Family Feuds : Relationships: Hostility between new and ex-wives is on the rise, say experts, especially when kids are involved. Old rules just don't apply.


It should have been the perfect family vacation.

Anne, Phil and Phil's 7-year-old son were at a remote resort in Western Canada, the kind of place that shows up on postcards. There were horseback rides, swims in the lake, sunset strolls and giant cook-outs. There was a campfire, there were hayrides--and one day, there were 16 phone calls from Phil's ex-wife in Chicago.

"She said she was calling because she was worried about Timmy falling off a horse, drowning in the cold water or getting sunstroke," Anne said. "But it was really about control. Vicki just wasn't about to let go, to allow us to be a new family in our own right and to let us have a good time."

Vicki said one reason she and Phil broke up was because of disagreements over child-rearing philosophies. She notes that although she and Phil have joint custody of Timmy, she remains the child's custodial parent. What's more, Vicki said Anne, who is childless, is inexperienced in raising children. She complains that Anne is more interested in pleasing her husband of two years than in building a child-centered family unit.

"She just doesn't focus on Timmy," said Vicki. "She doesn't know how, and I think she doesn't really want to."

Anne and Vicki have found themselves mired in a relationship fraught with complications, but bound by no clear protocol. Biological relatives know that certain behavioral guidelines exist--even if they do not always adhere to them. Spouses, too, operate within a well-established social framework. Even in-laws are bound by social etiquette. But ex-wives and new wives are treading in uncharted territory.

Are they expected to be friends? Enemies? Inadvertent partners in some ongoing folie a trois?

According to the Stepfamily Assn. of America, 50% of all marriages in this country end in divorce, and every third marriage is a remarriage for at least one of the partners. That means more newlyweds are starting out in the company of an extremely present ex-spouse.

Family therapists say complaints about the complexities of stepfamilies are increasing steadily. But despite its growing prevalence, very little documentation exists about this new family structure. What seems clear, according to marriage/remarriage experts, is that problems between ex-spouses and new spouses are greater in families with children--and men are consistently less troubled by the situation than women.

"It's really only within the last 10 or 15 years that our society has completely accepted divorce. Before that, there was still a stigma," said Sandra S. Kahn, a psychotherapist in Northbrook, Ill. So the marital gavotte of the formerly wed marrying the formerly wed "is basically all new, and we haven't figured out the rules," said Kahn, the author of "Leaving Him Behind," a book about women who have trouble cutting their ties to ex-husbands.

"We have this new situation of remarriage, and dealing with ex-wives, ex-husbands, new children, his children, her children, his grandchildren, her grandchildren. We're trying to catch up as rapidly as we can with these new permutations," Kahn said. "But we're groping."

Certainly this was the case for Claire (no one interviewed wanted their real names used), a school psychologist in New York City. Claire's 18-year marriage to Ed, a businessman, dissolved amicably enough, the victim of what Claire called domestic attrition. Ed and Claire opted for a joint custody agreement in which their two teen-age daughters would reside with Claire, with Ed guaranteed ample visitation rights.

But two years later, when Ed married Marcy, Claire, who is in her mid-40s, found herself flooded with difficult emotions.

"The thing that bothers me the most is that she's 15 pounds thinner and 15 years younger than I am," Claire said.

"It's not that I want Ed back--I don't. But she's very intimidating. When she and Ed come to pick up the kids, I always feel like I have to get up early and clean so the house will look wonderful when she gets here."

The very absence of a word to describe the relationship between two people who have been married to the same spouse diminishes that relationship, said Constance W. Ahrons, a Santa Monica psychotherapist.

Ahrons said the terminology--not to mention the tapestry of these social patterns--is a far greater concern for women than men. "Men are very happy not to have a connection," said Ahrons, who is on the faculty at USC and is writing a book about new family structures. "But women expect to have some kind of connection."

Emily Visher, a psychologist in Lafayette, Calif.--and a stepmother--said tension between ex-wives and new wives surfaces almost exclusively in families where there are children.

"We have a very deep-seated belief in our society that children can only love two parents, that love is a kind of finite entity rather than an infinite capacity," said Visher, a co-founder of the Stepfamily Assn. of America and the author of six books about step-parenting.

The new wife is a threat, Visher said, "because the mother fears the loss of her children."

"Particularly for people who, because of past experiences, have a great need for control, this is very, very difficult."

