Setting Boundaries for a Meddling Ex-Spouse
By: Ron L. Deal
When you have a new marriage and blended family, it’s important to build a respectful working relationship with your ex.
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. 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 and Tom were married, Sharon’s troubling behavior increased.
Weddings have a funny way of activating ex-spouses toward one of two extremes. Either they increase contact with the ex or they increase movement away from the kids (neither is healthy). In Sharon’s case, she increased contact with Tom around parental issues and petty requests.
Did she feet threatened by her children having a stepmother? Was she still trying to hold on to Tom emotionally? Did she resent Tom moving on after their divorce? Perhaps (but only God knows her motivation). 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 will have to deal with Sharon—and do so with unity.
Working toward a respectful working relationship
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. One boundary is keeping between-home conversations focused on just parenting issues.
Tom should also take the initiative to have a regularly scheduled co-parenting meeting with Sharon. That will help him anticipate parenting matters and communicate expectations. When parenting concerns come up, they should only be discussed during co-parenting meetings, unless there is an emergency. (Moderate- to low-conflict co-parents will not have to resort to this extreme request, but folks like Tom may need to.)
If Sharon contacts either Tom or Nicole at another time, they can avoid replying or table the conversation until 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 doorstep, he 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-spouse’s manipulation; like telling the kids that you are being mean. Do not let this type of response detour you from following through. If your children 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 the spouse for not stopping the ex-spouse’s harassment. The last suggested tip for Tom is that he 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 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 unrealistic reliance on 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.
Read “10 Respectful Strategies to Use with an Unhealthy Co-Parent.”
Children’s and student ministries should take initiative to ask kids how things are going between their homes. Children rarely get to talk about such matters with a trusted, neutral adult. Similarly, parent education programs should teach wise boundary-making with ex-spouses.
© 2012 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved. Used with permission.