Stages of the STEPWIFE Relationship
As with any relationship, stepwives go through several stages
or levels of development. There is no specific time frame and
one does not necessarily have to pass through each level or
demonstrate every behavior. We have, however, observed a very
interesting sequence of events and behaviors that usually occur
as women transcend from one stage to another.
One - "If I Can't See It, It Doesn't Exist"
The Ex-wife - She is just beginning to hear rumors of
her ex going out with a "steady" girlfriend through common friends,
family, or perhaps her children. While she has some concerns,
she goes about her life in denial regarding the possibility
of another woman entering into her world.
The Stepmom - She is dating a man that appears to be
" the one." She may hear about or even meet his children and
starts to fantasize about helping him raise them. The stepmom
starts getting more and more information about the ex-wife through
the Man in the Middle.
The Stepwife Relationship - There is little contact between
the stepwives at this time because the ex-husband's relationship
with his "girlfiend" is so new. The Man in the Middle doesn't
want his ex-wife to interfere with this new, possibly long term
relationship. He's happy, yet cautious.
Level Two - "It's Time to Face the Music"
The Ex-wife - She finds out the girlfriend is now the
Man in the Middle's fiance. Her feelings are mixed: fear, curiosity
(especially if she hasn't met her), insecurity, shock, and anger.
Her natural maternal instincts start revving up to protect her
children from this possible enemy. Even if she has thoughts
of being nice to the soon to be stepmom, they are superceeded
by her feelings of terror about this woman taking her place.
The Stepmom - She is absolutely ecstatic about finding
the man of her dreams. Whether it is a second marriage or not,
she has now found a partner in life. Her thoughts are dominated
by plans for her wedding and how she will fulfill her role as
wife and stepmom. While she has heard stories about the ex-wife,
she feels she can overcome just about any problem. Her EXPECTATIONS
may not be REALISTIC regarding her ability to befriend the ex-wife.
The Stepwife relationship - The stepwives usually meet
each other at this time, even if the encounter is brief. Perhaps
the almost stepmom will be in the car when the Man in the Middle
picks up the children, or she will be at their home when the
ex-wife picks them up. There will be a lot of visual "checking
out" by both stepwives. The ex-wife may experience fears of
looking older, and to an even greater extent, have increasing
worries of being replaced by this other woman. The stepmom is
somewhat cautious, but as a rule allows the Man in the Middle
to call most of the shots and do most of the communication with
Level Three - "The Pre-war Tango"
The Ex-wife - With her ex-husband now married, she now
must share her children with another "mother." Even if her intentions
are good regarding her children's stepmother, she is guarded
and will start to control the situation if she feels that she
is not made privy to information regarding her children, or
if she feels threatened. Being slightly threatened can mean
many things; talked to in a particular tone of voice or looked
at in a particular way. Of course, there are some ex-wives who
behave in an overly controlling manner whether provoked by the
stepmother or not. She will give the stepmom one chance to be
civil. If she fails, it's all out war!
The Stepmom - She still may have every intention of getting
along, but is leery of what she has heard regarding the ex-wife.
She's willing to be civil, but her guard is naturally up as
well. She believes she can "win over" the ex-wife and gain her
approval. Of course there are some stepmoms that move in too
fast. They don't give the ex-wife an opportunity to get used
to their involvement in the children's lives, and they are unaware
that their "participation" in the children's lives is extremely
threatening to the mother.
The Stepwife relationship - At this stage, there is more
contact between the stepwives. If the Man in the Middle has
given the stepmother free rein regarding parental duties, these
women will interact more. If he plays a more active role in
parenting, the contact will remain minimal between the two women.
Whether or not the stepmom moves in too fast, she will just
naturally be a threatening force to the ex-wife
Level Four - "Let the Games Begin"
The Ex-wife - She's tried to be nice and guess what?
The stepmom flunked the test. Whether the stepmother actually
said something hurtful to her, looked at her wrong, was late
in picking up her children, or had lunch with "her" old friend,
the ex-wife is angry and upset. As she becomes more fearful
that her children will love their stepmom more than her, anger,
depression and feelings of being out of control take over. Before
this new woman appeared, she was able to have more influence
over her ex-husband's decisions. Now he's listening to someone
else and she feels left out in the cold. This tenuous feeling
can manifest itself by the ex-wife attempting to exert even
more control over the stepmother.
The Stepmom - She's now going into this relationship
in 5th gear. She's happy, she's mothering, and she's feeling
justified about her participation as a stepmother. The ex-wife
may feel the stepmother has no boundaries whether it's true
or not. At the same time, the stepmom is also becoming more
irritated with the ex-wife's behavior, mainly because she does
not understand that the ex-wife is feeling threatened and replaced.
She is angry because the ex-wife doesn't appreciate her enthusiasm
or her love for the children. The stepmother may be complaining
more and more to the Man in the Middle. The part he plays in
this conflict will have a direct affect on the stepwife relationship.
The Stepwife relationship - The battle is raging. The
ex-wife's self-fulfilling prophecy that the wicked stepmother
is alive and well and taking over her role as mother has come
to be. The ex-wife's perception is that the stepmother appears
to be everywhere. She is feeling threatened and despondent.
As a result, she may attempt to control the situation by badmouthing
and making additional demands on the Man in the Middle and her
stepwife. The stepmother, on the other hand, feels like the
evil ex-wife is invading her space. Her enthusiasm is now turning
into "I'll show you" energy. She continues invading the ex-wife's
space and badmouths the ex-wife in front of her husband and
the children. She feels she has the right to raise these children
her way as long as she was "put" into the role of their caretaker.
Now the stepmother's marriage is strained.
Level 5 "Full Scale War"
The Ex-wife - The war has escalated. If the ex-wife is
not able to ACKNOWLEDGE the importance of PUTting THE KIDS FIRST,
she will probably be seeing her ex and stepwife in court. The
ex-wife has trouble getting past her rage and hurt and remains
a victim. She feels her only hope of keeping her kids on her
side is through obtaining more custody, financial support, and
turning them against the perceived "bad guys." COMMUNICATION
with the stepmom and Man in the Middle is basically through
a third party. The children are truly prisoners of war.
The Stepmom - Whether or not she has support from the
Man in the Middle, she is disgusted, exhausted and having thoughts
of "getting out of this mess." This was not part of the fantasy.
She, too, becomes a victim, and is unable to see how she has
participated in creating conflict in the stepwife relationship.
The Stepwife relationship - We are back to little or
no COMMUNICATION. Both women are hurt and misunderstood. If
for a split second, either is thinking about being nice, it
quickly disappears as soon as there is an exchange of words
or negative reaction…perceived or real. Both women are feeling
hopeless and stuck, as though there is no resolution to their
It is easy to see how volatile the stepwife relationship can
be. Without a clear cut plan for dealing with the conflicts,
it is almost certain the stepwives will reach a point of no
return resulting in yet, another failed marriage.
Remember: It doesn't matter what level of the developmental
stage you are engaged in at this time. By practicing and committing
yourself to a "different" relationship with your stepwife, you
have already begun the process of positive change.