Weighing the benefits and costs of getting along with the ex-wife or stepmom

Thelma-louise-mustang However new or weird the idea of getting along with the stepmother or bio-mom might seem to you, the benefits of doing so are probably annoyingly obvious.

Yeah, you've probably heard this all before (do I hear yawning?):

  • less stress
  • better communication
  • smoother flow to life in general
  • brainstorming help with the kids = better parenting (esp. with teens or kids that are acting out)
  • less yucky energy in your romantic relationship
  • you no longer have an "enemy" in your life who's out to get you
    (hoarding information about your weaknesses and shortcomings, waiting
    for you to mess up)

Seems like a no-brainer for BOTH sides, huh? And yet, for some reason, it's so incredibly easy to lapse into conflict with the mom or stepmom, despite your best intentions to take the high road.

Why is that?

I would venture to say that it's because all those bulleted items above
are conscious. They're "no-duh" items, what you're "supposed" to want,
what you "should" be doing. But you've got a whole army of
unconscious forces that are actually shaping and guiding your behavior
— and it's the unexamined, subconscious stuff that usually wins out.

That's why we find ourselves doing things we don't think we should on a daily basis, such as eating that extra spoonful of ice cream, or looking up only to find we killed another hour online. Whoops.

Here are some of the unconscious drivers, or things we're afraid of losing when it comes to getting along with the other woman:


  • for moms, it's being the better parent and the better woman, whether you wish you were still with your ex or not
  • for stepmoms, it's being the better parent and the better wife, no matter who broke up with who

fear of exposure

  • here's the flip side of being better than her: you're also afraid of being discovered as being inferior to her — less put together, less of a success. She'll find out you're actually not doing such a great job in certain areas of your life, such as _________ or __________.

it's messier

  • if you see her as human, that means you're back to seeing her the same way you see other people in your life in all their flawed glory (big sigh here) — full of contradictions, falling short at times, not always doing what they say they're going to do
  • it kind of sucks to have to cut people slack sometimes, doesn't it? Seeing her as human feels like you're letting her off the hook. You're convinced she doesn't deserve this.

it feels bad

  • If she's not totally, completely, solely responsible for the crappy situation between you two, then maybe you both are. You can't face the squirmy discomfort of seeing your own actions for what they really are, which, if you're human yourself (!), might be:
  • petty
  • vindictive
  • small-hearted
  • competitive
  • snarky
  • childish

it feels so good

  • you're actually really enjoying the drama of not getting along. Though you'd never admit it out loud, you actually look forward to the next time the other woman screws up, so that you can go through that familiar process of fault-finding that ends in such a lovely little (or big) buzz. It's as predictable as dark, imported chocolate or a good beer!
  • Does any of this sound familiar? (I only learned about it in a book. It's never personally happened to me. Ha.):
1. event that shouldn't have happened
  • shock and horror
  • judgment
  • rush of feeling superior
2. deeper analysis of the intricacies of her evil actions
  • heady indignance

3. repetition of your story to a rapt audience of built-in cheerleaders

  • more feelings of smugness, superiority; the blameless, cozy comfort of being the injured party

4. final pronouncement of her absolute wrongness

  • you take the "moral high ground" as you do your best to "move on" and "detach" from the event because, ohmygod, it's "stressing you out beyond belief"
5. …until the next event…

loss of your role/story/audience/focus

  • If you're not at war with the other woman, then who are you? It's back to same old life, with the same old problems you still have to figure out (and don't know how!). It's convenient having her as a focus for all your ire, it's a pleasant distraction, it gets you sympathy from friends and family. Besides, how comfortable are THEY going to be if you two start getting along better? It's like asking them to start rooting for a different baseball team or change their political affiliation.

letting some wiggy influences into your life

  • You might also be afraid of opening the door to further weirdness (as if life isn't disconcerting enough in these two-family-but-hey-this-is-my-family situations).
  • If you're the stepmom, you might worry about the ex-wife weaseling her way into your own marriage and poisoning it (because the mom smells of divorce and you're afraid it may be catching).
  • If you're the mother, you might be afraid of seeing your former husband remarried, or god forbid, even happily remarried brings up in you. Sadness, loss, regret. You know — the good stuff.

As you can see, it's the juicy, subconscious stuff that's probably fueling our behavior, as opposed to all those goody two-shoes reasons about why we're supposed to be trying to get along.


First, pay attention.
See if you can catch yourself mentally and emotionally playing out these hidden agendas.

