How to be okay with the ex-wife at Christmas (and other family events)
December 26, 2015 5:25 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with new partners with adult kids - and more importantly, the ex partners! Asking for my MIL (I haven't told her I'm doing this, I just want to be a good DIL and want some good advice to give her - whether she accepts it or not is another matter, that will probably be down to how I present it...)

My MIL is a lovely, intelligent, creative, spontaneous and attractive woman in her early 60s. I've known her for over 3 years and have met men that she's dated from time to time. But it seems like she's finally met someone that she really likes, and who also seems to be really into her too, which is great! We met him on Christmas Eve at her place, and I think it went well (me and the bloke really liked him, and I think he liked us). And then we met up with him today for a movie. And his 3 kids and their partners. And his ex-wife. Their Christmas tradition is a family dinner and a movie, and then a couple of days in the mountains outside Portland. We joined them for the movie part of that this year.

But MIL is kind of freaking out that the ex-wife was at the movie today (she didn't know in advance - I think that's more because she didn't ask and he didn't say, rather than anything being hidden). And the ex-wife is going on to the mountain extension trip, and MIL is not. (It's a relatively recent relationship, and Christmas is a big thing, so I get that). For what it's worth, the ex-wife seemed like a lovely person and seemed completely okay about my MIL being there as her ex's new SO. They divorced nearly 20 years ago, there is no suggestion that either of them want to get back together. They just happen to have the same kids.

But my MIL is feeling insecure. What can I say to her that will help her feel more secure? Anecdata from amicable divorces that resulted in both parents being together for important occasions welcomed. I think their situation is the way it should be (even if it's not common). Are the rules different when everyone has adult kids? What are those rules?

Thank you!
posted by finding.perdita to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
the ex-wife was at the movie today (she didn't know in advance - I think that's more because she didn't ask and he didn't say, rather than anything being hidden)

It would be fair to reassure her that her new beau's behaviour indicates a lack of empathy (or even common-sense). If he didn't prepare her for meeting his ex-wife then she would naturally feel insecure - what else is he going to spring on her? Did she know that the ex-wife was going on the trip beforehand as well? I'm getting the feeling your MIL is trying to be the "cool girlfriend" with no needs, which is not healthy for any relationship. It doesn't mean her boyfriend is deliberately trying to make her insecure, but his actions would make a lot of partners feel insecure. She needs to have her feelings validated since it appears he is not in tune with her feelings at all.

Yes, as you say, an amicable post divorce relationship is ideal, but it requires open communication and acknowledgement that everybody's feelings are valid - two things that seem to be missing from his relationship with your MIL, but present in his relationship with his ex-wife (was she also surprised at your MIL's presence or did he have the foresight to give her and his kids a head's-up?)
posted by saucysault at 5:51 AM on December 26, 2015 [17 favorites]

"What can I say to her that will help her feel more secure? "

The insecurity is being driven by typical distorted/automatic thoughts, these are based on her history and experiences, not on the reality of the situation. Encourage her to examine the thoughts that lead to the insecurity. Such as "He still loves her", "I'm in competition with her", "she's going to steal him away from me"... And then to examine the evidence she has for these thoughts.. (probably NO evidence). Encourage a perspective based on reality rather than fears and insecurities.

I would also encourage her to consider the fact that, regardless of the divorce, this man has maintained a positive relationship with his kids AND his ex (probably a joint effort on their part for the benefit of the kids), this was no easy task and speaks well of him.

Finally, they've been divorced for 20 years, chances are, if they were going to hook up again, it would have happened by now.

Put your energy into focusing on the positive aspects of these dynamics. It sounds like your MIL has found a neat guy, don't start planting seeds of doubt.
posted by HuronBob at 6:00 AM on December 26, 2015 [11 favorites]

Yeah, I'm entirely with saucysault here. I would actually validate her feelings and talk them through with her. What would have made her feel more secure about this? Probably knowing about it beforehand would have helped. This isn't something that she should have to ask about before it happens; he should have mentioned it and talked with her about it. I would actually encourage her to figure out what could have happened that would have helped her feel more secure, and then I'd encourage her to talk with him about it directly.

