In emails I receive with questions about dating single dads, what most have in common is a general, but often specific, frustration over his ex. In other words, coping with the fear and challenges of that ever ticking time bomb between former spouses. Not all divorces are created equal. There are some divorces, albeit rare, that appear to support the ancient myth of couples being better friends than lovers. But for the rest of us, divorce leaves a riff in hearts and minds no amount of time and space may ever mend.
Talking about an ex is therapeutic, and nearly unavoidable. It was the topic of conversation on every first date after my divorce. I couldn’t help it. Besides, what better way to get to know someone than talking ad nauseam about my former wife, our divorce, her affair, and the lengths she often went continuing to make my life unbearable. On top of my desperate search for validation and easy conversation fodder, this worked wonders in making me out to be the innocent and wounded dove whose wings had been broken by a violent and evil wind.
I was a modern day snake oil salesman intent on making each woman think I was righteous and guiltless. (Note to anyone taking someone who is divorced; if that person takes no responsibility for why their marriage ended and perpetually throws the ex under the nearest bus, run, quickly.)
I began learning about the Queen’s ex-husband on our first date. She shared what led to their break up, visitation schedules, what kind of father he was and had become, her frustrations co-parenting their kids, and what type of relationship he and she now had after their marriage was over. In the quid pro quo spirit of dating, I was obliged to do the same, but with edits. If I wanted to reach the second date I had to downplay some of the uglier problems between my ex and myself. I couldn’t come right out and discuss all the real reasons our marriage was over, or go into gritty detail about the nuclear blow ups we still had on a regular basis, or that I couldn’t be in the same room with her for more than three minutes without the urge to commit capital crime. Doing so would have been instant lights out. I had to ease my way into those dark corners.
As divorced parents, we minimize, or altogether avoid, as long as possible, the most troublesome aspects of the relationship with our ex’s, and we know why – should this new relationship have a future, our problems with the ex will become their problems with the ex. So we buy ourselves enough time that when the awful truth is revealed, we pray they’re in too deep to escape. We hide the peeling paint and broken windows until they’ve fallen in love with the view.
Some time back I wrote a series of essays entitled the Four Horsemen Of Your Second Marriage. There are actually five. On top of Children, Cash, Complacency, and Conflict, I should’ve added ‘Their Ex’.
It’s a universal truth anyone dating a divorced parent must accept. A relationship with a divorced mom or dad – and especially marriage to them – means you will also be in a relationship or marriage with his or her former spouse. If a divorced father is involved in his kids’ lives, there are going to be confrontations and frustrations with the mother of his children, and you will occasionally be drawn into that conflict whether you want it or not.
It’s unquestionable and unreasonable to think that I could or should be shielded from issues between the Queen and her ex-husband. And furthermore, it’s unfair and extremely selfish to demand our relationship be spared because I see it as ‘their problem’. When we got married, her problems became my problems. What makes second marriages, and blended families in particular, to deliciously complicated is all that extra baggage, none of which allows itself to be stored in the overhead compartment. It can’t be hidden or filed away. It’s part of the package and comes with the territory.
Far too many mistakenly believe that marriage should make those problems disappear; when in reality it usually makes them worse. What I find amusing about many couples in second marriages is the anger and resentment about issues with a spouse’s ex that’s been there all along. There are challenging characteristics about the Queen’s ex-husband that have existed since we met. Most of them being the reasons they are divorced. To now become upset, especially at her, for problems I’ve known about for over seven years is simply a ruse; a way to mask deeper issues that have nothing to do with them and everything to do with me.
For example, I’ve heard of women complaining about the child support their husbands pay, believing it’s too much, he’s a sucker for getting taken advantage of so badly, and how it’s his fault all that money is going to his ex instead of them, or more specifically her. As if child support was a new phenomenon for everyone. All while failing to recognize, and more importantly appreciate, his responsibility for their children; plus conveniently forgetting that he’s probably been paying it all along. We can’t on one hand desire a spouse who’s dedicated and responsible, then on the other criticize him for being so – when we’re not the direct beneficiary.
Those vows the Queen and I shared didn’t include a carve out for ex-spouses. Furthermore, to expect the Queen to keep those co-parenting problems out of our house, and out of our marriage, would only demonstrate my insincerity, hypocrisy, and above all, my absence of love for her. Plus I have my own problems with an ex that routinely bleed over into our relationship, every second marriage with children does, the question is only a matter of degrees.
Before the Queen and I met, she was in a relationship with a man whose ex-wife was certifiable. After discovering they were seriously dating, this woman keyed the Queen’s car, harassed her by phone and email, and performed gagster drive-by’s at her home. She even asked the Queen’s ex-husband on a date. She did everything in her power to break them apart. This woman inserted herself into any nook or cranny she could find in their relationship. It went on for some time without serious intervention on the man’s part because he was apprehensive to do anything that might jeopardize getting to see his daughter.
Fortunately for me, the Queen saw the writing on the wall and ended the relationship. Believing, and wisely so, things would likely get worse with time. But had I not been so lucky and they married, which this guy understandably wanted to do, how could the Queen, with any shred of honesty or decency, later criticize and condemn him for not standing up to his ex-wife? How could she then be irate with him for not ‘keeping it out of our marriage’ when that was the woman’s intent all along and she had honed her skills at it during their years of dating? That would be like buying a Ferrari then complaining about the high cost of auto insurance. What does one expect?
A relationship or marriage with a divorced parent means having a relationship or marriage with that person’s ex-spouse. It’s unavoidable and undeniable. If anything, marriage moves us closer to the conflict. Now that the Queen and I are husband and wife, I’m on the front lines of any issue she and her ex may have, which to their credit isn’t much. And the same holds true for my ex and myself. To complain about it now, after we’re married, only proves how blind we had been and what little attention was really being paid while we were dating, when getting out would have been far easier.
I have the burden to react in an appropriate way should problems with the Queen’s ex encroach on our marriage, as it inevitably will. I can grow angry and resentful when I’m hit with shrapnel from one of their skirmishes. I can fight back when I feel pulled into the middle of their problems, or I can be loving and supportive by encouraging her the best I can while not allowing this temporary co-parenting conflict to seep in and damage what she and I have created. I, and I alone, control whether it enters into our marriage, not the Queen. Because it’s my belief, based on experience, that issues within a second marriage, thought to be caused by an ex spouse, are more often our own overreaction, frustration, and feelings of insecurity. It happens when we forget that our responsibility is to support and encourage our spouse – whom we chose to marry drama and all – and to love, honor, and cherish them till death do us part, or the next time their ex calls.