Second, experiment with stopping.
You may not know what to replace your subconscious mental habits with yet, but just see if you can bring your thought patterns to a halt, like a car pulling up to a STOP sign.

Ask an open-ended question.

If you're competing with the other woman, ask yourself, "How can we make this a win-win situation?" If you're afraid of being exposed as a loser, ask yourself, "How can I see myself as worthy and enough, no matter what?" If you're worried about letting her off the hook, ask yourself, "How can I move forward into a place of peace, forgiveness, kindness and balance? If you're reluctant to look clearly at your own behavior because it feels so shitty, ask yourself, "How can I face this stuff with bravery and honesty and learn the best lessons?" If you're feeding off the drama, ask yourself, "Isn't there something more positive I'd like to be doing with my time, energy and attention? What would that be?"

Practice asking open-ended questions with any kind of problem you're having in life. A part of your subconscious will start to work on creating the answer in the background. It's like having your own personal virtual assitant!

Get comfortable with the vacuum.
I'm not talking about housecleaning, I'm talking about that space we create when we leave room for something good to happen inside ourselves and in our life — for change. Sometimes it feels like odd leaving an opening, like it needs to be immediately given a purpose, an assignment.

It can take a little bit of time for new things to happen. Get better at hanging out in that place of uncertainty, without having to create a big, dramatic story about it.

And then see what happens!

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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  1. Great advice!! I’ve recently finished a course of CBT therapy and have been following similar rules! I never thought I could ever bring myself to like the BM but now, I’ve put the past behind me and I’m working on building bridges with her and life is much easier. But, like you say, you have to be really really honest with yourself about your own motives. I would recommend CBT to help with this. It’s definitely helped me!

  2. Thanks, Rebecca! What does CBT stand for? What’s been the most helpful aspect of it?
    So glad to hear that you’re creating something positive. And yeah, that brutal honesty is fun, huh? 🙂

  3. Jen,
    I often ask my sister stepmoms: “Who are you without your Bio-mom story?”
    For the most part, the stepmoms I encounter do not have unreasonable or mentally ill bio-moms to deal with (there are a few – and their situations are truly tough). 80% of my sister stepmoms can change the story any time they want to …
    But there’s the trick. I honestly am coming to the conclusion that they don’t want to. They’re settling for war in their hearts and war in their homes.
    I’m linking to this post today…Excellent, Bravo, Fabulous!

  4. Being open and honest is hard. Part of me feels I am standing up for the BF, for the SS, for all the wrong doing. Who really knows how much of that is true. I feel sometimes I am reacting to situations for the BF, he ignores them so it’s like I almost start to carry that around and feel the need to protect him. I just do not trust the BM and when I have made moves to build a bridge she held it against me. I feel like maybe someday in the future but she needs to grow up and I have to be better about letting go. It’s a process!

  5. Peggy, wow, that’s a fascinating statistic. 80%! Just goes to show how deep this stuff runs, you know?
    And Life of a Stepmama, kudos to you for examining your own motives and behavior with honesty, even though, yes, it IS hard. It’s funny, Carol used to say that she felt like she was standing up for me too, when she didn’t want to slam me for something that had happened, which felt really weird for her (based on what she’s told me). I guess it’s a balance between owning up to your part, really trying, but also knowing when to step back and catch your breath! Good wishes to you…. 🙂

  6. Hey Jen
    CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy – and it seems to be very helpful at least for me.
    I guess you could ask me – “Who am I without my stepmom story?” Actually I have been working on that aspect with my therapist. It is easy to let those “stories” become your purpose. I have fallen into that trap and am now struggling to leave these behind.
    By the way – I finished your book and found it really thought provoking. It forced me to take an honest look at my situation and more importantly – it forced me to own up to my part in my divorce.
    Thanks for your book and your site. I wish I was closer to Austin so I could attend one of your meetings. Even though I am only a biomom – I think I would enjoy the conversation.

  7. It does seem like Austin is the centre of the Stepmom universe doesn’t it!!!! I feel like I’m missing out on so much being in the UK!
    I’m glad the CBT is working for you to Bonnie. I’ve had a ton of regular therapy and it was nice to talk but didn’t really help me to make the changes that I really needed to make to change my marriage.
    CBT is forward focused and, rather than going over and over the past, concentrates on changing negative thought patterns and learning new ones so you can change unhelpful behaviours going forward.
    Slightly more expensive than regular therapy but usually works in a much shorter space of time.
    LBM xxx

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