"I enjoyed meeting your ex wife and am glad you have an amicable relationship because it is great for your kids. I am a bit confused about why you didn't tell me beforehand that she was coming. It was surprising and while I am not the jealous or insecure type, the way this happened made me feel a bit insecure. Let's talk about what we can do to avoid this kind of thing in the future."

This opens up a dialogue and communicates her needs to him. She shouldn't apologize. Her feelings are totally normal here. I would feel the same way. My boyfriend's ex girlfriend is best friends with his sister, for example, and when we went to his sisters wedding he told me ahead of time that his ex was actually in the wedding. I met her and we really hit it off! Letting me know ahead of time let me feel secure and trusted and trusting of him. I imagine I would have felt insecure and untrustworthy and doubting if he hadn't told me until I was shaking her hand.

So: you can be supportive here by listening to your MIL, taking her feelings seriously, and encouraging her to talk about them with her boyfriend. Thanks for looking out for her. The world needs more DILs like you!
posted by sockermom at 6:23 AM on December 26, 2015 [24 favorites]

If he's been divorced for 20 years, then he's had relationships wherein the new person was surprised by the nature of his ongoing relationship with his children's mother. So it's unlikely that he didn't know the Christmas meeting and planned camping trip would make an impression on your MIL. Even if the impression it made was "wow that's really great, so unusual and mature!" - still I'd wonder why he didn't give her a heads-up. At best it's a lack of consideration for the new person.

I'd validate her feelings. Not that it means she has something to worry about with the ex - nothing here indicates anything about the guy's commitment to the new relationship - but I'd support her being on her guard with regard to his consideration of her, and I'd definitely support her talking to him about it.
posted by headnsouth at 7:00 AM on December 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

If this were a friend of mine I'd encourage them to say "I wasn't aware A was coming and it took me by surprise; any reason you didn't tell me?" If he blows her off or can't understand why this bothers her, then it is an important piece of information. But he may be under the impression he'd told her, or he was feeling harried by the holidays or whatever. Maybe the setup with his ex just feels really normal to him and it hadn't occurred to him that he needed to explain. (I agree with whoever said above that it sounds like a pretty healthy relationship overall and a good sign in balance.) To me, an acceptable response to her concerns would be "I'll be more communicative about this stuff in the future."
posted by BibiRose at 7:00 AM on December 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I would also encourage her to consider the fact that, regardless of the divorce, this man has maintained a positive relationship with his kids AND his ex (probably a joint effort on their part for the benefit of the kids), this was no easy task and speaks well of him.

Seconded. This is evidence that this man makes an effort at relationship.

His relationship with your MIL is relatively recent, and they may not have had the opportunity to work out expectations surrounding communication yet; this is an appropriate time to broach the subject, gently and while giving benefit of the doubt (it's a baked-in tradition for him, the season plays merry hell with remembering stuff, he may need to complete his holiday ritual before dealing with his new relationship, and it may not have occurred to him that the trip might cause your MIL doubt and distress).

If this were a friend of mine I'd encourage them to say "I wasn't aware A was coming and it took me by surprise; any reason you didn't tell me?" Yes, some variety of this. "It was lovely to meet your ex and your kids, and it seems like you've worked out a cordial relationship. Thanks for making me a part of that. It also knocked me for a bit of a loop; I felt a little unprepared. Next time, would you please give me a heads-up?" To your MIL: "Yes, the surprise aspect of that was a bit boneheaded. I can see why it's causing all of these feelings. Relationships are so difficult to negotiate, and figuring out the etiquette of these situations is hard! Good for him for trying to navigate it, and good for you for being gracious when he does it imperfectly. Tell him that you'd like a heads-up next time!"
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:55 AM on December 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm 61, divorced, and I would have been pleasantly surprised to meet his ex-wife under such conditions. I'm guessing he didn't say anything ahead of time because—after 20 years—it's just a routine part of the family activities. He may be surprised that her ex-husband doesn't attend her family get-togethers.

