How to Cope with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

I’m addressing a question today I received from a reader. How do you cope as a stepmom when you’re dealing with a biological mom who is belittling to you and doesn’t want you in her children’s lives?

The stepmom role becomes harder when the bio mom makes every effort to exclude you from her children’s lives. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. At the root of this issue lies the fear that the bio mom feels the children are going to bond with the you – the stepmom, and form a deeper relationship with you than they have with her.

It’s an unfounded fear because children almost always have a stronger relationship with their biological parents than they have with a stepparent. However, she’s reacting out of her own fear and communicating to her children that she wants their loyalty. Women are territorial when it comes to their children. If you have children of your own, you understand these feelings, but it doesn’t give the bio mom the right to act belittling or antagonistic  toward the stepmom.

To help alleviate the threat the bio mom is sensing, the stepmom needs to send a message that she has no intention of interfering with the relationship between the bio mom and her children and isn’t trying to replace her in any way. In their book, The Smart Stepmom, Laura Petherbridge and Ron Deal give an example of how to communicate this message which they call “The No-Threat Message.” They suggest doing it in person or via e-mail if the relationship is already strained.

“Dear Meghan, since we are both involved with your kids, I wanted to take a minute to communicate with you. I want to share that I totally understand and respect that you are the only mother of these children. I’m not their mom, and I will never try to take your place. They are your children. I am honored to be an added parent figure in their lives. I view my role as one of support to their father, and my desire is to be a blessing to them. I promise to speak well of you and work together for their benefit. I desire to make their lives easier, not more difficult. Please know that I pray for the entire family. If there’s anything I can do to help the situation or if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

Sending the no-threat message doesn’t guarantee the bio mom will accept your position in her children’s lives but it offers her some perspective on how you feel about your role. She is more likely to allow a relationship between you and her children if she doesn’t feel threatened by your behavior and sees you live out the No-threat message.

Unfortunately, some bio moms are mean-spirited and vindictive. In this case, there’s not a lot the stepmom can do to have an amicable relationship. For further insight, I suggest reading the chapter from The Smart Stepmom, “Meet Your Ex-Wife-in-Law: Friend or Foe.” It gives additional scenarios of how to cope with a difficult ex-spouse.

What suggestions would you give this reader? I’d love to hear them.

Picture by Grant Cochrane

Related Posts:

Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Creating Healthy Boundaries with Your Ex-Spouse

Recognizing the Need for Boundaries

Ten Ways to Strengthen Your Stepfamily Relationships

It’s easy to think we must be perfect in our stepfamily interactions and make huge steps every day to strengthen our relationships. But that isn’t true.

Small steps on a regular basis can result in huge dividends with your stepfamily.


Here are ten easy ways to show every day love and harbor positive relationships in your stepfamily:

1) Offer grace freely and often.

2) Think positive thoughts about your stepchildren; if a negative thought pops up – replace it.

3) Say at least one nice thing to each person in your stepfamily daily or as often as you see them.

4) Live “one day at a time” and enjoy the present moment – don’t project into the future.

5) Take care of yourself: emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

6) Strive to keep a thankful spirit.

7) Nurture your marriage with sweet gestures, alone time, and date nights.

8) Send thoughtful text messages when your stepchildren are away.

9) Deal with conflict when it occurs in a healthy context – don’t stuff it, don’t ignore it, don’t exaggerate it.

10) Pray for each member of your family daily.

Other ideas? What suggestions can you give to help strengthen stepfamily relationships?

Related Posts:

Is Your Stepfamily in a Season of Challenge?

Five Ways to Create Stronger Stepfamily Relationships

Lessons Learned About Stepparenting from Tim Tebow

Five Practical Tips for Successful Stepparenting

When Stepfamily Pain Overshadows Holiday Joy

The facebook status of my friend was heart-breaking:”After 25 years of working for the same company, my wonderful hard working amazing husband was told he does not have a job. Our world has turned upside down…” A hard situation to face at the holiday season.

sad christmasBut the reality is, we’re all dealing with tough stuff. Stepfamilies, especially, often carry pain throughout the holiday season. So, how do you cope? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Don’t dwell on the negative.  Try to find something positive about your challenging reality. The holiday season when we walked through my stepson’s custody battle was one of the hardest for me. It seemed as if I got out of bed every day with a dark cloud over my head. But I tried to focus on the blessing of the relationship with my husband and his willingness to walk a difficult road together that might not include a happy ending.

