Being firm, not mean!
Robert had been divorced from his ex-wife for almost three years when he met Joanna. They became quick friends and their friendship grew into a romance. After dating for two and a half years, they then married. Although Robert loved Joanna, he found newly married life an adjustment. His theme had always been “one life, one wife”.
Joanna also found the marriage an adjustment. Robert shared custody of his two kids (ages 6 and 9) and had visitation every other weekend and full-time during the summer months and holidays. Joanna found herself cleaning, cooking, going to doctor’s appointments, helping with homework and clothes shopping on the weekends without acknowledgement from his ex-wife that she existed. Although Joanna tried to form a relationship with his ex-wife, it wasn’t reciprocated, and any suggestions or concerns about the kids were dismissed immediately by her.
Robert’s ex-wife left their marriage of thirteen years after having an affair and nearly destroying him professionally and financially. Still, it was a hard blow for him to accept the end of his marriage. They had a home, two adopted children, and shared a career as a pastor and an active pastor’s wife in the community. The divorce left scars on Robert, the church and community and soon after, he ended up leaving the ministry and working elsewhere.
In the early months of Robert’s marriage to Joanna, he would find himself dropping her hand whenever his ex-wife was present for fear of hurting her feelings. His ex-wife would still ask him to pick up items for her and deliver them to her house, and would also call him, initiating personal conversations. Likewise, she would throw herself on Robert at pickups and drop-offs expressing her love for him, asking for forgiveness. Subsequently, she would share information about those encounters with Joanna, twisting details about the situations with lies and manipulation. This wasn’t good for anyone involved and caused bad friction between the adults and children.
Robert, not wanting to be firm with his ex-wife about personal boundaries and the lies she told, would choose to ignore her actions. However, Joanna felt like a third wheel and a victim in a never-ending battle. She would confront Robert’s ex-wife about inappropriate behaviors, document encounters via email and set boundaries herself, but he would not take action. Robert felt setting boundaries with his ex-wife was mean; however, Joanna felt they needed to be firm, or she would continue to intrude on their new marriage. His ex-wife’s continued bad behavior, as well as Robert’s non-recognition, became hurtful and Joanna began to doubt her marriage and her position as a new wife.
Robert wasn’t wanting to go back to his ex-wife. He recognized he had a good marriage with Joanna, but he was having a hard time being newly married to another woman after all those years and stopping certain behaviors with his ex-wife, which were unhealthy for a new marriage.
Some of the biggest mistakes Robert made was letting his ex-wife into his new marriage by having conversations with her that were not regarding the children, ignoring her inappropriate behaviors and a reluctance to set up firm boundaries. He was fine letting Joanna set boundaries, but his lack of involvement only caused his ex-wife to flirt more with him and lie and twist stories to his new wife. Robert’s ex-wife felt he still loved her by not setting the boundaries himself and as a consequence, she didn’t take any of it seriously since they were initiated by his new wife and not from him.
It took Robert several years and a brief separation from Joanna to take ownership in building appropriate boundaries jointly on how to deal with his ex-wife. Some of those boundaries included:
- Communication solely about the children and by email or text only;
- Being on time for pickups and drop-offs or no more than 15 minutes late;
- No entry into homes without permission from the parent living there;
- No going to children’s functions while the other parent was there (his ex-wife’s behavior had become so erratic due to lack of boundaries);
- No replies to messages if his ex-wife was disrespectful in her communication.
It took time for Robert to realize that setting boundaries don’t insinuate you are mean, but that there are times when you do have to be firm. His lack of initiating firm boundaries from the start and letting his new wife do it caused much confusion and frustration with all parties involved; it nearly destroyed his new marriage.
Today, Robert and Joanna work jointly being watchful of boundaries to protect their marriage.
*Names have been changed.