Being a stepparent can be a complicated, challenging, and sometimes daunting relationship to navigate. And many of you are doing incredible jobs – prioritizing the children and providing good support for both your spouse and your spouse’s ex in the parenting department. Others out there? Not so much.
When I posted How to Get His Ex to Hate You, I thought I had put together a pretty comprehensive list of the major sabotage moves selfish stepparents do. But after hearing from friends and colleagues, it was clear that I had missed a few that deserve mention. So, with their input and further consideration, here are five more ways, for those of you determined to upstage Wife #1 at the expense of the children, to get his ex to hate you.
1. Beat her to the first anything. Whether it’s the first haircut, bra, or pedicure, be on the scene. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the age-appropriateness of any given activity – any delay could result in a lost opportunity to deprive her and the child of that special bonding moment that sharing firsts can bring.
2. Share the truth. Well, not the truth – your truth. For instance, if you observe a different religion that you know is inconsistent with how the children are being raised, explain why their mother is doing things wrong. Sure, the children will be confused – but undermining something that important will be a great way to tick Her off.
3. Be the new BFF. This strategy works especially well with teenagers. Sympathize with them over their mother’s ‘ridiculous’ position on dating, homework, having a cell phone and wearing revealing clothes. You may cause a dangerous situation where the child starts sneaking around, but the resulting chaos at the other home is worth the long-term problems such behavior will create for the child.
4. Share a secret. Or let them know something they’ve seen or heard at their dad’s can’t be mentioned to their mom. Ignore the gut-wrenching stress this will cause the child. If there isn’t an existing rift between your spouse and his ex, this is the perfect device to create one.
5. Make it permanent. Haircuts will grow out and firsts can be followed by potentially meaningful seconds. But tattoos and body piercings? Now there’s a couple of options that have some lasting power! Don’t worry about potential infection or other negative effects of the new additions – keep your focus on how SHE will be aware of your presence every time she lays eyes on the nostril stud or your favorite saying inked somewhere on her child’s body.
As long as there are selfish people who put their own agenda ahead of the best interest of children, there will always be opportunity to expand this list. All we need to do to change things is to have parents prioritize their children over any new love interests. Simple, right?
Being the second wife can sometimes be a challenge. Especially when the new husband comes with children. As a Family Law Attorney, I’ve seen this handled two different ways. The easiest path, and the one that causes the least harm to the children, is if the adults act in a mature fashion and are civil to each other. Even if his ex-wife starts out hating you, consistent civility could eventually bring her around.
Acting mature, however, makes no sense if your goal is to make sure the ex knows your husband traded up on the wife ladder. If you are self-focused with the primary goal of making his former’s life miserable – regardless of the cost to the children – then read on to learn step-by-step how to ensure that his ex hates you.
1. Cut the children’s hair. If it’s a boy with curls, lop them off. If the girl has beautiful long, straight hair, give her bangs. This is sure to infuriate her. You get the added benefit of creating trepidation in the children as they head back to their mother’s house knowing the negative reaction that will follow their arrival.
2. Have the children call you “mom.” Bonus points if you can get them to refer to their mother by her first name. She’ll soon learn that you don’t just have the man; you have the kids, too. Don’t worry about the confusion it causes the children – they need to toughen up sometime.
3. Send the children back to her house in dirty clothes. Preferably something they have slightly outgrown and/or has a rip or missing button. If she doesn’t like to see them that way, she can just buy them some new stuff – again. The kids might have a little discomfort for a while, but that’s a small price to pay for her having to shell out a few more bucks.
4. Insist that your husband not give an inch when he wants to compromise with her about visitation schedules. Flexibility is not an option. Make sure she knows that you were behind the decision so that she knows who is really running the show.
5. Insist that the children have the phone on “speaker” when they talk to their mother from your house. That, of course, is at times when you actually let them take the call. Most of the time cell phones should be confiscated during their visit to inhibit unfettered communication with their mother. You might have to fabricate grievances so you can justify this action by claiming you are disciplining them.
6. If a special medication is sent with the child, “forget” to send it back. If the child’s condition worsens on her watch, you can use that later to show what a neglectful mother she is. Besides, a missed dose or two never – well, rarely – killed a kid.
7. Make sure the child is exposed to profanity. This is easily accomplished by allowing access to off-color TV shows and bawdy radio disk jockeys, or by encouraging the child to be present when his father is working on something frustrating. If you catch them when they are young enough, these kids are sure to carry the new vocabulary home. Greetings, Mom – from my house to yours!
8. Make sure you are first on the emergency call list at the child’s school. If you get to fill out the paperwork, leave Mother’s name off of it. That additional space can be used for another friend of yours – or maybe your own mother’s. A side benefit to this is that if your husband ever has to go back to court (and chances are he will if you are following these clever tips), you can prove how the school always calls you first if the child has a problem – even before his own mother.
