Marriage and Family — 23 October 2003
How to balance your relationship with your current and former spouse?

Divorce, for partners with children, does not end the relationship
between the original mates- it only alters and complicates it. The role
of co-parenting and managing leftover joint assets challenges even the
most well-intentioned individuals. When you add to the formula the new
spouses- the plot thickens.

Balancing some needs of the original family with the ones of the new
family, is a juggling act.

Over the years I have talked to many families who have successfully

integrated their first and second spouses and children. They managed to
maintain a cordial and even friendly connection with their divorced
partners for the sake of the children, and with the support and
encouragement of their second spouses.

Other husbands or wives are less able to deal with the needs of the
original family and may cause the second marriage to suffer.

The circumstances of the first marriage’s break up often determine the
chances of the partners_ future relationship. An acrimonial divorce, in
which one or both partners feel strong resentments, is unlikely to lead
to a good future relationship. When one party feels unfairly treated or
compensated by the divorce agreement _ the likelihood of a future
friendship is low. As long as one partner continues to be angry about
the break up of the marriage, he or she may not be receptive to any
future connection.

Some divorces are mutually desired outcomes of unsuccessful marriages.
In cases of “amicable divorce”, there is a greater chance of future
renewed interactions.

More commonly, divorce is a devastating experience. The feelings of
victimization, loss of control, dies-empowerment, loss, hate, resentments
and anger are common emotions for both partners. How well they recover
from these painful feelings is another factor in their future ability to
reconnect as acquaintances and co-parents.

Conflict occurs when the second wife feels threatened by her husband’s
ongoing relationship with his former wife.
Since intimate relationships are based on the exclusive selection of one
special partner, the husband’s attention to his former wife’s needs may
cause doubt in the second wife’s mind about her primacy in her husband’s
life.

One woman described her husband as ” confused about whom he is married
to” and felt betrayed by the attention he paid to his former wife. She
saw his kindness toward his divorced wife as a weakness and lost respect
for him. “He is so manipulated by her (his x) and does everything she
tells him to do, regardless of my needs, ” said the new wife.

The competition between the women is about importance; how much
influence she yields with her husband, where his allegiance lies, how
much of his love does she really command and can she count on him in need? The second wife’s insecurities may lead her to become angry, sarcastic,
testy, harsh and even punitive with her husband. She may attempt to
block his contact with his former wife and even with his children.

The husband, often a kind and decent person, bred to protect and provide
for his woman, ends up feeling unfairly criticized for doing the right
thing. “I am only trying to help her for the sake of the children”. Or,
“if she has no money, how can I let her suffer?” he may say.

The competition for the number one position can become very ugly. The second wife is at a disadvantage from the start. She has not been
fortunate to be the first woman her husband married. First _ is a
special, unique and unequalled position. Many first experiences are seen
as superior.

The partner often feels some connection, history and love for his or her
first mate. The union that produced children carries the special
distinction of a life long bond as parents. The love for the children
and the task of raising them to adulthood under the best circumstances
is tainted with guilt about the children’s loss by the divorce.

Second spouses who can honor the significance of the first bond, fair
better in their marriages. Husbands and wives the second time around
must make every effort to include the new spouse in acts of kindness
toward the first partners. They must strongly express their love and
commitment to the second mate. They must clarify their intentions and
motivations for their actions.

There are also situations where, the husband, or wife, has not fully
detached from the first mate. He or she may still have ambivalence about
the divorce, may be confused, guilty, or obligated and thus too
attentive to the first spouse at the expense of the second family.

Partners with children who are not sensitive to their second spouses_
needs are hindering their chances of effective relationship with the
first mates and happiness in their current marriage.

When there are no children in the first family, a connection with the
first spouse is inadvisable.

To facilitate a functional relationship with the former spouse – and
maintain a healthy one with your current mate:

  • Recover from the grief of the divorce.
  • Heal from any negative emotions about the first partner.
  • Be clear that your primary commitment and allegiance is to the second
    spouse- not the first.
  • Reassure your second spouse of being number one in your life.
  • Work toward a loving relationship with your second spouse and a
    functional (needs of children) with the first spouse.
  • Be firm about your commitment to your children.
  • Consult your second spouse about the best ways to be helpful to the
    first family, if needed.
  • Avoid being secretive about connections with your children or first
    spouse.
  • The more love you show your current partner, the easier and happier
    your life will be and the better relationships you will be able to form
    with all your loved ones.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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