Based on the above answers, my reaction doesn't appear to be typical. So, certainly acknowledge that there is nothing unusual about feeling insecure under these circumstances. Then go with HuronBob's advice:

I would also encourage her to consider the fact that, regardless of the divorce, this man has maintained a positive relationship with his kids AND his ex (probably a joint effort on their part for the benefit of the kids), this was no easy task and speaks well of him.

Finally, they've been divorced for 20 years, chances are, if they were going to hook up again, it would have happened by now.

He sounds like a keeper.
posted by she's not there at 9:07 AM on December 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

But my MIL is feeling insecure. What can I say to her that will help her feel more secure?

He's the kind of person that his ex still likes 20 years after a divorce? That bodes well for his general goodness. (Or, alternatively, for them being in a sick dance of a relationship that will never truly end. But if you want to make her feel better, go for the first argument.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:08 AM on December 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm with those saying that after 20 years, I'd be thrilled to know that the guy knows how to keep his family in tact and how to maintain a good relationship with his ex for that purpose.

Why would your MIL care? It's not the norm, it's a refreshing change from it.

Sounds like s nice guy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:26 AM on December 26, 2015

Oh please. So he managed to remember to tell MIL that they were going to the movies with children and partners. He managed to remember to tell MIL that he was going to the mountains. He managed to remember to tell MIL that kids and partners would be going there, but he just happened to forget that his ex would be at the movies. Or the mountains.

That's very convenient that the only person it slipped his mind to mention in the family holiday is someone MIL might have had an issue with. This is bullshit and she shouldn't give him a pass for it. This has nothing to do with him having a good relationship with his ex, most mature adults would welcome that, and everything to do with, as jbenben said, him being a game playing asshole. Now I don't know what the game is, but I wouldn't be up for playing it.
posted by Jubey at 11:32 AM on December 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I meant to add that there are plenty of ways for the boyfriend to illustrate to the MIL that he has a good relationship with his ex, by, you know, actually telling her that, rather than thrusting her in the middle of a reunion with the woman.
posted by Jubey at 12:02 PM on December 26, 2015

By the time answers vary from "he's a game playing asshole" to "he's a keeper," you can probably determine that it's not a question where AskMe will be able to predict the answer, and in my opinion, you can probably rule out the responses that attempt to do so and focus on answers that tell you how to proceed toward gaining greater clarity in real life.
posted by salvia at 12:11 PM on December 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

Or he did tell her, but it was such not a big deal to him that he didn't put a lot of emphasis on it. Or he said "And Anne is coming" and your MIL didn't recall that was his ex's name. Or he said "my family will be there" and to him that naturally includes his ex, so he didn't call it out specifically.

My point is, she should talk to him about it! If it's bothering her, the mature thing to do is say "wow, I was caught off gaurd by this." And then talk about it. He's clearly got good communication skills if he's still friends after 20 years, and I bet he'd be open to having that conversation. No need to guess his motives or feel insecure.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:07 PM on December 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can spend lots and lots of time trying to analyze the intentions behind this omission, but bottom line the new guy's behavior made your MIL feel bad. And that's what she should focus on in a follow-up conversation.

When partner A does something that makes partner B feel bad, it's not up to partner A to figure this out through their magical, mind-reading powers. It's up to partner B to explain how partner B's actions made them feel. That should be done in a non-accusatory way (assuming best intentions should be the norm).

If partner A is a good guy/gal (and it sounds like he is in this case), he/she will acknowledge the slip and make an effort to adjust his/her behavior. If partner A blows off partner B, or in any other way brushes off how they feel and won't deal with it, then that is ultimately the problem.

Conflict is a part of all relationships. It's how conflict is dealt with that determines the success or failure of the relationship.
posted by brookeb at 1:07 PM on December 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it hadn't occurred to him that this is a thing to communicate to his new partner in advance, I'm guessing this dude isn't used to carrying his own weigh wrt emotional labor.

Yeah I know mefi loves to throw that phrase around, but this seems like a good example!

