Adulting these days is weird for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that our society seems intent on living in complete denial of what exists, while we are, in fact, having to live with the reality of it. I’m an information junkie. I always have been. I will read an article or a book about anything that looks even remotely interesting, but if it relates to something I’m going through, I’ll actively seek out everything I can find on it. Blending families is in the latter category. I’m going to break another societal taboo and be honest about the fact that this is the most difficult thing I have ever done. I was in the Army. I went through engineering school as a single parent. I have built huge bridges and mighty highways where the land was rough and the funding iffy. I have passed peer review in countries where I don’t speak the language. I have played rugby despite weighing only 115 pounds. I have taken the Professional Engineer’s Exam, and qualified for a prestigious doctoral fellowship. All of those things are a walk in the park compared to blending a family. Today, I don’t want to talk about the kids, though. I want to talk about ex’s, because they’re important to this story.
One blended family writer, Wednesday Martin, referred to today’s culture of serial monogamy as “slow motion polygamy”, and I thought that was absolutely brilliant. There have always been blended families, but the dynamics were not what they are today. For much of history, they were formed after the death of a spouse, so a stepparent would probably never meet their partner’s first spouse. In more modern times (our parents’ generation), divorce was a thing, but often, fathers just checked out, and were sometimes never heard from again. Their role was financial, if anything. That’s how the culture was then. Today’s culture is different. Today, we pretty universally agree that in all but the rarest cases, kids should have solid access to both parents, and custody should be shared to whatever degree works for the situation in question.
What this means, though, is that the ex is never really gone. If you have kids with someone, you’re going to interact with that person a lot for years to come, maybe multiple times a week. Honestly, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you my partner speaks to his ex-wife almost every day. It isn’t that he means to speak to her. He Skypes his son while she has him, and she talks to him because she’s there, or when we have the kid, she Skypes and my partner is there. They also have basically equal custody, so there are a lot of ongoing conversations around his daily life. Some are civil, others less so, but the fact is, since we moved in together, I have not gone many days without hearing my husband’s ex-wife’s voice.
This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the kind of thing that wears on a person after a while, especially if the relationship with the ex hasn’t been cordial. The really hard part is that there’s no easy answer. No decent person would tell their partner, “Hey, can you just, like, not call your kid? I’m super sick of your ex’s stupid voice after hearing it every day for three years, and if I have to hear her again, I’m going to throw the phone out the window.” You can’t say stuff like that, even though you will wish you could. In my partner’s defense, he often tries to get these phone calls over with when I’m not home. He knows they bother me, and he tries to mitigate that while still getting what he needs out of the deal. I honestly think he is doing the best that could be done in the situation as it exists.
The unchangeable fact is, though, his ex isn’t gone. Her voice can be heard in my home every day. My partner interacts with her. He talks about her. I see the emails she sends him. When my partner goes to school functions for his son, she’s there. I’m not. Only rarely do I accompany him to things pertaining to his son since many occur when I’m at work, or I have my own kids to tend to. She goes to all of them because that’s her kid. So let’s take a look at this. My partner does parenting with her. Then he comes home to me. Or he calls her to talk to his son, then he sits down and eats dinner with me. He pays child support to her, and splits household expenses with me. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like a logistical form of polygamy. No, he’s not splitting nights between us, or involved romantically with us both, but he has an involvement with her pertaining to their son, and a relationship with me otherwise. This isn’t uncommon. Think of everyone you know who’s divorced and has kids. Most have some kind of ongoing interaction with their ex. The more equal the schedule, the greater the interaction. It is, for all practical purposes, slow motion logistical polygamy.
