I’ve been with my husband for seven years, and I recently noticed that I’d been describing those years as “hell.” “The hell we’ve endured.” “The hellish stress.” “The years of hell she’s put us through…” Because even though my marriage to my amazing husband has been wonderful, it was often overshadowed by my hellish experience with his ex-wife.
The stress with my husband’s ex-wife was present from the beginning and I was completely unprepared for what I encountered. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doomed from the start and destined for never-ending conflict with a woman I had never met.
I entered the relationship with my husband with positive preconceived notions of his ex based on what I had seen growing up in my own family; My mom and stepmom getting along fabulously. So my confusion began early on when I expected her to treat me neutrally or better – not like the enemy. It was as if, before ever meeting me, her mind created this horrible person and she placed that image, like a mask, onto me. Years later it would become obvious that nothing I could ever do or say would change her image of me.
Protect yourself at all costs
Looking back, the one thing I wish I would have done differently was completely deny her access to me. I should have refused all contact with her, but I kept thinking of a million different reasons to leave myself open. I’d get a glimpse of normalcy and use that to hold out hope for the future. I kept thinking that eventually she’d understand me, she just needed time. That she’d see me for who I am instead of the person she believed me to be. I tried to be compassionate and patient.
I tried explaining myself, correcting her misperceptions, etc… But all that did was keep her engaged and allow her to keep dumping her aggression onto me. I would block her from email periodically, but never consistently. And this was my mistake – allowing her back in over and over again.
When someone is aggressive towards you and is completely stuck in their own reality with no willingness or ability to see you in any other light, the only way to protect yourself is to stop giving them access to you. But so often we’re unwilling to take action that will actually keep us safe.
I don’t really believe in regrets – and so much good has come from this experience – but if I could go back to 2008 I would have stopped having contact with her after her first hostile email. Granted, there was no way I could have known what I was in store for. I just couldn’t have imagined such persistent and skewed perceptions existed in that manner.
So how do you know when you should cut off contact? Check in with your body. Assault on your psyche will take its toll. Emotional abuse is traumatic. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real and can occur after being exposed to continued harassment. When an email or a text would give me anxiety for days, that was a huge red flag that something was very wrong. When the simple sound of a text message notification caused my heart to skip a beat, that was my cue that I should have been protecting myself better. Our bodies aren’t meant to be on high alert for extended periods of time.
You might think it’s impossible to block contact with someone completely when you share custody and your husband counts on your help, but it’s not. My husband had 50/50 custody, with the boys going back and forth almost every other day. But if I could have seen the future, I would have lovingly told my husband he needed to figure out how to make this work without me ever having contact with his ex. I’d be glad to drive them and help out, but in no way will I have anything to do with her. And he would have. You have to let the main players take responsibility for what’s theirs while you keep your boundaries intact. Otherwise, years down the road, you and your family will suffer.
I was 5 years into stepfamily life when me, my husband and stepkids moved 3000 miles away from his ex and I was finally able to get some emotional distance. I didn’t have to worry about seeing her car or running into her at the grocery store. I finally blocked her completely when the iPhone made it simple and complete: Block all numbers and email with one button.
Ten months later, although 3000 miles away, I was still feeling the effects of her assault on me. I couldn’t hear her name without feeling like I had just been punched in the gut. I found myself angrier than ever at her treatment of me over the last six years. My husband didn’t quite understand why I was still so upset when things were currently good. The ex is far away and I have no contact with her. Why couldn’t I relax and be happy? I was stuck. I realized if I can’t let go of the anger and injustice when I’m 3000 miles away and fully protected – I’ve got a problem. Some healing from the trauma needed to happen.
I was lucky enough to find a retreat center within 45 minutes of my house and very reasonably priced. So I signed up for a “healing retreat”, which included 4 days of solitude for self-reflection and daily 90-minute sessions with a counselor.
There’s something very healing about stepping away from your usual environment and taking the opportunity to see things in a new light. Getting away from your home is crucial, because you’re removed from the usual triggers. You have a blank slate and time to reflect without the stress of everyday life. You’re not having to worry or provide for anyone but yourself. You can experience a sense of calm that you just can’t get at home. The bottom line is it’s extremely difficult to heal while in the environment that is causing the trauma.
The third morning of my retreat I was enjoying my coffee and reflecting on something the counselor and I had discussed – that you can’t experience the light without the dark. And it hit me: The darkness is behind me. The darkness of the past six years is over and I’m living in the light. Right now, my life is 100% awesome. I knew that I would never again allow my husband’s ex access to me and that from here on out I would be safe. So it was time for me to let go of anything I was holding onto from the past. After a 20-minute cathartic cry, I was free from the anger, resentments and pain I had been holding onto. I felt light, peaceful and open.
Now I can hear her name or talk about her without the emotional intensity I felt for so many years. I don’t feel it in my body anymore. She’s just another person. One that I won’t welcome into my home or share another family dinner with, but also one whose name or voice no longer has any physical or emotional effect on me.
You’re probably thinking that you can’t achieve this level of healing because you’re still in the thick of it. And you’d be right. As far as I can tell, you can’t heal a trauma as long as it’s ongoing. But you can find strategies and boundaries that work to minimize its effects on you. My number one recommendation is to cut all ties. Take the necessary steps to completely protect yourself from the offending behavior. If you’re not willing to do that then find other alternatives that protect you to the best of the their ability.
How did we get here?
We spend every day just trying to survive the stress, that we don’t take an inventory of what it’s really doing to our systems. Are we more depressed? Short tempered? Less fun to be around? We don’t acknowledge the seriousness of what’s happening to us. Maybe because it’s like any change that occurs over time, you can’t really see it until you wake up one day and find yourself miserable more often than not. We justify, call her crazy or dysfunctional, but we never really open our eyes to the seriousness of the effects of being treated so disrespectfully. We’re also afraid to stand up and say no because that will make things more difficult on our partners or the kids. But we have every right to protect our well-being and we owe it to ourselves and our families to do so.
I eventually turned this experience into something positive by becoming a certified stepfamily coach and helping other stepmoms through their difficult times. So if nothing else, at least the pain of this experience was not wasted on me.
It’s not her job to care about me
Before I was freed from my anger, I was in the midst of another frustrated thought wondering how it is that she has never apologized to me or owned up to her behavior, when another realization hit me: it wasn’t actually her job to care about my feelings or treat me respectfully. Her job isn’t to ensure that I’m comfortable. That’s MY job. Her job is to take care of herself, which is exactly what she doing. She was doing what she needed to make herself feel better. And I should have been doing the same. It was my job to make sure that I was comfortable and safe by being inaccessible to her. A job I’m finally taking seriously.
Jenna Korf is a Certified Stepfamily Foundation coach, an RCI Certified Relationship coach and co-author of the book, “Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict.” She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post and has been featured as a stepfamily expert on CNN.com, parenting.com and care.com. Jenna is also a Registered Nurse, a stepmom and a stepchild. To read more from Jenna or for one-on-one coaching visit her at StepmomHelp.com.