The new wife, meanwhile, has problems of her own, said Visher, because "there's a matter of time in which you keep feeling like an outsider, and you feel insecure." At the same time, "somebody outside"--the former wife--"has a lot of influence on your household. That's difficult."

As part of the package of remarriage, "you're called upon to share your finances," said Visher. Although a new wife may have intellectually prepared herself for this aspect of matrimony, an abrasive relationship with the former wife may make financial transactions feel punitive.

From the outset of her marriage to Fred, Maria said she worked to maintain a neutral attitude toward Debbie, Fred's first wife. "I felt that if she came to my house or if I went to her house, we would all be pleasant, but basically I felt I had no role," said Maria, the manager of a bookstore near Denver.

"I wanted a hands-off position, but I let things get out of control," Maria said. "Pretty soon, she was sending the boys to visit us in rags, and I was buying them new clothes, on my own credit card. I was interacting in spite of myself."

Maria's marriage to Fred lasted 12 years. Within weeks of the divorce, he had taken a new wife, relegating Maria to the position of "ex."

"I never believed for one minute that we could possibly have a cordial relationship," Maria said of Fred's newest wife, Linda. "I looked on the whole thing as sort of like a root canal."

Many studies show that most divorced men will remarry within three years of the dissolution of their previous marriage.

"This means that when there are families with children, these people are endlessly crisscrossing with spouses and former spouses," said Jay Lebow, a marital and family therapist at the Chicago Center for Family Health.

Lebow loosely divides the new partnerships and their "co-relationships" into three categories.

"You have those who are engaged in a very active, hostile or, at best, cold war with their former spouses," Lebow said. In this "highly conflictive pattern," the new spouse often joins the conflict.

At the opposite extreme, said Lebow, are the spouses who remain connected around their children. In these cases, "the new wife poses a problem for the post-marital relationship of the old couple." Even though the first marriage has ended, it continues as a strong, positive relationship about children. Often the new spouses feel competitive and threatened by what they perceive to be excessive closeness on the part of the divorced spouses.

Least common, but by no means unheard of, said Lebow, are the cases in which all three people have positive relationships with each other.

Todd, a jeweler in San Francisco, said the only thing that gives him pause about the friendliness between his former and present wives is his fear that "they spend all their time talking about me." Lisa and Annette "have coffee together, they go to the movies," Todd said. "I guess I was just lucky to pick wives who get along."

But such examples are rare, Lebow said. "I know of very few instances where the parties involved are interested in warm, cuddly relationships. For one thing, that's regressive. It pulls the first wife back into a set of relationships that she doesn't particularly want to be in."

In a six-year study of 98 divorced-and-remarried families in Dane County, Wis., Ahrons said she found that relationships between ex-wives and new wives "tended to have very little middle ground. They were either very bad, or very good."

The one scenario that instantly spelled "very bad," Ahrons found, was one in which a husband initiated a divorce to marry an existing girlfriend.

"In that case, forget it," Ahrons said. "The rage in that relationship was just too great to overcome."

With no established etiquette for these evolving family affiliations, a more "systemic" line of thinking may be in order, according to Patricia Papernow, a psychologist in Cambridge, Mass. In particular, ex-wife and new wife alike may need to lay aside their own issues in the name of some semblance of family tranquillity.

"But it's also in their own interests," Papernow said. "I tell people to do the right thing for purely selfish reasons, because children fare so poorly when they are put in the kind of loyalty bind that results when wives or ex-wives are bad-mouthing each other. No matter what they say, if it's negative, they're going to look bad in the eyes of the children."

Jennifer, who was recently separated from her husband Jeff, said the stress of the extended family was part of what contributed to the breakup. "I had a marriage with a husband, two kids and an ex-wife," said Jennifer, a computer software specialist in Northern California.

"The kids constantly compared me to her, very unfavorably," she said. "No matter how good I was, blood lines mean everything. And I was out of the loop."

Moving beyond discord in these situations also means acknowledging what Papernow calls the "bruise theory" of family life, "meaning that all family life is bumpy, and stepfamily life is particularly bumpy. Everybody gets bruised at one time or another--and if you bang on an old bruise, it's especially painful."

Said Anne, who is still struggling to attain some kind of detente with Phil's first wife: "Any way you look at it, it's a less than perfect situation. You go into it in love, in a romantic thrall. But there's just no way everybody's going to be happy."

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