One of the most important factors in establishing effective relationships and communication is the ability to understand the other person. To empathize. To have compassion. Especially when that other person is somewhat of an adversary.
Gaining this type of perspective was one of my goals for the She Said/She Said Project. What you are about to read is another attempt to promote understanding across divorce-drawn lines. I’d like to showcase more of Dad’s Partner so that Dads and Moms can better see this person. To do so, I’ll be putting myself under a microscope of sorts… The first installment of this project is my own personal journey. Next week, I’ll further detail the emotions and insecurities inherent to those women who couple with parents. And the following week, I’ll discuss some of my favorite resources to help us cope and thrive.
But first things first… here’s a glimpse into my past:
Boyfriend and his wife split up in mid-2006. After years of unhappiness, the decision to end their marriage was mutual.
In November of the same year, Boyfriend’s ex discovered he was dating someone (that would be me). At that time, their relationship had plunged into typical post-separation turmoil. He was coping with a minimally-furnished apartment and a major reduction in the time he spent with the kids. She was adjusting to a reduced income and the stress of being the primary caregiver (her insistence) of their children. There was a lot of resentment. My arrival on the scene served as proof that things would never again be the way they were before. And that ignited some serious animosity.
I had the misfortune of being present at Boyfriend’s apartment during one of their heated telephone conversations. When the ex realized I was there, she chose to speak to me. Her words weren’t kind. She called me lots of colorful names and offered a multitude of reasons as to why I should want nothing to do with Boyfriend. At one point during her tirade, I made a sarcastic remark which was taken out of context and used against me for years to come.
Because I had no children, the ex concluded that I was hopelessly immature and irresponsible (how many people become parents by accident? does parental status really mean a person is responsible?). She told her children that their father chose his girlfriend over them. When I met the boys a few months later, it was obvious that my reputation preceded me in their eyes. Shortly after that, the ex proudly proclaimed that she and the kids held regular “Tara-Bashing Sessions” at their kitchen table. Hatred became their family value.
My first move with the boys was to show them that I was not a threat to their relationships with either of their parents. One rainy Sunday afternoon, I bought some plastic picture frames with lots of “frame” area and some stickers. I used my Polaroid 600 to take pictures of the boys with their dad and then gave them the stickers to decorate the frames. I suggested that they take the photos to their mom’s house and bring back pictures of them with their mom to keep at Boyfriend’s apartment. They seemed to appreciate the activity and the idea, but they never did bring pictures of their mom.
As time went by, I spent more and more time with the boys and was able to develop a successful relationship with each of them. While Drake and Josh warmed up to me, their mother remained cold and distant. She said I was white trash. She called me a whore, a home wrecker and a waste of life… among other things. She accused me of merely pretending to care about the boys and insisted that I was clueless about children. She didn’t bother to hide her feelings from the kids. Knowing how much she loved to hate me, the boys lied to her: they claimed that I called her names, refused to give them medicine if they were sick or that I threatened to lock them in a cage. Their stories initiated many frantic phone calls laced with angry words.
My friends hinted to me that I was crazy to allow such madness into my life. Yet, I loved Boyfriend and I loved his children. Despite the dreaded Sunday Night Accusations, the four of us had fun together. We spent time hiking and fishing and kayaking and reading. We enjoyed each other’s company and learned a lot together. Indeed, I was crazy… I was crazy about the three of them.
The experience further fueled my passion for knowledge regarding All Things Divorce. I’d been researching divorce since my marriage ended. With the introduction of the divorced dad, kids and the ex wife, I expanded my horizons. Early in 2007, I began learning as much as I could about stepfamily dynamics and the contributing factors in our scenario. I wanted to investigate all possible aspects to comprehend the “hows” and the “whys” of what was going on in my personal life. I needed to understand my role, how others viewed me and how I could best conduct myself given the circumstances. Thanks to those books, seminars, webinars, TV programs, classes, blogs, vlogs, trainings, workshops and tweets, I feel I have a better understanding of the issues at play and how to cope with them.
It’s been more than four years since the drama began. I’m happy to report that it has simmered down quite a bit since the beginning. Boyfriend and I have exercised a lot compassion and forgiveness in order to let go of the conflicts and move on with our lives. We adopted the rule, “if you can’t treat me with respect, you aren’t permitted to speak to me” and it has helped foster more effective communication. The ex wife and Boyfriend get along well enough. She remarried last year and her husband has a positive relationship with the boys as well as a workable relationship with Boyfriend. Between the four adults, we operate like a disjointed parenting team. To the other side of that team, I remain an outsider. I think they are grateful for my contributions yet have trouble accepting the validity of my presence (perhaps now because Boyfriend and I aren’t married and they are). Our situation is far from my ideal post-divorce vision, but we’ve made progress… and as long as things keep progressing, I’m OK with that.