THE DIFFICULT EX-SPOUSE
By Jamie Kelem Keshet. Ed.D.*
STEPFAMILIES Quarterly, Summer 1992
The couple in my office are remarried. Their problem, they both agree, is his former wife who is making their lives miserable, ruining the children, threatening them with financial disaster, or suffering from a serious mental health problem. This is a common dilemma for remarried couples who seek my assistance. Rarely is the "other parent" willing to meet with me or to enter therapy. Often I am limited to the information given to me by the two members of the new couple, and I am sure that their allegations are biased.
Most of the time the difficult ex-spouse is a mother. Mothers tend to stay more involved with their children following a divorce than fathers do. Fathers who act out or are inappropriate may be more likely to be neglectful and lose touch with their children. Mothers tend to make demands on the children and their former spouses.
The New Couple
A couple relationship which is fairly new and vulnerable, needs nurturing, time and laughter. If the couple spend all their time doing problem solving, they are likely to lose touch with those special qualities which brought them together. Throughout the course of counseling, I encourage the couple to take time off together to reinforce the positive bonds between them.
In some couples problems in their intimate relations are avoided by focusing on the problems with the "ex." They can use therapy for their problems, which often involve difficulties in communication or different expectations for each other. Other couples have solid relationships with good reality testing and would not be in my office were it not for the difficult "ex."
The lack of control over the behavior of a former spouse is distressing to a remarried couple. One couple, in which the former wife had completely ignored the divorce agreement requiring her to sell the previous family home and divide the equity with her ex-husband, had been on the verge of a new agreement several times only to have it fall through. They had postponed buying a new home for themselves until the money from the husband's old house was available. They likened the ex-spouse to an illness which could not be avoided, denied or cured. "If I had cancer, I wouldn't want to spend all the time I had thinking about it, talking about it, worrying about it. I don't want to talk about her all the time, either," said the wife. She finally borrowed money from her parents and bought a new house for the couple in her name only. The house was smaller than what the couple could have bought with the husband's money as well, but it was theirs.
Another stepmother realized that she was trying to resolve the problems between her husband his ex-wife and trying to give his children the kind of parenting that their mother had neglected. During the course of our meetings together, she began to take a back seat. As she did so, her husband became more firm with his children and their mother. The conflict between the former spouses came out into the open and they agreed to consult a mediator to modify their divorce agreement. The stepmother interacted with the children in a lighter and friendlier way as she gave up her self-assumed responsibility to fix them. The children became happier on their visits. An important task for this couple was distinguishing what they could hope to change from what they had to learn to accept.
Sometimes I have the opportunity to meet the children and get a sense of how well they are being pa rented. At other times, there are already other professionals involved with whom I can speak. Sometimes I must rely on the parents' reports. I urge parents to visit the children's schools, talk with their teachers, get copies of evaluations and report cards. In some cases, where one parent, in joint custody or a parent without custody cannot get the agreement of the other parent to have the child enter therapy or to have them evaluated, discussions with personnel at the children's school and a sharing of concerns may lead to a referral for counseling.
Parents who feel that their children are suffering because their former spouse is not behaving responsibly or sensitively feel intense pain. Their helplessness can be overwhelming and can waken guilty feelings about the first marriage or the divorce. The parent must learn to let go of what he or she cannot change. Surrender is one of the hardest tasks of being a divorce parent.
A remarried father whose 11-year-old son was having difficulty behaving properly in school consulted me about going to court for a change of custody. He reported that his son had said to him, "I want to live with you, Dad." In this case, I was fortunate that his ex-wife came to meet with me once at my request and gave me permission to meet with her son, as long as his father did the driving.
The son was angry at his mom because she often lost her temper with him. He sometimes thought about moving to his Dad's house to get away from her hitting and yelling but he couldn't tell his mom that because "she would cry." On further inquiry, he made it clear that his first choice would be to stay with his mother if she could control her anger better.
Because this child was distracted in school, not working up to his ability, worried about what was happening at home and confused about the divorce, I had a series of individual meetings with him. He still felt sad that his parents had divorced eight years earlier and wished there was some way for them to get back together. He used the sessions with me to talk about his anger towards his mother. I could listen and comfort him without becoming incensed the way his father did when he reported these stories. Although the mother and stepfather sometimes used harsh punishment, it was not severe enough to report to child protective services.
During this time I could see that the father would have a poor chance of winning a custody battle and told him that I could not recommend changing households for his son. He was saddened but reasonable. A turning point for the father came when the mother agreed, after a good deal of arguing, to allow her son to go with his father for an extra winter vacation planned by the father's parents. This extra vacation gave the father the sense that he could have more access to his son and have the opportunity to include the son in his family events. After a few months of therapy, the boy's behavior began to improve in school and at home.
The harsh punishments ceased, in part due to his improved behavior. The mother may also have felt that I was checking up on her, though she and I did not speak to each other. The boy told me how he befriended a child at school who had no other friends even though his other friends rejected him when hew was with this new boy. By the end of the therapy, his old friends had also accepted the new boy and my client felt proud of himself that he had brought about this change in behavior. So, although he could not heal the rift between his parents, he saw that he could bring together different friends rather than remain divided in his loyalties.
The father was thrilled when his son had a good report card and won several awards for his academic performance. The father realized that it was not necessary or appropriate to initiate a custody battle and decided to keep chipping away to gain more time with his son. He was able to do what seemed best for his son rather than to gratify his own desire to be with his child more frequently.
Problems with a former spouse who is not part of the therapy can be frustrating to members of the remarried couple and to the therapist. The goals of the therapy must be to assist the couple in improving their relationship and reducing the stress which is caused by the difficult ex spouse. The therapist can also help them to accept the limitations of their power. Sometimes in giving up impossible goals, the couple can refocus their energy on the strengths in their relationship and their stepfamily.