When you start to look at it that way, you have to delve into this a little deeper. Why do we, as a collective society, have a problem with this? Because it feels almost grotesquely abnormal by the standards to which we were socialized. No teenager who grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies fantasizes about riding off into the sunset with Prince Charming as he texts his ex-wife and rushes home early from their date to pick up the kid, and asks her if she can pick up the tab this time since he just paid child support. We are fed the nuclear family, lifelong marriage, monogamous ideal that our parents brought us up on. My parents have been married for 47 years, and reasonably happily from what I can tell. But is this just something we were socialized to want, with a few people being lucky enough to accomplish it by some fluke? The fact that nearly every comedian who ever lived has done a bit about people who have been married forever and hate each other, gives credit to the idea that we probably didn’t evolve to do it that way in most cases.
I’m currently reading Sex at Dawn, which is mostly about human evolution as it pertains to relationships. While researchers have various opinions on this subject, according to this book, it seems fairly credible that humans did not evolve to be in lifelong monogamous relationships. This doesn’t mean we should all go hit the local swingers’ club tonight (unless that’s your thing. I don’t judge.), or call a divorce lawyer the minute your partner does that one annoying thing again, but it does mean that the expectation we were all fed of having our spouse completely to ourselves, free of all ex’s, and outside attachments, is frankly, a bunch of bullshit. Of course, we probably didn’t evolve with fathers having equal custody in mind, so our ongoing interactions look a little different than they did in the tribal bands of the Bronze age, but the concept remains the same. It’s actually not against our evolutionary makeup to have ex’s present. It’s against our socialization. We are socialized to be jealous. We are socialized to expect people to cut off contact with all former partners. Maybe we are socialized this way because we really didn’t evolve to do lifelong monogamy, and this is supposed to make it easier. I don’t know, but whatever it is, it isn’t working in today’s world where interaction with ex’s is practically inevitable. You can rip up as many old pictures as you find, get rid of the furniture she chose, and take her old dishes that your partner somehow ended up with out to the curb on trash day, but she’s still turning up on your doorstep next Friday to drop the kid off, and will have a 20 minute long conversation with your partner tonight about which soccer league Little Joey and Susie should be enrolled in next season, possibly right when you’ve gotten dinner ready. You can’t deny it. She’s there. Some stepfamily therapists refer to a partner’s ex as an ex-wife-in-law or an ex-husband-in-law. They’re not your ex, but just like a parent-in-law who isn’t your parent, they might as well be.
The main problem is, we can talk this to death, hypothesizing and second guessing until we are blue in the face, but peaceful interactions and acceptance of reality only work if everybody is on board. I was actually initially very much on board for this. My partner and I discussed this at length before we moved in together. I had met his ex prior to that. We were not open about our relationship at the time, so she thought I was just a friend of his. She wasn’t someone I would ever choose to hang out with, and I found her parenting methods questionable, but I figured we could make it work. I can work with basically anybody. I knew he planned to be very involved with his son, and I was never under the delusion that I would be free of her as long as I lived with my partner and their son was a minor. This was actually pretty ok with me. It was ok with him as well. I did come in with certain expectations as to how it would go, but generally speaking, I was ok with it.
The problem was that it wasn’t ok with her. When we moved in together, and she had to accept that we weren’t just friends, she became extremely hostile. She is from an upper middle class white background that tends to include a parenting style that Wednesday Martin refers to as “possessive mothering”. This is the opposite of “it takes a village”. Possessive mothers cannot stand when anything about their child’s life is decided by someone other than them. They tend to think that they are the only real parent their child has, that the father is more like a fun uncle, generally unnecessary, and other people can just get lost. We soon found out she didn’t approve of me due to a few things straight out of the internet’s “mommy wars”. I’m a working mom, so my kids were in daycare, and by her definition, I was paying someone else to raise them. I make my kids eat what they’re served at meals, which she took to mean I would starve her son, whom she had let become incredibly picky. My kids sleep in their own rooms with the doors closed, and to her, this meant I was locking them away. Even the fact that my partner and I had a long distance relationship for the first two years was up for her scrutiny. We weren’t a real couple. We didn’t even know each other. She was definitely entitled to a vote in all of this. She demanded background checks on me, my kids (ages 3, 5, and 10 at the time), and my entire extended family, including my ex-husband and his extended family. Of course, we did not oblige her on the background checks, because that was ridiculous. It merely illustrates what we were dealing with. I had no choice but to accept her presence, but she felt no real obligation to accept mine. As far as she was concerned, she was there first, and had the golden ticket (aka my partner’s only child) and her opinion should be considered in everything even if their marriage was over. More than that, she wasn’t ok with the relinquishment of control that accepting this postmodern type of extended family comes with. Consequently, she antagonized us relentlessly for years, ceasing only within the past few months.
