When I look back on it, I’m pretty sure it was all Bruce and Demi’s fault.
You see, by the time my marriage started to falter and then ended in the middle of 2011, they had been painting a picture of perfect blended family life since 2005, with Bruce Willis attending Demi’s wedding to Ashton Kutcher. Over the years, they fed tantalizing details to the media about their “one big happy family” vacations, their hopes to add even more children to the mix, and their numerous public appearances with everyone in tow – Ashton and Demi, Bruce and his new wife Emma, and their kids.
I wanted what they had, badly. I wanted for my children to still have two parents who loved and respected each other, even if they weren’t in love anymore. I wanted them to have cool and accepting step parents. I wanted blended family vacations and holidays. It all seemed so idyllic – that even in the midst of something heartbreaking, you could come out on the other side even better than before. Your kids could still have an intact family, you could spare them from the hurt of a “broken” family.
It wasn’t to be. My divorce was emotionally charged from the start, peppered with explosive conflicts and quietly simmering anger. What likely should have foreshadowed that for me is that we’d always been that way. The first Christmas after we split we spent together with the kids, our jaws clenched and perfunctory politeness locked and loaded. We didn’t fight until 4pm – a historical record for the holidays we’d shared since getting together. Let’s be real – it was unlikely we were going to ever find that happy, loving, still my best friend magic, but I was hellbent and determined to try, insisting on birthdays and holidays spent together as a family, torturing both of us, and our kids, with tense, silent dinners, and myself with the glaring presence of a former spouse who had once told me he wished I was dead.
My ex-husband’s new girlfriend (now his fiancee) came into the picture with alarming speed. I didn’t need to meet her, as I’d already known her. (I have a personal commitment to keep the writing I do about my ex’s new partner to a minimum, so that’s all the details I’ll share here.) At first, I wanted nothing at all to do with this woman. But then I remembered Demi and Ashton. So I kept trying, extending invitations to family functions, joint birthday parties, dinners. I offered to share party planning duties with her, I tried to help her understand why it was hard for me sometimes, why I sometimes tried to shut her out. I attended every swimming lesson and hockey game and smiled and nodded and sat beside them, but I didn’t feel like one big happy family. I felt like a desperate ex-wife trying to wedge myself into their family photo. I was anxious and resentful. Friends would sputter “I don’t know how you do it! You’re a saint!” and I’d feel temporarily buoyed. This was the right thing to do, because it was the hard thing to do, right?
By the time our second Christmas apart rolled around, I found myself hysterically screaming “And take your skank cookies with you!” while hurling a full container of baked goods my ex’s girlfriend had made at the back of his head as he walked away.
I sought support and found blended family support groups online – support groups to get moms and stepmoms talking and understanding each other. Support groups for moms whose children had a stepparent in their lives. At first I was perplexed – why did so many of these women not want to strive for friendships with their counterparts and exes? Wasn’t that the goal? Wasn’t that the carrot on a stick we were all supposed to be chasing?
You can find stories like Bruce and Demi’s all over Facebook – this guy who bought his wife flowers and card and cooked his ex-wife breakfast on her birthday, this woman who wrote her ex’s new girlfriend a thank you note on Facebook, and this woman and her open letter to her daughter’s stepmom. They’re praised for their humility, grace, strength, patience, thick skin, understanding, openness, insert glowing adjective here. And their method is touted as “the right way”, and one that we can all get to with a little hard work and elbow grease. The alternative that is insinuated is former spouses in constant, angry fights, kids in tears, and everyone needing therapy.
What is lost in this narrative is that you can’t force anyone to be your friend. You can’t strong arm your way into a relationship with someone who doesn’t want one with you. Relationships are not one-sided. It didn’t matter how much I hoped and dreamed to be my ex’s best friend – he didn’t want to be mine. And in truth, I didn’t actually want to be his either. I left him not so I could spend my time with him, but so that we would both get to find actual happiness – apart. And for many big happy blended families, the boundaries get fuzzy, and conflict springs from that lack of clarity. Raise your hand if you want your ex-husband to come into your house and cook you breakfast. I definitely don’t want such a thing, even if he would be “sweet” or “strong” or whatever for him to do that, and then tell the whole world via social media.
I used to find myself very hurt by these posts, because of what was implied. If I couldn’t be my ex’s best friend, then I wasn’t humble, gracious, strong, patient, thickskinned, understanding and open. I was the opposite of that. I was part of the problem. In truth, I am all of those things, and every single woman I’ve met through this journey is, too, no matter what dynamic she and the rest of the adults in her blended family story have chosen. We’re all doing something hard – raising human beings after a fracture in a traditional family. High five yourself, friends. If you got through today without throwing cookies at the back of your ex’s head, count it as a win, and start again tomorrow.
For some families, the happiest thing they can do is to make their separation clear, concise, and businesslike. You don’t have to be friends with your ex, or his new wife. The BIFF method can be your friend. You’ll love it. My ex and I don’t go out of our way to talk, to spend time together, and we don’t turn to each other for help or advice. He lives his life, I live mine, and sometimes, our paths cross out of necessity – that necessity being our children. The last extended discussion we had was via text message almost 2 weeks ago. Our kids are happy, secure and deeply loved – by me, by my ex-husband, and by his fiancee.
Because as it turns out, there isn’t one right way of doing this, not one approach that is the most noble. Love your kids. If your set up is working for you, keep doing it. If it used to work but isn’t anymore, change it up. If you want to talk to your ex every day, do it. If you want to only ever communicate via email, do that. Do what is working, and forget the rest.
I’m a communicator. That’s a PC way of saying I like to talk, but I also spend a lot of my time listening, and over the years, I’ve developed a sense for subtext – how one or two words can change your entire message, what people are really trying to say and how to weave the varied layers of your story into one cohesive brand message that your clients fall in love with.
When I'm not acting as editor in chief for Vivid & Brave, you can find me geeking out over words here.
Latest posts by Stephanie Ostermann (see all)
- Inventing Insecurities | No, I Don’t “Need” Eye Cream - February 24, 2017
- You Don’t Have to Be Friends With Your Ex (Or His New Wife) - November 23, 2016
- Grief & Landlines - September 20, 2016