Last week a few of my colleagues suggested I write about ex-partners. It is certainly an important topic, and one that is a perfect follow-up to my last post about what to do about people who push our buttons.
What immediately came to mind was a conversation I had a few months ago with “Danielle” (not her real name) who told me about her experience as a mom and stepmom in a stepfamily. She told me when she and her partner first moved in together, her partner’s ex “hated me for no reason.” Her stepkids’ mom would send her hateful message across social media. In return, Danielle would “send roses.” What did she mean by that? She responded with genuine compassion. She would put herself in the shoes of the other mom and say things like: “It must be really hard to be apart from your kids.” Beautiful! It was an excellent way to help her entire family, herself, and her stepkids’ mom. After about two years, the ex-partner stopped throwing hate Danielle’s way. Had she responded by lashing out, I can almost guarantee that they’d still be at war.
Danielle is both ordinary and extraordinary. She’s ordinary in that she has no superpowers. She doesn’t have an advanced degree in psychology. She’s just as human as you and me. The only thing that sets her apart is she’s done her work. I didn’t ask her about the details of that work, but it’s clear that she learned how to put aside judgment and extend compassion to others, even to those who lash out at her. She’s able to recognize that when people spew hate, they’re hurting. She can put aside her own past hurts and see the humanity in others. Danielle accessed her true self (one that is loving and only wants the best for everyone), exercised a lot of patience, and over time, built a bridge. We could all learn from her example.
I’m not denying the reality of how hard it can be; your ex and your partner’s ex can be extremely triggering, especially if you don’t fully understand the history behind that trigger. Still, ex-partners are an important part of the family and in most cases, kids need their parents in their lives. Loyalty binds get triggered when kids see their parents and stepparents fight or speak badly about one another, which is painful for kids. My mother and stepmother were often at war and the result was a tense relationship that fluctuated over time. That pain and tension was felt by the entire family for many years. This, sadly, is a common scenario.
I also don’t want you to suppress the anger, confusion, or other uncomfortable feelings you have. But instead of reacting in anger toward an ex, get emotional support elsewhere, whether it be from your partner, a friend or family member, or from a professional. It can be challenging and stuffing your feelings is unhealthy. Reach out to someone who will listen and validate your feelings, journal, meditate, exercise. Taking good care of yourself will help.
Parents and stepparents who can at least be civil toward each other will benefit their family. Those who can be friendly will make it even better. Even if you’re the only person extending the kindness, it will have an impact and the kids will learn from your example. I know it’s easier said than done…I’ve been there! And yet, it is possible if you choose to make it so. If you find an ex is pushing on one of your past hurts and you can’t seem to manage your strong feelings, then I urge you to get some support. Coaches and therapists are both well-positioned to guide you.
Like Danielle, parents who have done personal development work are far ahead of the game. There are many potential benefits: the kids are more likely to thrive and be less likely to suffer, your relationship with your partner will be more likely to last and feel fulfilling, your family is more likely to connect, and you’re likely to experience more joy and inner peace. Even if only one partner engages in this deep self-discovery, the results will be felt by everyone in the family.
When there’s more compassion in the world, we all win.