It’s time to stop blaming the ex for everything.
I’ve never loved Valentine’s Day, but I’ve definitely hated it. Especially during the first few years of my marriage.
When my stepsons were young, our custody schedule was week on/week off. But every February 14th, the kids ended up with us. My husband and his ex were very flexible with the schedule, and he rarely said no to a change unless he absolutely had to. Year after year, he said yes to having them on Valentine’s Day. I told him many times that I didn’t care about celebrating the holiday, and that was absolutely true, yet I found myself annoyed. And eventually enraged.
My first instinct was to be mad at his ex for hijacking the holiday. After all, she didn’t know I was indifferent to Valentine’s Day. But in hindsight, I realize it wasn’t her fault. If you’re a second spouse who’s feeling wronged by the ex, whether on Valentine’s or any other day of the year, I urge you to step back and take stock. After 15 years as a second wife, this is what I’ve learned:
Stop blaming the ex. Your problem is most likely between you and your partner.
My husband’s approach to co-parenting was – and still is — to keep things as peaceful as possible. It’s what’s best for the boys and his own mental health. But early in our marriage, I felt that keeping the peace with his ex [read: keeping her happy] was more important to him than keeping me happy. And not just when it came to Valentine’s Day. Anytime he agreed to a schedule change that was less than 100% convenient for us, I felt he was choosing her over me. And what’s more, he didn’t even know I was mad about it.
Remember, your partner can’t read your mind.
In my husband’s defense, it never occurred to him that I would mind having the kids on Valentine’s Day because he knew I didn’t care about celebrating the holiday. It was my responsibility to communicate my feelings to him. Second spouses: do not assume your partner can read your mind. And don’t expect them to understand why you’re upset when you’re struggling to understand it yourself.
Identify the real issue. What’s really upsetting you?
As a TV drama writer, I’m exceptional at constructing arguments that seem to be about one thing, then turn out to be about a much bigger issue. You might think that would translate into me being more self-aware in my real-life arguments. Alas, it does not. It still takes me several hours (or years) of yelling at my husband to identify my problem.
In the case of Valentine’s Day, it wasn’t about the holiday. It was about the general lack of control I had regarding our schedule. I needed my husband to simply consult with me before agreeing to a schedule change, and I needed to tell him that. Most importantly, I needed to accept his methods of managing his co-parenting relationship with his ex.
Realize your partner is not you and won’t always deal with their ex the way you want them to.
My biggest frustration with my husband is that he doesn’t handle co-parenting conflicts the way I would. He handles them diplomatically, which the reason we have such a functional blended family, and the reason why he and I are still married. It’s never been my instinct to avoid conflict. Instead, I loudly point out the wrongs of the world and then stand there and wait for the person I’m yelling at to change. I absolutely expect this method to start working one day soon. In the meantime, I’m learning to appreciate my husband’s less confrontational method.
My advice to all second spouses is to respect how your partner chooses to communicate with their ex. Focus on your relationship with your spouse instead of their relationship with their co-parent.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.