A Dark Side of Blended Families: The Role of Ex-Partners

By Jennifer Harman Ph.D. – Colorado State University

Adventures in Blending: Memoirs of Mixing Families

If I were to portray the blending of my family with the Consultant’s as all rainbows and butterflies, I would be lying. Not because things are challenging with him; quite the contrary. We are on the same page almost all the time about handling the normal challenges that come with being a family, such as who should handle one kid’s tantrum and how to handle our financial obligations.

Things are, however, much more complicated than the Brady Bunch family we often seem to others. In the case of the Brady family, the parents (Carol and Mike) were widow(er)s. There is no doubt that losing a spouse/parent is devastating. Research shows it is actually not uncommon for widowed parents of young children to remarry within 5 years of the loss of their former spouses.1 Some researchers have even described the deceased spouse as remaining like an invisible figure in the new marriage; their influence still lives on through the surviving spouse.2 In all my years watching re-runs of the Brady Bunch, I don’t recall many references at all to the deceased parents of the children. In fact, they seemed to just move on and start all over as one big happy family. If only it could be that simple.

The Consultant and I are not widow(er)s. We have ex-spouses who, each in their own way, have created serious challenges for us as a blended family. Whereas these challenges will not be the primary focus of my blog posts, I feel it would be disingenuous to not share some of them, as they are the reality that we and many others face on a daily basis.

Ideally, it would be in the children’s best interest to support one’s ex-spouse in moving on with their life after divorce. Indeed, minimizing conflict and being supportive of each other as parents after divorce results in better mental health outcomes for children.3 But, we don’t live in an ideal world. The Consultant and I were faced with a situation where his ex-wife, “X”, has relentlessly attempted to undermine our relationship and our relationship with her children.

It started with X sending hostile and angry emails to the Consultant about me with outlandish claims about my character (e.g., “she is a bad influence on the girls”). Then, the Consultant’s children started asking me questions about negative things X had said about me. For example, child #2 asked me whether my students liked me. I learned that X had showed her a negative teaching evaluation written by a former disgruntled student online, which was hardly representative of the many students I have taught over the years. I calmly told #2 that yes, my students like me, and I have in fact won several teaching and advising awards. She did not seem convinced. Later, in an argument with the Consultant, #2 yelled at him and said that I was a horrible teacher. Attempts by former partners to destroy the image of the other parent’s new relationship and relationship partner is a common strategy used by parents who are threatened and angry;4 it is one of many behaviors such parents use to alienate their children from the other parent.

That was only the beginning. When the Consultant’s children were in our care, X would call and text them incessantly. One weekend, we counted over 60 calls and texts to one child alone from her. This strategy interfered with the children’s ability to have quality time with us because they had to consistently respond to her and pull their attention away from the activities we were doing as a family. Mothers more typically employ interference like this than fathers4, and I wish I could say that such interference has stopped. While the frequency has lessened to some degree, she has found other ways to interfere, such as dropping important news to the girls when we are on vacation so that they cannot just enjoy their time with us as a blended family. Several years since the Consultant and I started dating, the alienating behaviors have not abated. Some behaviors directly involve the children; others are employed in ways that are more subversive, such as taking me off the children’s emergency contact list at school every year in order to undermine my role in their lives, or badmouthing me and the Consultant to teachers and medical providers to make us look bad.

Our experience is not unique.5 Over 22 million American adults are estimated to be the targets of alienating behaviors like the ones we have been dealing with.6 The challenges we faced were multitude. How could we manage the negative perceptions his children were being taught about us? How could we avoid doing things to protect ourselves without affecting the children’s perception of X? For example, if we said that something they were told by X was untrue, they became defensive of X, and thought we were calling her a liar. It has been a lose-lose situation in many respects.  

We have managed so far by getting support from close friends and family, attending support groups for parents and stepparents like ourselves, learning about research on this topic, and learning strategies on how to protect children and ourselves from this form of abuse. A few vacations here and there without the kids has also helped to disconnect from the stress created by X, reconnect with each other as a couple, and put things into perspective.

While blended families grapple with the same problems other intact (not divorce/separated) families deal with, they are also influenced by the other parents of the children. It would be best for everyone to support loving relationships with all family members and not undermine them, and I am always heartened to hear when other blended families are able to do this. Sadly, this has not been our experience, and we do our best every day to minimize the negative impact of alienating behaviors on the children and ourselves. 

All characters and events appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or real experiences is purely coincidental. To learn more about this series, please click here.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed. Learn more about our book and download it here.

1Bishop, S. L., & Cain, A. C. (2003). Widowed young parents: Changing perspectives on remarriage and cohabitation rates and their determinants. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 47, 299-312. 

2Grinwald, S., & Shabat, T. (1997). The ‘invisible’ figure of the deceased spouse in remarriage. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 26, 105-113.

3Kelly, J. B. (1998). Marital conflict, divorce, and children’s adjustment. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7, 259-271.

4López, T. J., Iglesias, V. E. N., & García, P. F. (2014). Parental alienation gradient: Strategies for a syndrome. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42, 217-231.

5Harman, J. J., Leder-Elder, S. & Biringen, Z. (2016). Prevalence of parental alienation drawn from a representative poll. Children & Youth Services Review, 66, 62-66. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.04.021

6Harman, J. J., & Biringen, Z. (2016). Parents acting badly: How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado Parental Alienation Project, LLC.

Dr.  Jennifer Harman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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