In blended family life, there are a lot of people who bring up the old times. I mean, everybody does it. YOU DO IT! Your partner, the stepkid(s), extended family, friends, the ex, and even strangers. Oh yes! Strangers get in on this too.
Several years into our relationship, my partner and I took our clothes in for tailoring at a place downtown I’d never been to. The seamstress looked at my partner and asked, “How is your wife?” He grimaced slightly. I was standing right next to him so I answered, “I’m doing well, thank you!”
The old times make appearances more frequently at the beginning of your relationship while people are still adapting to the change. But the old times never totally go away. And that’s okay.
Forecast: Cloudy With a Chance of Old Times
People try to keep the past alive because they are not finished with it. The seamstress didn’t know any better, but the rest of the crew? Well, things are more complex there. People say and do things based on where they uniquely are in their own lives, so take this next bit with a grain of salt… or a shot of tequila.
The EX. Depending on where your partner’s ex is in their own self-work, they may or may not be recovered from the breakup (as far in ancient history as it may be). She may still have non-romantic feelings towards your partner, which could include resentment, abandonment, love, anger, or confusion. Biomom might bring up the past as a way to feel connected with your partner or to feel relevant in this new family dynamic. She might bring up the past in front of you to exert dominance and remind you that “she was there first.” Don’t let this get to you.
Extended family and friends are a mixed bag. Relationships were established before you showed up and they don’t break overnight. And they shouldn’t break. But it can be uncomfortable when your partner’s ex comes up in conversation, or in person, when you are trying to establish new relationships with people. Some of these people will end up being your friends and family, others will not. This says more about where they are in their own development as emotionally available adults than it does about how likeable you are.
Your stepkid will have a few reasons to bring up the past. Good ones. Your stepkid has suffered a trauma. They’re trying to make sense of this new reality and tend to the cracks in their heart. None of this heartbreak is your fault, but you’re likely to be the brunt of their hurt sometimes. Or all the time, depending on their bio parents’ self-awareness, emotional maturity, and ability to co-parent.
The reason your stepkid brings their mom into a conversation and tells the same old stories, again and again, is because they want to make sure she isn’t forgotten. They want and maybe even need to hang on to the idea that their bio parents are still a family. That’s normal. They might also be attempting to establish a boundary with you. This is a way for your kid to communicate that they had a life before you, that they have a relationship with their mom, and that you aren’t going to change any of that. While it might feel like your kid is trying to exclude and torture you (because maybe they are trying to do that a little bit) remember that their brains aren’t fully developed and this is one of the few rudimentary social/emotional tools they have in their arsenal to protect themselves. If you can stand it, let their stories be heard, you might learn something about your family.
Your partner should be comfortable talking to you about their past, and you should be able to tolerate it. And vice versa. Remember, non-blended family partners have exes too. Of course, it’s different for stepmoms when dealing with an ex because by design, she’s regularly in the picture and you give her money. But we can put a positive spin on this setup. You get an opportunity – over and over again – to build confidence in your relationship and in yourself.
So, What Do You Do in the Moment When Old Times Stuff Happens?
Smile and nod? Scream? Run? All tempting options, but here’s the best one: listen. Yikes. I know. So how does it look in action?
When my stepdaughter starts in about how she, my partner, and my partner’s ex used to make pork chops for dinner, or that that he got those pyjamas for Christmas in 2009, or that they went to Hawaii for mom’s birthday seven years ago, or that the neighbor still hoards cats, I let her go for it.
Irksome as it can be to listen to old times stuff about my partner, his ex, their kid, and their old life together, it’s a part of who he is and what brought him to me. Seen from a different perspective, each of these stories is a celebration in our story because they are part of him.
Counterbalancing the Old Times Stuff
What are we to do with this old times stuff?
Make new memories. As time goes on you will create new memories with your blended family. For better or worse, there will be new stories that start with “remember when…” and it will include you! That’s right. Before you know it, your times become the old times.
Allow people to be where they are in the breakup. It’s weird to accommodate your partner’s old relationship while you’re in a current, fully-established relationship with them now #stepparentlife. It’s reasonable to want people (ex, friends, fam, kids) to hurry up and get with the program (even five years down the road) and acknowledge YOUR relationship, but some people might not be able to right now. Or ever. Just let this go. Let people realize how wonderful you are in their own time without forcing it. But also anticipate that they may never come around. Unhealed people will cling to the past because nostalgia feels good and makes everything look better than it actually was. And that’s okay.
Examine why this stuff hurts. It can be pretty painful for stepmoms to make this much space for their partner’s baggage, their stepkids’ needs, and biomoms’ emotional requests (spoken or acted out). It hurts because you share your partner with someone else. With other people. With other times. With things, you weren’t a part of. It’s grief and it’s history and it’s memories – good and bad. And none of it is yours. Like many dynamics in stepmotherhood, this can feel isolating.
It’s hard because your partner’s former relationship is long, gone history. But it’s kept on life support for years after death because some people can’t pull the plug, accept things have ended, and move forward. And you’re there to witness this emotional mess. You witness an actively broken relationship that belongs to the person you love, while simultaneously nurturing a living, breathing, healthy relationship with that same person. It’s almost like a double life. Not only are you a stepmom, but you’re also practically ready to join the CIA. This all sounds pretty heavy, but it comes with EVERY type of relationship romantic or otherwise, so embrace it.
It’s Going to be Okay
We all bring baggage to the game, now don’t we? Sometimes its grief, addiction, student debt, terrible tattoos, the absence of cooking skills, or a kid and an ex. But our histories still deserve to see the light of day, complicated as they may be.
Make space for your partner’s memories. Make space for their past. And do the same for your memories and your past. You can talk about your ex-partners with your stepkid and partner. Not combatively, but as a means to share that you’re a human with old times stuff too. This doesn’t divide us. It demonstrates that life and relationships are fluid and it helps normalize the blended family design. The patchwork of each of these things makes up who you are as individuals and as a couple. These are the things that ultimately brought you two together. So cheers to that!
Taryn is the stepmom behind Stepmom Social Club, an irreverent blog that puts one thing above all else: the empowerment of stepmoms. Because SSC prefers laughter over tears, all stepmothering content is served with inspiration, comedy, and a side of expletives. Pour yourself a drink and join the conversation on stepmomsocialclub.com, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.