When I began my life coaching business I came up with 10 lessons I have learned as a wife, mom and stepparent.
One of my lessons is to honor the previous relationship. Which came from trying to figure out how I felt and wanted to feel about my partner’s ex. This is a situation that a lot of stepparents might find themselves in at some point.
There are a lot of different situations that create blended families. Sometimes there is divorce, sometimes there isn’t. This is my way of saying that what I experienced is not the only situation.
In my case, my husband was married before and he and his ex-wife have two children. Those are my stepchildren.
How many relationships did you have before you were married?
There are so many different ways that married partners can come together.
I often think it’s helpful to remember that before we try to shove our relationships into a framework that maybe doesn’t match our individual realities.
Some people fall in love as teenagers and never ever have another partner.
I have a friend who fell in love in high school with the man she married and she’s never even dated anybody else.
My in-laws met shortly after high school. They had both dated others but they were each the first serious relationship for the other. They are still married.
I even spoke to somebody recently who met his wife through an arranged marriage. They only met once for a few minutes before they were married.
But for many of us we have a few serious relationships before we commit to marriage.
If you have a serious relationship with no children when you end that relationship you can each pretty much go your own ways.
Of course, the relationship impacted you. You will always have memories of the relationship. If it was a good relationship maybe those are positive memories and for many of us perhaps it wasn’t a great relationship so we have lessons that we learn about ourselves and others.
If you are a stepparent then you are in a relationship with somebody who has had a previous romantic relationship. In this case there is a lifelong connection between these adults in the form of the child/ren.
Often when I work with unhappy stepparents their partner’s ex is a source of frustration, conflict and resentment.
They may say things like I wish they (the-ex) didn’t exist.
I understand this sentiment.
However, it’s an unhelpful mindset to have because there is no version of a stepparents life that does not include the reality of the biological parents.
It’s not possible.
In my mind, if you want to be happy this is very important to fully accept because anything else is creating conflict and resistance.
Byron Katy once said, When you can argue with reality. You lose. But only 100% of the time.
To wish for something that you cannot have is to be actively engaging in creating your own unhappiness.
This is not always easy.
In fact, this can be extremely difficult.
What emotions do you have when you think about your partner’s ex?
I think it’s normal to have thoughts and feelings about the other relationships our partners have or have had. It’s okay.
In my opinion, there are not really any wrong emotions.
In fact, I think that when we are honest with ourselves about the emotions we feel then they can be clues to help us move through what might be bugging us to get where we think we want to be.
Having the thoughts and the emotions might not be the issue. To get a little coachy about this maybe the issue or the problem is more like what we make it mean when we have these thoughts or emotions.
Some step parents feel jealousy of the relationship between the biological parent and their current partner.
Sometimes you just may not like them as a person.
You might even feel anger or resentment.
Some step parents really struggle with sharing decision making with somebody else.
No two people will react the same way. I simply offer these as options.
That’s significant because it can be tough to find people who understand how and why you are feeling as a stepparent.
None of these are wrong.
If they aren’t bothering you then there’s nothing to do.
But if you’re experiencing discontent or unhappiness and you are directing these emotions towards your partner’s ex then I think that how you are reacting can be a clue for how you may be able to move forward.
What happened in the earlier relationship may be significant – or it might not.
This is probably true for you and your previous relationships as well as for your partner and any of their previous relationships.
When I was dating the man who would be my husband I wanted to know why his marriage ended.
At the time what I was looking for was something like cheating or another thing that I would want to know. I happen to believe that most of the time we repeat our behaviors from relationship to relationship.
After, 20 years of marriage I still believe that it can be very helpful to know as much as you can about what caused an earlier relationship to break apart.
When I was young I thought that if I knew the cause I could avoid it or fix it.
I have slightly different thoughts about that now. That’s a story for another day.
What I definitely think though is that you cannot ignore the previous relationship. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. You can’t wish it away.
What you can perhaps consider is trying to be intentional with how you want to incorporate the previous relationship into your current life.
I think that this can truly be different for each family.
I will share with you what I tried to do in my family.
I chose to honor my husband’s relationship to his ex-wife
My husband was married to his ex for over 10 years. They had 2 children together. They took family vacations and their parents took vacations together.
