Developmental 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.

Level 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 his ex-wife.

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 situation.

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.

The CoMamas are not licensed psychologists. Dr. Krausz is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist in California and a licensed psychologist in Texas. CoMamas workshops, emails, consultations and/or coaching is not intended to replace traditional therapy, but is based on the program developed by the CoMamas and Dr. Krausz and the book, STEPWIVES.

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