It's only taken about eight years, but I finally discovered why the dynamics between my husband and his ex wife changed so much when, over Christmas 2004, I took a stand. I have written many times about Christmas 2004, so I'll try not to rehash it too much with this post. To make a very long story short, my husband's ex wife basically tried to force me to spend the holidays with her, her ex husband, and the kids at my in-laws' house.
I felt backed into a corner because I had no desire to hang out with my husband's ex. And frankly, I also wasn't feeling all that comfortable with my husband's father and stepmother. But everyone expected me to comply with the ex's demands, mainly because there were kids involved that they didn't want to alienate.
This was a very tricky situation. At the time, I had only been married to my husband for about two years. I didn't want to alienate his family or his children. However, I felt pretty sure that the gathering, as the ex proposed it, would be a disaster. I ended up not attending the "celebration". My husband went by himself and had a miserable time. He came back happy that he'd seen his kids, but determined never to attend another "holiday gathering" orchestrated by his ex wife again.
I caught a lot of flack for not going with my husband to this get-together at the in laws' house. Stepmother-in-law was upset with me because she was under the impression that I was slighting her. Father-in-law was also upset for the same reason. The ex was upset for the same reason, but also because I didn't cave to her demands.
I was under the impression that the Christmas gathering was a trap. It was packaged as a way for my husband to see his kids and his parents at the same time. Ex could also visit with her new husband and baby and keep an eye on my husband (who doesn't actually require supervision). I think she was hoping I'd be there, not because she wanted to bond, but because she wanted information about what kind of person I am. Even if I had gone and sat there without saying a word, she would have gleaned a lot of valuable information about me. Hell... if I had gone with a resentful heart, she would have won something, because ultimately it would have meant that she got me to do something I didn't want to do. She would have had some measure of control over me.
I'm not saying that all exes are control freaks or have personality disorders. I truly believe my husband's ex wife is a control freak, though. And I also think she has at least one and probably two personality disorders. She seeks control and information. She acts like a small child on a power kick, so she ought to be treated like a child.
It occurred to me this morning that while it wasn't my original intent, by not giving in to my husband's ex wife's unreasonable demands, I set the tone for how she would be treating me. Think about it. When you establish rules for a small child, there are certain things that are non-negotiable. For instance, children today are required to use seat belts. It's non-negotiable. If you start them off by making them wear seat belts each and every time they get into a car, it becomes second nature. If you punish them each and every time they try to sidestep that rule, they learn not to try to violate it. They know it's a rule they cannot violate. But if you let them get away with not wearing a seat belt just once, they remember that and keep trying to get you to let them get away with it again. Pretty soon, you have no control whatsoever over what goes on in your car. And you end up paying the price when a cop gives you a ticket with a steep fine or your kid ends up dead in a car accident.
My husband's ex wife tried to manipulate me into giving in to her demands by using her kids and my husband's family. I certainly felt a lot of pressure to do what she was trying to compel me to do. It would have been the path of least resistance to give in to her demands, just like some parents give in to their kids who don't want to wear a seat belt.
But in the end, I didn't give in. I deprived her of the chance to find out about me and learn where my hot buttons are. I deprived her of the chance to ruin my Christmas or use me as a reason Christmas was ruined. I mean, I wasn't even there! She said the kids didn't like me-- they had only met me once and we had a fine time-- but she claimed they thought I was a "bad influence". Under those conditions, why would I want to subject myself to a holiday with them? Why would she want to subject them to a holiday with someone she claims they can't stand? So I didn't go... and it really upset her, despite her claims that the kids didn't even like me. Why? Because I didn't jump when she said jump. I established a boundary.
If I had given in and gone to that Christmas gathering, it would have been much harder to rein in future ill-advised gatherings. If I had gone and there weren't any fights, what would stop the ex from trying to make Christmas gatherings an annual event with everyone expected to be there? If I had gone and there were fights, what would stop the ex from blaming them on me? It occurred to me this morning that giving in to the ex's demands might have even ruined my marriage. Because if she managed to get me to bend to her will once, what would stop her from trying again and again? It could have turned into a constant issue that eventually would have put a wedge between my husband and me.
Like the mom who determines that seat belt wearing is a non-negotiable rule, I set a similar tone toward my dealings with my husband's ex wife. I let her and my in-laws know that they would not be controlling me. I, along with my husband, would be deciding how my Christmases would be spent. They could not use the children as weapons to control me. They could not use the prospect of my losing their favor as a means of control.
I am very fortunate that my husband was willing to back me up. Unlike me, he is very susceptible to peer pressure, especially from family. And they let him know that they were angry that I had chosen not to bend to their demands. But my husband is smart enough to realize that he shares a bed with me. We're partners. And while he wants to be on good terms with his family, he needs to be on good terms with me... because if he's not, it will eventually lead to another divorce. He doesn't want a divorce and, in fact, didn't think I was wrong in what I did. He fully supported me in my decision and acted like a partner. That made us too strong for the ex to put a wedge between us.
Unfortunately, the ex could not take the fact that we were so strong together. She was too weak and insecure to do the right thing by her kids. So she withdrew and took the kids with her. That's a tragedy, but more so for them than for us. Those kids will always know they have people in their family they don't really know. Their mother will try to convince them that she's all they need. But as they get older, they will find out there's a huge void and the truth will start to come out. They may or may not be able to avoid it... but somewhere down the line, it's likely someone will be curious and do some digging. It could be anybody.... a future spouse, a grandchild... a great grandchild... especially if they stay Mormons. Because Mormons value genealogy and my husband's side of the family is the only side they would have the history for... and not everyone involved in a cluster B family ends up being a cluster B themselves. Someone will eventually go rogue.
Anyway... I didn't realize it at the time, but establishing a boundary and making a non-negotiable rule made it impossible for the ex to interfere. So if you're in a situation like the one I was in, consider taking back your power. Try not to give in to peer pressure. Take a stand. You may find out you're stronger than you realize.