On my wedding day, I married the man of my dreams. But . . . my new husband wasn't what I imagined while growing up. The man of my childhood dreams came without the baggage of a first wife and a child. The man I married, Scott, was divorced as a result of his first wife's infidelity.
In the six years I've been married to Scott, his ex-wife has popped into our lives myriad times, each time disrupting our harmony. She's called Scott on his cell phone, wanting to get together with him alone. She's "dropped by" our house when I wasn't home. She's often found a way of doing or saying something cruel about me—but always in the nicest tone.
I tried being polite and kind to her, but she didn't seem interested in treating me the same way. When she made rude statements about my marriage, I finally let her know her comments were inappropriate. She responded by telling me she'd be praying about my attitude problems.
Married . . . with Baggage
There's the old adage that says when you marry a man you also marry his family. The reality is that if your spouse was married before, suddenly you have to deal with a history, children, and mail that arrives addressed to a spouse's ex. Remarriage introduces unique challenges and unexpected jealousies, comparisons, and insecurities that often can drive a couple apart.
That's why it's especially important to remain united with your spouse against the outside disruptions of an ex. If you're struggling with the "ex factor," here are four strategies to keep your marriage strong.
1. Pray for the ex-spouse. Often when my husband's ex made some snarky comment, I wanted to pray as David did in Psalms: "Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked" (Psalm 3:7). Unfortunately, that's not the smartest choice. Asking God to rain down tar and feathers may feel good at first, but it isn't the most appropriate course of action.
Instead, Jesus asks us to pray this way: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Ask God to bless her, if for no other reason than she's made in God's image or that she's the parent of your stepchild. Pray she'll make wise parenting decisions. Pray God will be free to work in her life. Pray that, gulp, your heart will soften toward her because you know God loves her.
I've found that when I pray for Scott's ex-wife, kinder feelings toward her grow. As I allow God the freedom to accomplish what he wants in that relationship and in my life, I'm less upset by her intrusions. I can't explain it; I just know it works. It's not about quickie prayers. Sometimes it takes serious, time-consuming, fasting prayers. But the investment's definitely worth it.
2. Avoid the comparison trap. Some women are especially concerned with outdoing their husband's ex-wife, succumbing to jealousy when they feel they don't measure up or becoming condescending when they feel they do.
One wife, Sarah, deals with the weight issue. "Troy's ex-wife is thin and stylish. I'm not," she says. "I'm low maintenance. If I let down my guard, I find myself thinking, Does Troy wish I were thinner? Does he wish I were more of a 'trophy' wife?"
Comparisons between your spouse's first marriage and your current one sidestep the real issue—insecurity about yourself and your place in your spouse's life. If your husband's ex makes you feel insecure, deal with that head-on. Acknowledge your insecurities, pray about them, journal them, but don't allow them to overtake your mind and devastate your marriage.
I know from firsthand experience. There were moments when I'd have misleading thoughts: Did Scott's ex-wife do this better? Does Scott compare me to her?
It made a difference when Scott told me, "I never had this in my previous marriage. I've never had a reason to doubt my trust in you."
Believe your spouse when he tells you these things. Give him the benefit of the doubt! It's likely your spouse is not comparing you to his ex. And if he is, that's his deal, not yours. You deal with what you can change. This is where comes into play: take those thoughts captive in obedience to Christ.
3. Set clear boundaries. When dealing with a problem ex, limit your conversations to matters that deal with the present or the children. If the ex starts prying, makes inappropriate (read: any) comments about you, your spouse, or your marriage, or digs up the past, immediately disengage from the conversation. Say, "I'm not interested in discussing this. Let's try again later when we can focus on the schedule." Then, politely end the conversation.
Make sure the ex understands there are no secrets between you and your mate. It's important she realizes that (a) your marriage isn't any of her business, and (b) you and your spouse are united.
If personal or phone contact is a problem, consider corresponding by email or letter—and always allow your spouse to read everything. Scott tells me each time his ex-wife calls and exactly what she says. He asks me to listen to each phone message she leaves on his cell phone. That cultivates our trust because I know he keeps no secrets.
Remember, setting boundaries isn't about being rude. It's about being firm regarding what's unacceptable. You still can conduct yourself with grace—no apologies necessary.
4. Practice forgiveness. For years, I'd get to the point where I could forgive Scott's first wife for her behavior, only to have her pop back into our lives and cause trouble.
I'll probably always have to deal with practicing forgiveness. I understand the apostle Peter's question to Jesus, "How many times, Lord, must I forgive?" Jesus said, "Seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22). Okay, if you want to get technical, that's 490 times. Don't think I haven't considered buying a notebook to keep track!
It may be difficult to pray, "God, help me to love her" because, frankly, that may be too huge a step. But you can pray, "God, help me to have empathy for her." Empathy brings us closer to forgiveness.
It's Not About Me
After years of watching her actions, I've come to realize the behavior of my husband's first wife really has nothing to do with me. That helps me avoid taking things personally.
So perhaps your husband's ex blames you for everything bad in her life, or pits the kids against you, or starts the rumor mill about you. Remember, the best thing you can do is respond with grace, maturity, and kindness—even when you'd rather declare hostile ground. God understands relationships; he knows people don't always treat each other in God-honoring, loving, and respectful ways. But he asks us to remain respectful in our encounters, even with an ex-spouse—since ultimately we're responsible for our responses, not the ex's.
If Hubby's Not on Board
Some husbands just don't "get" that the ex is an issue. Or worse, he does, but he won't do anything about her. If you're in this situation, there's hope. Consider these strategies:
State your case, and then be silent. Nagging with the hope he'll finally listen to the problem never works.
Mention each incident that occurs. Whenever the ex gets ornery, mention it in a matter-of-fact way to your spouse. Then, ask what you should do the next time it happens.
Be careful about taking matters into your own hands. This can only make things worse. Even when you're right, sometimes it's better not to get involved.
Keep a journal. It's a great way to purge feelings—and keep records in case you need to reference something as proof.
Pray for your spouse. Ask God to open your husband's eyes to the situation and to show him how to handle it.
Keep your emotions in check. Choose your battles carefully. The ex isn't worth hurting your marriage.
Focus on the positives in your marriage. You fell in love with your husband. Look at his good characteristics (even if discernment isn't one of them), and enjoy those.