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The Wicked Ex-Wife




Excerpted from
Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out or Wicked
By Cherie Burns

A husbands ex-wife is the woman most stepmothers love to hate. They relish the chance to have a go at her, and in some cases, she deserves it. Saying so is bound to get some backs up, but it's only fair that stepmothers finally have their say.

To hear stepmothers tell it, "She's (neurotic, batty, wacko, a real psychotic, absolutely nuts)." Pick one of the above. These descriptions characterize a large percentage of ex-wives floating around if you can believe what stepmothers tell you. While some of these exes may be certifiable lunatics, or in shaky emotional straits, it seems unlikely that they are all nuts.

Though it can be satisfying, there's no trick to badmouthing your husband's former wife. Stepmothers have an arsenal of personal dirt about her, provided by their husbands at a time when the worst things are better remembered than the best. God forbid that anyone with bad intentions should be privy to as much personal information about us-or anybody. It's not easy, and a few lapses are excusable, even therapeutic, but a stepmother is better off taking the high road when it comes to matters pertaining to her husband's ex-wife. (We might as well say "their" or "her" ex, since it seems as though you've both been married to her.)

If you can't resist taking a crack at her from time to time, go ahead, but know your company when you do so and don't expect anyone except another stepmother to enjoy it as much as you do. I know a couple who privately call their ex "Lovely," because her behavior isn't. It does them a world of good and it doesn't hurt anybody in a relationship where a little fun and irreverence are well earned.

Still, there is a serious side to having an ex-wife in your life. "A second marriage is always tied to the first, and the ex-wife relationship, especially where children are concerned, keeps the first marriage alive in the second," explains Lillian Messinger. To a stepmother, the earlier wife is a little totem of the past, a reminder of a life and love that went before. While the husband who knew her has few romantic notions left about his ex-wife, his new wife may create her own mythology about her: why he married her, why they split, why she doesn't braid her daughter's hair. Don't think too much; it simply doesn't pay.

But, of course, you can't forget about her. She does exist, and that's the problem. Stepchildren are a constant reminder of her. They usually mention their mother the way they'd trot out a prize collie for your inspection: to see how you react.

Even if the children don't mention their mother (which seems awfully artificial, if tactful), they're likely to escort her into your life in other invisible ways, like a communicable disease. Kids have an uncanny knack for this. They like to see you squirm a little, to spark a little drama. One stepdaughter reminded her stepmother every time she was within ten miles of the town where her parents were married of the significance of that location. Sure, it bugged her a little at first. Her weekend would have been complete without her narration of the geography. Hut once she got better at reacting to the reference, it went away.

It's surprising how many stepchildren know where they were conceived and how many make sure to tell their stepmother. Needless to say, it goes over like a lead balloon if they remind you, as one teenage stepson did when his dad and stepmother were headed for a vacation to the same spot, but it shouldn't be a big deal. Children are entitled to have a sense of their own history; nobody can take that away from them. The best strategy with stepchildren who indulge incessantly in such references is to ignore them or discuss the habit with them directly. Get off the defense and onto the offense.

Psychologists agree that there's not enough scientific research about the effect of ex-wives on stepmothers to allow many broad pronouncements about these relationships to be made, but they do advise second wives to avoid getting caught up in comparisons and rivalries. Ruth Neubauer, Ed.D., president of the New York Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, strongly suggests that second wives steer clear of competing with their exes. They should also, she adds, resist the temptation to style themselves to be better rematches. "Your real self will come through, so trying to be something you're not-or the first wife wasn't-isn't going to work," she maintains. It just pulls the knot of stepmother anxiety tighter.

Lillian Messinger states, "I don't think a woman can be in a second marriage without her husband sharing his history with her, but if she becomes obsessed about it, worrying about things like how big his ex-wife's breasts were, how she performed in bed, all the intimate details, it can become pathological. It isn't productive." Revisionist history can be just as deadly. Don't expect your husband to say that everything was terrible. There must have been some good times. If it had all been bad, there would probably be something wrong with him now, too.

A lot about being a stepmother has to do with being a second wife. Stepmothers feel powerless to affect matters that the ex typically controls, such as visitation, alimony, the upkeep of the children, and a slew of other often annoying arrangements and logistics that touch their lives regularly. An ex-wife's attempts to indoctrinate her children against their stepmother is also quite common. No woman can be expected to welcome this intrusion into her life. It is frequently hidden or impossible to anticipate at the start of a marriage. Divorced men typically appear to have lives of their own, but remarriage seems to activate their ex-wives and can release a penchant for bitchiness.

Carlin met her husband, Bob, after his divorce from his wife, Linda, who had left him. Their two children, nine and three, lived with Linda and her new husband eighty miles away. Bob religiously followed a visitation agreement that was part of his and Linda's divorce agreement.



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