Relationships between divorced moms and stepmoms are notoriously hellish. And yet, many problems between the two women could be avoided by simply getting together over a cup of coffee. Really. That's because it's the separation between parties that stokes the fires of conflict; most ex-wives and second wives simply don't know each other. But if these relationships are just left "as is," that unfamiliarity can easily blow up in your face later.
Imagine for a moment: you're paired up at work for the biggest project in your company's history, but you're only allowed to communicate with your colleague while mute, handcuffed and blindfolded. How good can it be?
This distance between old partners and new partners starts from the very beginning. Because the situation is naturally awkward, the two women stay as far away from each other as possible. They may not have ever been introduced! Perhaps the mom first heard about the new girlfriend from the kids. Or the stepmom's version of the ex-wife came from her partner's horror stories.
Not knowing each other makes it all too easy to project upon each other. Motives. Slights. The other person's rampant and deep-seated "issues." Misunderstandings linger for years and harden into seemingly unforgiveable rifts.
If stepmoms and moms would just meet one-on-one, they might discover that they have a lot in common. The same draining emotions. The same role confusion. The same frustration at being painted "the bad one" in the picture, the Other.
So how could one little cup of coffee change this?
For starters, meeting face-to-face humanizes the other person. You get to form your own conclusions about them. Hmmm, maybe she does have one or two likeable qualities - or at least ones you can begrudgingly respect? Not to mention, it's harder to be rude to someone's face.
In fact, these two women share an instant shorthand as the typically default "hands-on parents." They're the multi-taskers, keeping the machinery of the household running smooth with meals, cleaning, school events, etc. They intimately know the same kids, the same man. Both of their jobs could be made infinitely easier with regular communication.
But without prompting, a meeting isn't likely to happen. The prospect of baring your neck to the very woman who seems hell bent on outshining you in the Motherhood or Partnership Department probably sounds about as appealing as jumping into the Komodo Dragon pit at the zoo. Protective friends will warn you against fraternizing with the enemy. And Dad may not be so thrilled about the prospect either, for obvious reasons.
Still... I challenge you to buck the traditional adversarial mindset in divorce-connected families. I dare you to take responsibility for consciously creating the relationship between the two of you because, like it or not, you do have one.
We're asking our readers to do exactly this in our "Just Meet Her" Challenge in June. Inspired by Elizabeth Lesser's TED video "Take the Other Out to Lunch," we're inviting moms and stepmoms to meet for thirty minutes, ask and answer some innocuous questions and... see how it goes. And if you can't bring yourself to meet with her, at least meet with someone else in the enemy's camp.
Why bother? Who wants to stir up a fire ant nest with a stick?
Well, some experts say that only 20 percent of families today are nuclear families. Twenty! (A stepfamily doesn't "count" if it's not the child's primary residence, or if the adults are shackin' up, according to the Census). And stepfamilies do their best to stay balanced on a 73 percent rate of divorce high-wire. Taken together, these two statistics highlight the fact that the real battleground these days isn't with Dad, Mom and the kids behind a picket fence. It's between the two households, whether it's led by a single parent or remarried adults.
Picture two stressed and unhappy women, working against each other. Dads caught in the middle. Strained marriages. Inconsistent and fragmented parenting. And worst of all, children navigating deeply distressing and seemingly impossible loyalty binds, tiptoeing around landmines, occasionally losing a metaphorical eye or limb.
Do we want our kids going through a second, or god forbid, third divorce? In modeling such poor conflict resolution skills for our children, we're not doing their future families any favors, are we?
Let's show our kids that healing and forgiveness really are possible. That as the caretakers in their lives, we're going to suck it up and act like grown-ups, even if it kills us. That neutral, respectful business partnerships are possible, even when our knees are shaking under the table.
The sense of relief in their faces will be palpable - I know, because I've seen it and read about it almost every day. You'll form a bridge between the two families that will help us all be better parents -- the reason we're stuck together in the first place!
So what about you? Would you be willing to bite the bullet and meet the other woman for 30 minutes out of your life? That's less time than it takes to go to the dentist. You never know. One small meeting could change your family for the better forever.