I do wonder if she has reconsidered any of her previous actions since the arrival of her new boyfriend four months ago. I have my own opinions on them and their relationship, but those things don’t matter. He’s here because she chose for him to be here, just as I’m here because my partner chose for me to be here. It’s like family. You don’t get to choose them. She seems to be ready to move on from the antagonism she engaged in for the past few years. While I’m not mad at her, I cannot move on as quickly as she apparently can. I have never received any acknowledgment that this past few years were rough and she wants us to do better now. I would still feel so much better about this if she would sit down and talk with me about this. That will probably never happen because we aren’t allowed to acknowledge these things. Moreover, the way we are socialized actively encouraged her to hate me, and to feel justified in that. If I had to guess, I would say she feels no remorse for the actions of the past few years, nor does she see any particular need to become cooperative with me, even though her child spends roughly half his life in my home. She seems very committed to the status quo, even though it isn’t working.
Lest anyone think I’m dealing with some kind of anomaly in the form of my partner’s ex, I recommend visiting any group on the internet that’s devoted to divorce and co-parenting. You will find hundreds of questions that amount to, “My ex and his new partner made a totally harmless decision that affects my kids, and how dare they?” or “Can you believe the wreck my ex is dating? How could he downgrade so much? She doesn’t look anything like me!” The goal of these posts is to elicit support, and comments to the effect of, “At least your kids have you. Your ex was a real idiot to let you go. He’ll regret this.” It reminds me of shortly after my partner and I moved in together, on one particularly baffling evening, his ex decided to text him for hours with her thoughts on my appearance (spoiler alert: she isn’t a fan). She and I are very different in looks. We are also different in most other ways. Literally the only thing we have in common is that we both married this man. Why does that have to be weird or offensive, though?
I think even this goes back to the societal construct of lifelong monogamy. In order to believe in that concept, does one have to also believe that they are the best their partner could ever have, that nobody else could ever compare, and that the idea that their partner may not actually have a type consisting solely of them, is offensive? Does it threaten one’s concept of lifelong monogamy if one’s partner leaves a marriage to a tiny blonde and ends up with a tall brunette? How about if a certain aging millennial engineer spent ten years married to an Asian man exactly her height, only to end up later with a tall English husband with blue eyes? Does our socialization encourage us to sell ourselves the delusion that we are the only person our partner could possibly find attractive enough to sleep with, such that it becomes completely disconcerting when that is actually not the case at all because that forces everyone to understand that we actually didn’t evolve to like only one combination of features? (Sure, everyone loves a nice symmetrical face, and a certain waist to hip or shoulder to hip ratio, but nobody evolved a preference for one hair color and height, forsaking all others.)
In light of it all, I just wonder if this all could have been avoided if we all had been socialized differently as children. If we saw a healthy relationship between all members of our own little tribal band, our parents, their partners, various step-relatives and siblings, would we be able to grow up and live in today’s reality without the hardship that is now understood to befall blended families? If we could be honest about the fact that it’s actually very much expected that our partner moved on, and it’s also ok that we move on, would we see so much paranoia about who they’re bringing around our kids? If we grew up seeing ex’s interact in a cordial and familial fashion, would it still bother us that our partners interact with people they once had romantic relationships with? I honestly believe we evolved to be able to do all of these things, but our historically puritanical society, with its legally enforced expectations of lifelong monogamy, has socialized us in such a way that it’s actually creating problems for us when applied to the reality of 2017’s situation.