Ladies, think back to middle-school or high-school… Do you remember that one girl who seemed to hate your guts? Who hardly knew you but always said horrible, nasty things about you behind your back, making your mutual friends uncomfortable and those unacquainted with you desiring to remain so? Remember how, even though you KNEW that she didn’t really know you and even though you KNEW that what she was saying wasn’t true, it still hurt like the dickens?
And then remember how you thought that when you grew up it would all be over?
Haha. Me, too.
And then I moved in with James and found myself squarely caught in the crosshairs of the ex-wife who left him 6 years ago and has been trying to get him back ever since.
James’ ex-wife, whom I’ll call “Carnie”*, is a 42-year-old who spent her youth trading on, as James likes to put it, “her boobs and her smile.” And he’s not exaggerating. Despite being very intelligent, she has leveraged her body and her willingness to share it her whole adult life. She is a cruel, vindictive, conniving, manipulative partygirl who has spent considerable time and energy wrapping men around her fingers and screaming at the top of her lungs about how victimized she is. She has difficulty holding a job, but no difficulty spending money (in 5 years she helped the economy to the tune of more than $500,000). She alternately sends James texts telling him what a horrendous father he is, and how much she wishes they were still together. Therapists who have weighed in on the situation suspect that Carnie is either a schizoid or borderline personality, or, at the very least, suffering from bi-polar disorder. Regardless, she is a font of negative energy and the manifestation of all that is an embarrassment to our gender. And she’s now a permanent part of my life.
Now, before you assume that I am simply conveniently trashing the ex-wife who is not here to defend herself, let me say this: my regular readers know that I rarely attack other women. Be they my ex-husband’s girlfriends or my boyfriends’ ex-wives or the friends who dropped me like a hot potato because I left my husband, I generally make it a rule not to bash other women. My theory is that women do enough self-degrading that we don’t need it from each other, too. So I choose to assume that nearly all women are truly doing their best and learning their own lessons and making their own best choices.
I also learned very, very early in my post-divorce dating cycle, not to believe most of what men say about their ex-wives (Sorry, guys, but it’s true.). I sat through too many dates listening to how awful and demanding and needy and selfish these former wives were, only to discover, by the second date, that for the most part I actually agreed with the former wife and couldn’t wait to put the guy in my rear-view mirror. So, I don’t simply accept James’ version of events with Carnie, and I never did. Over the last nearly 3 years, I stood back and observed. I watched her behaviors and his reactions. I drew my own conclusions, some of which differed from his in details. But ultimately I had to agree with his overall assessment of her: She’s a Bitch, and yes, that’s a capital B.
The clincher for me was when their son (who was 11-years-old at the time) started expressing an interest to live full-time with his father. Carnie’s method of squashing that discussion? To tell her sensitive 11-year-old that she had cancer, was possibly dying, and needed him to stay with her. The distraught boy went to school and confided in officials there, who called James, who frantically called Carnie, only to be told, “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t have cancer and I never said I did. He’s lying.” To this day, their son earnestly stands by his story and insists his fear for her life was real. And we believe him.
I wish I could say that this kind of How-To-Really-Fuck-Up-Your-Kids method of parenting is rare for her, but it’s sadly not. She does not hesitate to openly use the children to manipulate James. Three of the 4 are generally too young to understand that they’re being pawned in this fashion, and the eldest has begun distancing herself from the chaos, but Carnie is undeterred. She soldiers on – telling the children terrible, untrue things about their father and testing their loyalty to her at every turn.
Some have suggested to me that, since I am now filling something like the step-mother role to the children, that her behavior will make it all the easier for me to “win them over.” But I don’t see it this way. I think her behavior, and the impacts of it on the children, is heartbreaking. I am not, nor will I ever be, in any kind of competition with their mother. I simply want them to be healthy and happy and well-adjusted. If, alongside that, we can be something special to each other, then great. But my designation in their life is not primary over their general mental health and well-being. I genuinely love James’ children, so I want them to be content, productive, and in love with life, regardless of what they think of me. And fortunately, they have enough healthy, grounded people surrounding them that they are remarkably stable and emotionally solid, despite their mother’s chaos and instability.