9. Make sure you volunteer to be on every field trip, every classroom party, and anywhere else that she might pop up to spend time with her children. You don’t want her to forget how prominent you are in her children’s lives.
10. Most importantly, make sure you speak negatively about her to or in front of the children. It doesn’t have to be true to be effective. And don’t just limit yourself to verbal putdowns. Rolling your eyes when they quote her, having the theme for the wicked witch be her ringtone, and throwing out notes they give you from her without reading them are all examples of showing disdain without saying a word. The kids will get the message. If you work hard enough and long enough at this, they just might stop mentioning her in your house.
Now remember: in order for this plan to succeed you must complete each step regardless of how much distress it causes the children. You must persevere through the arguments this will probably cause between you and your spouse as he sees the negative effect on his children and deals with increasing numbers of angry emails and phone calls from his ex. You may even be lonely for a while if this behavior leads to the break-up of your marriage. But you will always have the knowledge that while it lasted you successfully made her life miserable.
Related article: 5 More Ways to Get His Ex to Hate You
Notice I said “courthouse” and not “courtroom.” Most of us know what’s expected of us in a courtroom: hats off, gum out, manners on. We address the judge as “Your Honor” and are respectful to the other side – at least when the judge is actually in the room.
What too many parties don’t realize when they enter a courthouse is the courtroom is not the only place they are being judged.
One of the first things I tell a new client is to assume that they are being video taped and audio taped at all times. If they don’t want it seen in court, don’t do it. If they don’t want it heard by the judge, don’t say it. Whether or not you are literally being taped, you never know who’s watching and/or listening.
Emotions run very high in Family Court. People are angry, hurt, resentful, scared, nervous, confused, uncomfortable, sad and all those other things that arise when the fate of children, property and one’s future are at stake. Most of us reign in all the conflicting emotions in the courtroom and try to present a calm, respectful demeanor in hopes of demonstrating our credibility. The effort can be stressful and draining. And the temptation to just let loose as soon as you step out of the courtroom doors can be overwhelming. Giving in to that temptation could cost you your case.
Just because you don’t recognize anybody around you in the courthouse doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t recognize you. Just because you can’t hear what others are saying, doesn’t mean you can’t be heard. And just because you can’t see anybody, doesn’t mean you can’t be seen.
Why it Matters
You may be wondering why on earth you should care what others see and hear – they should be minding their own business, right? First of all, since you don’t know who they are you don’t know whether or not any aspect of your case is their business. Secondly, even if they should be minding their own business doesn’t mean they will.
In the two decades plus that I’ve been hanging out at courthouses across the state, I’ve heard more stories than I can count about what a judge’s clerk, bailiff, or reporter saw or heard that got shared with the judge – either deliberately or inadvertently. (Venting about the judge is a great way to get their attention!) I’ve heard accounts of judges who are in the hallway or a public part of the courthouse witnessing bad behavior from parties during a break, before proceedings and after proceedings. Should they take such things into account while making their decisions? How can they not? Much of what a family law judge hears during testimony falls under the he-said/she-said category – because there’s often not additional evidence regarding personal conversations during a marriage. So credibility of a party is a crucial factor when a judge has to decide which version of an event is more believable.
You may think you know every person your ex would have with them, but there’s always a chance that there is someone you wouldn’t have a reason to know – whether a new acquaintance or the friend of a friend – so don’t make assumptions. And there’s no possible way you would know who opposing counsel might have a relationship with amongst observers. I’ve gotten more than one good tip from a witness who heard a disclosure made or saw behavior from my client’s ex outside of the courtroom that proved helpful to my client’s case.
It doesn’t matter if the names you call your ex or soon-to-be-ex are accurate. It doesn’t matter if you are the wronged party and everyone you know thinks your anger and behavior is righteous. The people that see you in the courthouse generally don’t know you, your family history, and your specific circumstances. They only know what they see and hear. If what they see is you lambasting into the other party in the hallway or conference room, that is what they will base their impression on. If what they hear is you spewing hateful remarks about your opponent to your attorney or supporters, that’s what they’ll base their impression on.
Whether your venting takes place in the courtroom when the judge is not present, in the hallway, in a public area, or even in the rest room, assume your conversation and/or your behavior is not private.
Your attorney may warn you about exhibiting negative body language in the courtroom. Things like rolling your eyes and shaking your head vigorously while another is talking won’t serve you well. But what often isn’t discussed is what body language can convey to observers outside of the courtroom. Talking to your ex or one of their witnesses while standing too close or hovering over them can be construed as threatening even if the words spoken are benign. Displays of arrogance or gloating intended for your ex may not go unnoticed by observers. Hostile looks or gestures could result in courthouse law enforcement interference or escort for your ex – something the judge is likely to find out about.
