make sure you are not aware.
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Old 07-25-2010, 11:18 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Default Re: Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

If you continue on this path, you are most likely doomed. Even though I understand your exclusion in the beginning, there is no need for it now. There is now an established pattern for you to be left out. There is no chance to develop a relationship with the boys if you are left sitting at home. How can the boys see any value in you when your husband and their mother treat you like you have none.

Although this may have been easier in the beginning, it is completely inappropriate now. This is one of those circumstances in life that is a rough road that you have to take to reach a happy ending.

You and your husband need to plan some things with the sons. If the mother can't deal with you, that's her problem. In my opinion, she should be more or less over it by now.

While your husband is trying to play mister nice guy, he is not really helping anyone. The ex is probably getting mixed signals. The boys have missed out on a relationship with you. You are getting pushed aside constantly. It's time he looked at things from your perspective.

Lastly, just a couple questions/comments. The boys are 21 and 24 and still living with their mother? How are they going to become stable, productive adults if their parents continue to coddle them?

Good luck, and my best wishes to you!
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Old 07-25-2010, 12:53 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Default Re: Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

Scarletblue, you must have missed her saying the boys do not want a relationship with her. You also are not understanding the step family dynamic, where the father fears being ostracized and alienated from his children. You can tell her all these things she needs to do, but it does not help her cause at all. She knows what needs to be done. Her problem is her husband's failure to do them and his reasons, which brings me to the catch 22 position he finds himself. Unfortunately, and as I noted, these are the reasons the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than that of first marriages. Mostly, it is the wives feeling exactly the way Minerva feels by what she is experiencing in her limited and seemingly reduced status in the marriage. One might initially think second marriages have a better survival rate because it only makes sense to expect people learn their lessons and are better at it the second time around. But it very, very seldom turns out that neither second spouse has children from the first marriage, and therein lies the problems. Step family dynamics cause the problems. With the complexities of step families come brand new lessons to learn, usually insurmountable problems. You are right about everything you say but on a practical level, little can be done about any of it.

Just a note to your endnote, it is not Minerva's business where those young men live. You may form an opinion about them living with their mother still and she might feel the same way, but how do you figure she has any right to insert herself into anything that goes on in that woman's household? You are actually suggesting she make her own situation even worse. She did not come here to gossip about her husband's ex or his sons. That is the kind of mess for the step family forums that I mentioned to her, where the vicious gossip goes on around the clock. However, Minerva clearly and specifically stated her concerns here, and every bit of it involved her. None of it had anything to do with what does not involved, concern, or affect her. She did not come here to gossip. She came to hopefully find helpful answers and suggestions for her own predicament, not someone else's.
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Old 07-25-2010, 01:54 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Default Re: Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

Susan, I am a step-child. I am also in my second marriage, and my husband is a step-partent to my 4 children. In the beginning of this marriage, my oldest son did not want a relationship with my husband. I suppose I could have separated everything to keep my son happy. If I had done that, however, he never would have gotten to know my husband or developed the great relationship they have now.

My point to you, Minerva, is that this situation will not change unless your husband is on the same page as you. Somehow, you need to find a way to get through to your husband. The situation is unfair and hurtful for you. If he is unknowingly doing this, then he needs to understand the position you are in. If he knows how you feel about this, and still does it, then you have decide if you want to live like that.

I was not trying to gossip. Only make a comment. If it was inaproppriate, then I apologize to you, Minerva.

Susan, if you don't agree with me, that's fine. For the most part, I think you usually give good avice. In the future, if you feel the need to scold or talk down to me, I think it would be more appropriate to do so in a private message, and not on someone else's thread.
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Old 07-25-2010, 02:09 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Default Re: Request for guidance on ex-spouse etiquette

Quote:
Originally Posted by scarletblue View Post
Susan, if you don't agree with me, that's fine. For the most part, I think you usually give good avice. In the future, if you feel the need to scold or talk down to me, I think it would be more appropriate to do so in a private message, and not on someone else's thread.
You're right, and I will do that in the future. Only, I didn't call myself scolding and definitely not talking down to you. I apologize because I can see how it came off that way.
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