Until recently, I was a silent observer on the sidelines of the drama Carnie plays out with James and the kids. She knew about me, of course, but apparently deemed me too unimportant to devote any time to me. But that changed when James and I moved in together, permanently thwarting her long-term goal of reuniting her family. I feel fairly certain in my gut that, until now, she truly believed that James was still, somewhere deep down, in love with her and that’s why he’d only casually dated in the years since their divorce. As recently as March, Carnie was sending him sweet texts telling him that she was sorry that they’d “lost each other.” It boggles my mind that she has failed to realize that the actual reason he hadn’t gotten close to anyone was because he was terrified of a repeat of his marriage to her. She so damaged his ability to trust and be close to someone that he’d resigned himself to a life with only superficial romantic relationships. He wasn’t waiting for her; he was avoiding a repeat of her.
James and I both knew that once Carnie realized how serious we were, she’d get upset, and she hasn’t disappointed. I was prepared to be tolerant of her jealousy and likely outbursts. I was ready to indulge her tantrums and ignore her jibes. I was awaiting the inevitable maelstrom of insults.
But then she went after my kids. And that I was not prepared for. Nor willing to tolerate with alacrity.
In the last few weeks, we’ve received some disturbing phone calls from James’ kids. The first was from “Jay,” James’ 13-year-old son, telling his dad that his mom had been “saying bad things” about me and my daughters. Jay is a good kid, with a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was obviously dismayed that his mom was attacking people that he likes and that his dad loves. Then James’ middle daughter, “Chelsea,” got on the phone and confirmed Jay’s story. Each time we’ve heard from Jay since, he reports that the nastiness has escalated, making him angry and frustrated with this mom. James has handled the situation well. He talked to the kids about how their mom had never met me or my girls, and how that kind of name-calling is more appropriate on elementary school playgrounds than out of the mouths of adults. He has reassured them that they didn’t have to agree with their mom. And then he’s gotten off the phone and laughed at her childishness.
I wish I could.
Honestly, I didn’t have much respect for her previously, and I’ve always known that she’s not a woman I’d have chosen for a friend, but now I’m not sure I could even be civil to Carnie. It was bad enough to hear the nasty things she was saying about me, although, truth be told, she was clearly struggling to find a good put-down, and I took some small gratification in that fact. But when she started being snide and snarky and rotten to my innocent daughters, any sympathy or patience I had for her burned up in the rage that blinded me. The things she said about my girls were not only unkind and unfair, they were untrue.
I know I should dismiss Carnie’s meanness the way James does, but I’m struggling with it. The power of suggestion is strong, and sometimes people’s opinions color our own despite our recognition of their immaturity or mean-spiritedness or ignorance. For instance, consider this example: Let’s say someone that you love comments to you that someone else you love is “dumb.” Initially, you will likely discard that comment as unkind and untrue, but the seed is planted. And the next time the person labeled as “dumb” says or does something that suggests less-than-Einsteinian intelligence, the little voice in your head might just pipe up and wonder…. And before you know it, the evidence of this person’s “dumbness” is piling up and your opinion of him or her is shifting, ever so subtly. As cogent, thoughtful adults, we like to think that we are immune to this kind of negative influence, but multiple social science studies have supported what we already know to be true: a strong suggestion, when delivered from a beloved or trusted source, is indeed powerful. And I would imagine (although I haven’t seen such research) that children are even more susceptible. So, I worry that Carnie’s flippant meanness could ultimately achieve it’s desired result – an alienation of her children from me and mine.
Only time will tell, of course, and so I must be patient. I will simply continue being exactly who I am and encourage my girls to do the same. Overall, I have a history of winning people over as they get to know me, so I am hopeful that Carnie’s assaults will not completely undermine what her children have learned and will continue to see of me and my girls. James and I want very much to find a way to create a loving, cohesive family out of our various pieces, and for Carnie to thwart that would be unbelievably frustrating, sad, and completely in character for her.
I know that I am not alone on this part of the post-divorce journey, but sometimes it really feels that way. I don’t have any friends or acquaintances in this position at the moment, and I’ve given some thought to joining a step-parents’ group in order to find some understanding and support. I definitely don’t want to allow Carnie’s fierce negativity to infect me with bitterness; that alone could undermine the small dream I have for my fledgling family.
And so we will just keep loving, and being there, and waiting and seeing. But that’s pretty much life in a nutshell, isn’t it?
**Blogger’s Note: I have a general “rule” on my blog to name those individuals I deem guilty of misbehavior (it’s my blog, so I’m judge and jury…), but out of love and respect for James’ children, I’ve granted their mother a pseudonym. Reluctantly.