It is possible to both be on good terms with your longterm ex and not tell your current partner. The most likely way I can see this happening is if you are a dude of a certain age accustomed to the women in your life carrying the emotional weight. If you are a woman of a certain age, you might also be over doing such things and expect more from relationships. If he is open to hearing this, he is indeed a keeper. If he shuts down and gets defensive, he might otherwise be lovely, but not partner material for her.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:41 PM on December 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm with she's not there, I would have been pleasantly surprised to find this out about a new partner (even though we definitely would have had some variation of the "tell me in advance, please" conversation).

My best friend's partner has this kind of relationship with his ex, and it similarly didn't occur to him to make a big deal about it to her when they met. ('Of course I'm going to be close to the mother of my children.') I've met his ex-wife many times at parties or events, and she's lovely. I like him for that closeness.
posted by frumiousb at 4:08 PM on December 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

If this was healthy and casual, it would have casually come up in conversation between your MIL and her new beau. It did not.

It takes a lot of work to avoid mentioning that you are spending your entire holiday with your very old and obviously accepted ex to a new partner.

I'm totally bummed this poor woman thinks the onus is on her to "get over it," and that her new guy is getting a pass like he's some sort of saintly human for implicitly letting his new girlfriend know there is a hierarchy in his relationship structure that apparently is Not To Be Fucked With. Given how he demonstrated the situation. Again, I think it took effort to spring it on her, it should have been cozy and easy if it was no big thing.

Please don't put the emotional work of this weird way of communicating on your MIL. He did something that made her feel badly.

He's not a keeper simply because he keeps his ex in the picture.

He's in DTMFA territory because he failed to accommodate his new partner's feelings. I'd be worried about the next emotional surprise this guy might spring on me, and the next after that.

He's awful and drama making. Dump him for being this old and not having enough life experience to anticipate an intimate partner's feelings.
posted by jbenben at 2:46 AM on December 27, 2015

I'm adapting a few words from a recent MeMail response to a fellow Metafite about an unrelated relationship question which applies here...

"ProTip: If you feel badly about yourself, insecure, not good enough, etc., it is 100% certain the person or situation is toxic and you should get far away as soon as possible. Block, delete, all that.

Socially successful people naturally know to do this, but sometimes we get so caught up, we forget to get ourselves away from harm.

If the boyfriend were a decent person, you might feel let down or disappointed by their omission, but you wouldn't feel like shit (such that your daughter in law is asking internet strangers how to reframe bad behavior to you.)

... Make your life awesome by only spending time and effort on people who make you feel good (especially in the beginning when you are first getting to know them.)"

For real. This is too much drama that was easily avoidable if it was no big deal. There is nothing to save here and MIL should not tie herself in knots over an entrenched dynamic that does not consider her well being in the least.
posted by jbenben at 3:08 AM on December 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

The best advice to give your MIL is that people in their sixties aren't "showroom new". Anyone she dates is going to have prior relationships, children, existing long-term friendships. In some ways that's a really good thing, because she can see how respectfully a potential partner treats people after the first blush of infatuation fades. Her new boyfriend is someone who has made co-parenting work for 2 decades - and not just handing off the kids and splitting holidays - maintaining relationships.

I'd be much more concerned if he tried to hide something. He didn't. She should ask her boyfriend to let her know about who will attend events.
posted by 26.2 at 12:47 PM on December 27, 2015

Thank you to all you lovely people! I was going to mark salvia's answer as the only best answer but that wouldn't have been fair (but it was still the best of the best - just sayin').

I, ahem, have to admit to having come into this question thinking that people of my parents generation should be over all that relationship insecurity bullshit, but reading your answers made me realize that I was doing MIL a disservice - new relationships can be stressful no matter what your age, and my initial response to her was perhaps a bit dismissive.

We met up with MIL again last night and she was still a bit stressed about it. Turns out that the ex normally comes along, but this year that wasn't the original plan, but it turned into the plan at short notice. MIL did know that they still hang out and do family things together generally, so this didn't come completely out of the blue, it was more the change in plans that threw her. This time I listened to her better, and she acknowledged that she wasn't really worried about the ex, but just wished it hadn't been a surprise. So she's going to talk to him about the "no surprises" side of things, as that was the real issue for her.

Thank you and happy new year to you all!
posted by finding.perdita at 12:05 AM on December 29, 2015 [8 favorites]

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