2) Trust God’s plan for your family even if you don’t understand it. I love the words of Charles Spurgeon: “When you can’t trace God’s hand, trust His heart.” God wants what’s best for you and your family. However, life is often understood backward;  circumstances don’t make sense with our finite eyes. But we find peace when we trust God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it.

3) Do your part to overcome the pain. Don’t allow yourself to be a victim, wallowing in self-pity. If you’re struggling with a stepfamily challenge that seems to have no end, seek support. Talk with other stepmoms (healthy-minded ones). Find a counselor educated in stepfamily dynamics. Use Scripture and prayer to find answers. But don’t stay stuck in your pain without reaching out.

4) Consider the joy of perseverance.  When I complete a long run as I train for running events, I find joy in the perseverance of completing a 10 or 12 mile run. I know I’ve pushed myself to the limit and I wanted to give up, but I didn’t. The same holds true with stepfamilies. We will be pushed to the limit, but the joy comes in refusing to quit. I’ve written about it more here: “Stepparenting Feels Like I’m Running a Marathon.”

5) Read our holiday e-book for encouragement. Stepmom Heather Hetchler and I wrote our e-book, Unwrapping the Gift of Stepfamily Peace, to offer hope and encouragement to stepparents. We know how difficult the holiday season can be – we’ve walked the road in our own stepfamilies. I hope you’ll consider purchasing and reading the e-book as a gift to yourself.

I don’t know what pain you’re facing in your stepfamily but I pray you don’t allow it to overshadow the joy of the holiday. I want to offer the privilege of praying for you if you share your concerns with me. I’d love to hear from you. “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

I love Lysa TerKeurst’s quote from Unglued: “We can’t always fix our circumstances, but we can always fix our minds on God.”

Are you facing stepfamily pain? Will you commit to a positive perspective and intentional effort to keep it from overshadowing your holiday joy?

Related Posts:

Your Holiday Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Meaningful

Trusting God’s Plan on a Difficult Journey

Is the Heartache of Stepparenting Worth It?

Your Holiday Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to be Meaningful

I’ll never forget the first holiday season our family celebrated together. My husband and I had married in mid-October and the holidays descended upon us before we could get settled in our new surroundings. My expectations of a joyous holiday season quickly faded as the reality of chaos and heartache took over.

Blending four young children, managing a harried schedule with two uncooperative ex-spouses while grappling with my expectations of a perfect, first holiday ignited a simmering blaze that burned throughout the season, leaving behind a trail of hurt feelings and defeat.

How could I expect it to be perfect? Because I’m a perfectionist. I wanted to prove to myself and others that, despite the odds of our new marriage and complexities, we could have a perfect, delightful holiday season. I was wrong.

In her book, Set Free to Live Free: Breaking through the 7 Lies Women Tell Themselves, Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith writes, “Perfection is not the goal on earth. … Your life is a progressive journey. There will be times of success and times of failure. There will be times of faith and times of doubt. There will be moments of joy and moments of fear. You cannot maneuver this obstacle course we call life and expect to finish the race perfectly.”

I’ve given up the idea of a perfect holiday season. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be meaningful. There may be squabbles among the kids, or sour attitudes while shopping, or a less-than-perfect decorated tree by my children, but that doesn’t mean I won’t cherish the memories of time together as a family.

You see, our time as a family isn’t the same anymore. We only have one of our five children still living at home and we will only all be together briefly on Christmas day. So, I choose to value how small or large our family gathering is and enjoy every moment we have together as an imperfect family.

In our e-book, Unwrapping the Gift of Stepfamily Peace,  Heather writes, “Life rarely goes  as planned and the tighter we hold onto expectations of the perfect Thanksgiving or Christmas, the tighter, tenser and more stressed we are likely to feel. Let the strands of Christmas tree lights, not our emotions, be the only thing that gets tangled up this holiday season. Peace in the heart leads to peace in the home.”

Have you experienced lesss-than-perfect holidays in the past? How did you cope?

Related Posts:

Holiday Tips for Stepfamilies: Create Family Traditions

Holiday Tips for Stepfamilies: Do the Right Thing

Are You Prepared for the Unexpected this Holiday?

How to Co-Parent Successfully

Taken from our e-book, “Unwrapping the Gift of Stepfamily Peace,” I want to share some thoughts on  how to make co-parenting work.

Our son, Nathan, hangs with a friend whose parents are divorced. Nathan came back from a birthday party, talking about meeting his friend’s dad for the first time. As the conversation ensued, I learned both parents were at their son’s party and casually spoke with one another throughout the evening. I remember thinking to myself, what a blessing they’ve given their son.

