01.07.2012 Relationships

A Fine Balance

Being the second wife is a delicate balance but most importantly be yourself, advises D rCharmaine Saunders

Coping with an ex-wife or partner is a tricky business. You almost can't win no matter what you do because you are the dreaded replacement. If your husband has stayed on good terms with her and especially if there are children involved, the complicating factors go up another notch.

So how to best deal with the situation? First of all, don't waste time and energy comparing yourself with your predecessor. You are totally different women even if the same guy chose to marry you. Being jealous of what he had with his previous wife is like wanting to stay 21 forever. The past is the past and if he wanted to still be married to his first wife, presumably that's where he'd be.

If she chooses to be jealous of you, you can't control that but don't give it more recognition than it deserves. Be very pleasant in all your dealings with her whether you care for her or not. Don't put your husband in the middle of the two of you as that path leads to nothing but conflict and pain. Just be who you are and accept that this man has chosen to be with you in the present.

If you find yourself suddenly cast as the wicked stepmother, play the role your own way. There are no fixed rules for this one, I'm afraid but there are guidelines - never criticise their mother to the children, refuse to participate in comparison games and, whatever you do, don't try to buy their love with presents and outings. Yes, they'll love the gifts but not you - kids have an uncanny knack for spotting a bribe! Do things your own way so that if your stepchildren do come to like you, it'll really be you they like and not a pale imitation of their mother. Be friendly but draw clear and firm boundaries; set rules that are fair and few; don't play the heavy parent. You cannot ask them to like you but you can demand respect that they accept your way of doing things. Step parenting is known to be one of the most difficult of all human roles.

The first and immediate obstacle is the resistance and resentment of the children, whatever their ages. If they're very young, especially toddlers or pre-schoolers, the acceptance level is higher. The new parent is assimilated quite easily as long as he or she is kind. But with older children, the stepparent faces an uphill battle, no matter the effort expended. This is often the hardest part with children resenting even the new parent's niceness, seeing it as merely a ploy to win them over.

Teenagers understandably are the worst. They resent the loss of the original parent, whether through divorce or death, and the intrusion of the new one. Many, many blended families fail over time, simply because of the degree of difficulty.

If both partners have children, the level of difficulty goes up several more notches.

Blended families operate on a delicate balance and every member is an important component in the dance. For harmony to prevail, a great deal of tolerance and compromise is needed. It's virtually like two instant families under one roof. The secret here is to ensure that two opposing camps do not develop, there's no favoritism or preferential treatment for any individual and all rights, needs and feelings are respected.

Dealing with exes can be tricky enough for the primary person but marrying into that situation is a minefield. Even if the ex is a reasonable person, stays in the background and respects the new family set-up, it still requires sensitive handling. Unfortunately, exes are often the exact opposite, using the children as weapons, interfering with the family arrangements and basically making the stepparent's life a misery. The partner, whose children they are, is sandwiched between the old and the new, duty and personal choice, having to be diplomatic in the most trying of circumstances.

Read up on the challenges of stepparenting before the final decision to marry someone with an existing family. Talk to others who have been in a similar situation.
Be very sure it's what you want and are ready for before you commit.

If possible, get to know the children before the wedding so they don't feel a stranger is moving into their house.

Don't try to replace the original parent even if they are deceased. Be a friend first but not to the point where the parent/child relationship is blurred. Establish boundaries right from the beginning.

Don't set your own agenda too early in the arrangement. Be flexible, fair and accepting. The family you marry into already has its regular routines and schedules. To a certain extent, you will have to adapt and fit in, gradually introducing your own style and ideas.

As with all relationships, communication is key. Do lots of listening and minimum talking. Be approachable rather than imposing your personality.

Keep the lines of communication open, especially in any areas of potential conflict. Eliminate all criticism and judgement, no matter how hard this is, and it will be! Offer suggestions and assessments, by all means, but avoid all bossy or dominating attitudes. Expect not to be liked and don't take it personally.

All love grows slowly and, in this case, a lot of resentment has to be chipped off first so hoping for instant affection and respect is just setting yourself up for disappointment and hurt. Trying to force yourself onto the children will certainly create yet another barrier instead.

Never criticise the real parent to the children, whatever the provocation.

Be polite and pleasant in all your dealings with the ex. You don't have to like each other or become friends but it's important that all dealings are affable. Children will manipulate adults whenever they can.

As for hubby, he'll be happy as long as the complications of his new set-up are kept to a minimum so go for a one-to-one relationship with his ex-wife. If you're co-parenting children, you have no choice but to deal with her. Tell her when you're unhappy about any arrangements but keep your sense of humour and don't sweat the small stuff. With love, everything is easier and possible.

A sense of humour goes a long, long way in all relationship matters and no less here. If you decide that your husband's ex-wife is going to be a thorn in your side, she will be, so, regardless of the specific circumstances of your situation, relegate her to her rightful place - in the past.

Dr Charmaine Saunders

Dr Charmaine Saunders was a much loved relationships counsellor and speaker who wrote for NOVA for many years. She died in July 2013.