Today’s topic is a juicy one: blended families, exes, and the drama that can come from those interchanges. Today’s question came about from sitting next to this lovely woman on the plane. She and her husband were sitting next to me. Her name is Debbie. She complained that her husband never stands up for her and never defends her. I asked, “Well, can you tell me what you mean by that?”
And she told me the following story: “Frank and his ex-wife have a few children. I happened to be on the phone talking to their son’s girlfriend and making some plans. While we were doing that, I saw his ex-wife driving up the driveway. She hasn’t told us she’s coming; she’s completely unannounced. While I’m on the phone with their son’s ex-girlfriend, I say, ‘Oh my God, she’s here. But I’m not ready for this. I wish she would let us know before she came over.’ Now I’ve been married to Frank for 35 years. So this isn’t new; it’s just that the drama continues. After I hang up the phone, I go downstairs and I’m very polite to her. We have a cordial exchange, and then she leaves.
“I knew she didn’t just drop by, because you have to go in a subdivision, around a cul de sac, and through the back, in order to get to our house. You don’t just stop by. We’re not on a main road.”
At this point, I can start to feel all the energy behind this, all the history.
Debbie goes on to say, “A few months later, we run into Frank’s ex-wife at a formal dinner party. I think everything’s okay, so I lean in to give her a kiss on the cheek, our usual greeting. And she physically pushes me away. Now, I’m so surprised, but I act like nothing is wrong, because we’re in a public setting. Then his ex-wife proceeds to say things like, ‘His kids can’t stand you. I don’t know why you try to talk to them. When you’re not around, they tell me how much they can’t stand you.’ She’s saying all of this in the middle of this formal dinner setting with other people around!
Now, Frank was standing next to Debbie while his ex-wife was saying all this. And he was quiet. So Debbie says to me, “When she is so rude and she publicly humiliates me, how dare he just stand next to me and not defend me!” She’s basically asking me to tell her husband to defend her.
This is what I said to her first. “I want to acknowledge how uncomfortable that situation was and how painful it must have been to feel publicly humiliated. And on top of that, to feel like the only person who actually does have a powerful connection with the ex-wife is your husband.”
Frank was such a sweet man and genuinely curious. He wanted to know, “Did I do something wrong? Because, if there was something I should have done, could you please tell me?” I told Frank I’d talk to him in a moment but I wanted to first focus on Debbie and what had happened.
I asked her, “Where do you think this initially went wrong?”
“Well, when his ex-wife just showed up unannounced.”
“Okay, have you ever made any agreements, together, you and your husband, with his ex-wife, about when to come over, such as that you’d like advance notice and how much? Have you made any rules, or agreements, around what works for both of you?”
They both shook their head no.
So I said, “The first problem is that you have a set of agreements in your head that you’re expecting somebody else to just know.”
“But she’s so rude,” Debbie said. “She should know that it’s uncomfortable for me when she comes around.”
“I hear how painful it is, and you might want to consider that it might be uncomfortable for her too—and she might be trying. She might be trying and feels like she’s being brave when to you it comes across as rude or inconsiderate and invading your privacy. The second question is, how do you think she found out about what’s happening?”
“Well, I was talking to her son’s girlfriend. But I didn’t mean to tell her how I felt. It just kind of came out of me.”
“Okay, so it came out of you, and then what did you do next?”
“Well, I went downstairs and just acted like everything was normal.”
“That might be where the disconnect is because you went downstairs and didn’t have an honest conversation with her. When she left and heard about your conversation through her son’s girlfriend or her son, she may have felt a betrayal or violation. Could you see how that might be true?”
“Yeah, definitely. But she didn’t have to humiliate me.”
“No, she didn’t. But most people sit on uncomfortable feelings until they explode like a volcano. If you have an uncomfortable experience or uncomfortable emotions, most people push them down like a beach ball under water and hold it there. You can only hold that down so long before lactic acid builds up in your arms, and the beach ball comes flying up. That may be what happened. I am going to have to say that this isn’t your husband’s issue to defend you. Because, the truth is, in the middle of a dinner party, with his ex-wife across from him and his current wife next to him, and the unknown factor of your son’s girlfriend having relayed information, that’s a pretty sticky situation. And I’m pretty sure Frank was not going to find a way out.
“So here’s how you could better handle a situation like this. When you came downstairs, you would say, ‘Hey, I just noticed I was surprised when you stopped by. I was on the phone with your son’s girlfriend, and my surprise came out a little awkwardly. I want to let you know that I’m surprised when you show up unannounced and I feel our exchange is better and stronger when we plan our time together.’ Or if you don’t have the relationship to make that happen, then you ask your husband to join you for a conversation on how you will make an agreement with the ex-wife. Then you can tell the truth and she hears it from you and your husband, rather than hearing it from a third party — because that always upsets people.”
Modern families are complex. But you can always go back to the basics. Talking to people and telling them the truth can eliminate so much pain down the line. If you’ve found that someone has had a tough interaction with you and you thought it was inappropriate, follow the crumbs backwards. Connect the dots to how you might have been able to show up differently in an earlier situation in order to change the outcome.
Thank you for watching. This is Dr. Neha on TalkRx from Bali. Please leave a message on the blog below or send me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha.
To reclaiming and reframing your relationships,