Not all co-parenting situations can be as amicable, but the goal of co-parenting is to put aside the differences that dissolved your marriage and do your part to have a cooperative relationship.

Stepfamily living brings stress and tension, which easily carries over into the co-parenting relationship. Intentional effort is required to get along, including sacrifices and tongue-taming. If disagreements arise, it’s important to keep them from children’s ears. Adult issues need to be confined to the adults.

Co-parenting doesn’t mean we try to control what is happening in the other parent’s home. When we divorced our spouse, we relinquished control of how our children will be parented in their home. But the biggest challenge of co-parenting, learning how to be amicable in a relationship with someone you couldn’t get along with in marriage, is the link to success when parenting children after divorce.

Successful co-parenting strategies include setting boundaries about how you will be treated. If you’re dealing with a hostile ex-spouse, it often works best to communicate via text or e-mail. Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable situation that could lead to emotional abuse.

Strained co-parenting gives you an opportunity to practice displaying the gifts of the Spirit as defined in Galatians 5:22, 23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” I know it’s not easy but as our children watch us model kindness and goodness or patience and self-control in the midst of rude or unkind behavior, they learn the value of asserting those qualities in their own lives. And we gain the satisfaction of knowing we took the high road, even when it wasn’t easy.

Drama and stepfamily living too often co-mingle, but you don’t have to let the onslaught of drama ruin your journey. Take every opportunity to conquer it with a positive perspective, peaceful interactions and determined effort to work through the challenges.

What tips can you add to help co-parent successfully?

Related Posts:

Co-Parenting With a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Co-Parenting Collisions

How To Co-Parent Successfully with Your Ex-Spouse

The Danger of Favoritism in Your Stepfamily

“I don’t feel the same way toward my stepchildren as I do my biological children,” a stepmother recently admitted. “I feel guilty when I say that, but it’s the truth.” “That’s okay, ” I replied. “The challenge comes in treating them the same, regardless of how you feel.”

The Danger of Favoritism in Your StepfamilyI understand how this stepmom feels. It’s easier to love a child who you carried in your womb, nursed for a period of time, watched his first smiles, and heard his first words. There is a natural love that develops with your own child.

It’s different with stepchildren. They come to us at varying stages of life. Sometimes they enter our lives at a young age, other times they’re young adults or older. Oftentimes they come with their own feelings toward gaining a stepparent, and those feelings aren’t always good.

So why do we beat ourselves up as stepparents when we don’t have an automatic love for our stepchidren? Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to have a perfect relationship with them from the beginning?

Perhaps society creates this image. Especially with moms, it’s assumed we can easily play out our maternal role, regardless of who’s on the other end. But that simply isn’t the case.

Relationships grow over time. And there are two parties involved in your stepparenting relationship – you and your stepchild. You can influence your side of the relationship, but you have no control over many of the influences your stepchild is receiving.

So, you may feel a different love toward your stepchildren than your biological children, but you must strive to treat them equally. Stepchildren feel like outsiders when they’re treated as “less than” and will not integrate into a stepfamily when they sense unfairness.

A predictable outcome of parental favoritism is competition between siblings and sibling rivalry, which stepfamilies are set up for already. And when siblings are close in age, parents must be even more diligent about how they treat each child.

That doesn’t mean you can never have one-on-one time with your child or you must spend the exact amount of money on each one. Even in biological families, circumstances dictate how parents spend money and time with their children.

For a non-custodial parent, there’s nothing wrong with spending time alone with your children when they come to visit. But be sure to allow time with the rest of the family too. It’s also not unusual to spend more money on one child than another at certain times. During our kids’ high school years, my daughter required tutoring for several years. We spent hundreds of dollars getting her through  high school math that we didn’t spend on the other kids.

The real issue with favoritism in stepfamilies, according to stepfamily authority Ron Deal, is “a heart issue, not a time or money issue.” As stepparents, our heart feels differently toward our stepchildren than our biological children. But one of the hidden gifts of stepfamilies is learning to love our stepchildren as God loves us. We can choose love, even if we don’t feel it. 

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

We didn’t deserve God’s love and grace. But He offered it anyway.

It might be easier to offer preferential treatment to your children, based on how you feel. But your stepchildren deserve equality. Will you commit to the high road of fairness?

How do you overcome the challenge of favoritism in your stepfamily?