They were a family.
Now I have a family with that man. His ex has a family with her new husband.
My husband is still connected to his ex wife. He always will be. Because of that – so will I.
His ex and I have some similarities and also lots of differences but we share in common this man and their children.
Together we are one big family.
At the beginning of my time as a stepmom I really struggled with the idea that another person was “in control” of parts of my life.
In fact, I had lots of big emotions that surrounded the complexity of this situation.
It’s really easy to direct emotions toward the ex.
It’s really simple to put responsibility and blame on the ex.
For me – it wasn’t helpful and it didn’t feel good.
Instead slowly over time I shifted toward something different.
As I share this with you please know that I share this not as an example of what I think you should do.
Also, I respect that there are many situations where this isn’t possible within a family. Some blended families are not able to choose this as a path forward. I’m very lucky that this was an option for me.
It was hard. But I chose not to hate her. In fact, I chose to intentionally try to love her. I chose to think of the family they had with love.
When I explain this to people…well… sometimes they really don’t like this idea.
But here goes.
My husband loved his ex wife.
If I want to be able to believe he loves me I need to honor what he loved in her.
My stepkids love their mom. If I am going to love them I need to honor her as their mother.
For me it is a part of me feeling inherently loveable as a stepmom and a wife to think loving thoughts about my husbands earlier marriage and his ex wife.
That’s a big leap for some people so if it doesn’t work for you – I understand that.
Weddings and Funerals
My parents were divorced when I was very young. I have no clear memories of them being together.
My parents fought like cats and dogs. My whole life. Oil and water. It was honestly – not great.
At my father’s funeral the most emotional person in the room was my mom. They had been divorced for 30 years. Longer than they were married.
My brother and I looked at each other like …do you see this? … what is happening?
My mom said it caught her by surprise too. When I talked about it with my therapist though he wasn’t surprised at all because even though they had a ton of conflict they had a very long relationship. They were connected probably longer than anybody else either of them knew.
The relationships don’t end with divorce if there are children.
Another story of how this kind of long-term connection can play out.
I heard from either my step kids or maybe my mother-in-law that my partner’s ex’s brother was dying of lung cancer.
Very emotional situation. Not a happy time.
My husband began acting a little stressed out. I tried to give him space to figure out what he wanted to do.
Finally he came to me and he admitted that he was stressed about this and wanted my thoughts on if he should reach out to his ex-wife and her brother.
He was visibly surprised when I said – yes. That made sense to me because this was somebody you called a brother for a long time in your life. This was your family. I can completely see why you would want to do that.
My husband was worried that I would not want him to do this with his exes family.
Divorce can make things like this complicated so he did reach out to his ex and clear it with her. Then he went up to visit his ex brother-in-law and say good-bye.
It doesn’t always work out like that in all families but this did work out.
My relationship is separate from the earlier relationship.
As a new wife, I think that I thought that the ex would be like other ex girlfriends.
You break up and then you don’t see or hear or speak to that person maybe ever again.
Poof – it’s over.
That’s not how it works if there are kids. There is a permanent connection.
There are so many times when the parents need to talk. A lot of course when the kids are young. Then anytime something goes wrong like a kid is sick or gets in trouble. Kids do that kind of stuff.
It literally will never end.
We will always be connected.
I work with many stepparents where the previous parent is no longer physically present. Perhaps they live far away, or they are indisposed or even no longer living. What’s interesting is that even in those cases the parent is still a presence in the blended family.
The instinct might be to push against the previous relationships. That didn’t work for me.
For me honoring the previous relationship allowed me to create space for both things without jealousy and without anger.
My husband has a connection to this person. He a commitment that he will always honor. So my love for him includes this prior relationship and all that goes with it.
Here’s another way to think of it.
It’s kind of like a house you maybe used to live in. The building is still there. You will always have that part of your life that you experienced there. Maybe it was good experiences … maybe bad experiences. No matter how much time passes that will always be a part of your experience. Even if they demolish the building what happened there for you is still true. It’s a part of your life experience. But it just isn’t happening now so in a lot of ways we can choose how we want to interact with that.
If this is helpful to you or if you want to talk about your specific blended family situation here’s where you can find information about working with me.