Natural-Born Enemies

Natural-Born Enemies

How to make peace with your ex’s new partner

Before I ever met Rachel, I learned she was a fashion photographer 12 years my junior who lived in Los Angeles, loved stand-up comedy and fantasy football, dreamed of one day owning a sandwich shop, and was “really good with kids.” I nodded and smiled whenever my children or their father dropped another Rachel bomb, but it took radical self-control to calm the wild animal inside me (the one that wanted to scratch this new partner’s eyes out).

Rachel had been how old when my ex and I met? Nine—our son’s age. And whose kids was she “really good” with? Mine. Mine, mine, mine. It alarmed me how quickly the idea of Rachel turned me into a territorial mama bear.

When we finally met during a brief child exchange, the reality of her did not put me at ease. She wore a sweater cut like a half shirt to reveal her navel ring, high-heeled booties, and a strategically slouched hat. Underneath the crafted image, she bore a striking resemblance of a younger me. I extracted my daughter’s fist from my hair—sticky from a juice-box eruption—then shook Rachel’s hand. I kept things brief and polite, and I carried my big feelings home where they could be safely unpacked.

I hadn’t asked for a Rachel. I didn’t need or want a Rachel. But my kids hadn’t asked for this, either. They hadn’t asked for divorce, for my boyfriend, or their father’s new girlfriend. If they could open their hearts and roll with the punches, so could I. Meeting Rachel gave me an opportunity to grow, evolve, and love better. These tricks helped keep the peace with the new partner in town:

Don’t take it personally. Your ex’s new partner is not a criticism of you. The age, gender, race, hair color, resemblance to you (or lack thereof) are no more your business than the appearance of the person next to you in line at the bank. All of this person’s choices reveal her own character, not yours. All of your ex’s reasons for choosing this partner reveal his character, not yours. Just as “It’s not your fault” is a mantra to help your kids navigate divorce, “Don’t take it personally” is a mantra to help you deal with the new partner.

It’s all about the kids. The kids are the only reason you have any connection to this new partner. So when your ex asks you to take the kids for an extra weekend, and you later find out he spent that time snorkeling in Hawaii with the girlfriend, take a deep breath and ask yourself, "What’s best for the kids?" A public shouting match the next time he picks them up? Nope. Instead, stay calm, and communicate in an appropriate way to make sure the kids’ needs are met and your boundaries are respected.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. They are the framework for healthy relationships. My ex once asked if he and Rachel could spend Christmas morning at the house with the kids and me. I knew the situation would be uncomfortable for me and tense for the kids. He wasn’t wrong to ask, and I wasn’t wrong to protect our Christmas morning. I explained my feelings, and he accepted them. When negotiating boundaries, think before you speak; choose kindness when you can, civility when you can’t; and ask questions before you act.

Vent safely (for your sanity and everyone else’s). The first time Rachel came to Montana for a visit (where the kids live with me), she and my ex flew in to an airport 200 miles away because she “didn’t like small airplanes.” When I told my best friend this, she smiled and said sarcastically, “Well, I’m sure that’s the only thing she’s particular about.” We both broke down laughing—the best possible medicine. We all need to blow off steam. Sure, it was a little catty, but it was also lighthearted and confidential. Bottom line: I felt unburdened, validated, and understood.

Put yourself in the new partner’s shoes. I’m speaking figuratively, of course. (We both know you would never, ever wear those high-heeled booties or dirty old Birkenstocks or whatever else the new partner straps on her feet.) When faced with a tense situation involving the new partner, take a deep breath, and imagine how she might be feeling. She didn’t ask for you and your kids to enter her life, either. Chances are she fell for your ex and, like the rest of you, has rolled with the ups and downs since.

When I shared with that same best girlfriend my hesitation over my ex’s request to spend Christmas morning together, she said, “That doesn’t sound very fun for her, either.” That simple statement brought into focus how awkward it would be for Rachel to come to my house in the wee hours of Christmas and watch her boyfriend and I spend the morning with our kids. This change in perspective provided some much-needed compassion. It’s a trick I use often now to take the spotlight off of me and consider the bigger picture.

Two years later, my ex has another new partner, Katie, who is even younger than Rachel and equally hip. Things are much easier this time around, likely because of what I learned from meeting Rachel. Although I might never be down for shared holidays, I am better about handling the hurt and fear our interactions can trigger. I’m inspired by the way my kids make room in their hearts for everyone. After all, it’s not like Katie feeds the kids Mentos and soda and drops them off two days late in week-old clothes. And if she did? I’d remind myself to take deep breaths and then calmly dial my ex or the mediator.

Melissa Stephenson is a writer, runner, and solo parent to two amazing children. All three are happy to live in Missoula, Montana.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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