Judge the One You’re With
Your family and fiends are extensions of you. While they may think their trash-talking and glowering looks toward your ex demonstrates their support of you, they’re not helping at all. Everything stated above about who’s watching and listening to you also applies to them. And reflects on you. If you know that a family member’s hatred toward your ex is stronger than their self-control, you may want to consider leaving them at home.
You should behave appropriately and respectfully in the courthouse during your family law case because it is the right thing to do. And because it serves you well and, if you have children, such behavior better serves them, also. If that is not enough motivation or incentive for you to do so, then remind yourself that there are eyes and ears everywhere.
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It’s pretty common to keep a log during divorce proceedings. Jotting down notes about what’s going on with the children, visitation, the spouse’s behavior, etc.While that might help your attorney and your case, it’s probably not doing a whole lot for you emotionally during a challenging time. This is where journaling comes in. Even if you’re not much of a writer, keeping a journal – writing on a regular basis how you feel about what is going on and other related topics – can be very beneficial. This journal is FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. And here’s five reasons to give it a try:
1. It’s a place to vent. During divorce proceedings, especially when custody is involved, everybody is living under a microscope. The wrong word, a misconstrued gesture, being late for an appointment, all become fodder for leverage to be used against you. Your journal is the place you can go to just let loose – a place where nobody is judging you.
2. It helps you process the events. Some days it may feel like your head is spinning with all the information, change, and emotions that you are dealing with. Writing it down helps you sort out some of the issues and may allow you to see things more clearly.
3. It’s something you can do when there’s nothing you can do. There are so many things outside of your control during this time – court dates, who is talking to your children, the loss of property that has to be divided, and so much more. Journaling is one aspect of your life that is all yours – a go-to place that is waiting for you at your convenience.
4. It allows you to see your own evolution. At any given time, you may think you’re an absolute mess, and there’s no way it’s ever going to get better. Your own writing will show you that things do get better. Often very slowly, but it does get better. You get stronger. You evolve in how you react and handle situations. You will see that you are progressing. And the progress you see will be motivating.
5. It preserves your journey. Right now, you think you’ll never forget a moment of the pain, the conflict, the fear. But memories fade and we remember moments or overall impressions. You might be thinking: I don’t want to remember any of this. But there may very well be a time in your future when you will – it might be to help someone else going through the same struggle, to review your progress, to write your memoir – who knows what the future holds?
It may give you comfort to write in a leather bound journal that is soft to the touch. You might choose a blank book that has something uplifting on the cover. Or a printed divorce journal, like Discover Your Voice After Divorce, that has helpful thought-provoking questions that you might not think to ask yourself. Or a plain old sprial-bound notebook. Pick whatever works for you and get writing. Leaving some of your angst on paper may make your load a little lighter.
If someone asks for your advice when they are contemplating divorce, respond if you like. Or if someone you are very close to is heading down a catastrophic path and you and other loved ones are trying to help, it’s your call whether or not to say something.
But if a casual friend, acquaintance, co-worker, gym pal, or book-club buddy tells you they’re getting a divorce, they are probably not seeking your input. In such cases, here are 5 Things NOT to ask:
1. Have you considered the effects on your children? It’s hard to think of a more insulting question. Such a question presumes that you are being more considerate of their children than they are. You, who has no clue whatsoever about what goes on behind closed doors at their house.
2. Have you prayed about it? Very judgmental. Now is not the time to foist one’s own morals upon them, or to assume they don’t have any of their own. And frankly, no answer to that question will satisfy the one asking. If the answer is ‘no,’ more intrusive, intentionally guilt-inducing ‘advice’ will follow. If the answer is: “Yes, and God told me I should” is the one asking likely to believe them?
3. Were your parents divorced? Because we all know divorce is genetic, right? The question implies that, if the answer is yes, they were doomed from the start. And if the answer is ‘no,’ there must be something very wrong with them to not be able to stick it out, too. Again, take a step back and remember that you have no idea about the circumstances that led up to their decision. If it was, indeed, even their decision as opposed to one that was thrust upon them.
4. Was your spouse having an affair? Whether the question is a result of sympathy, empathy, or curiosity, this is sooooooooo none of your business. In any world, at any time, on any level.
5. Is there anything I can do? What are they suppose to say to that? This is right up there with “Call me if you need anything.” The speaker feels they have put out something compassionate, but it’s an empty offer. If you really want to help and there is something you think you can do, be specific. Such as “I know you’re scheduled to host book club next month, I’d be happy to cover that for you if your plate’s full right now.” If there’s not something specific to offer, simply tell them you’re sorry they have to deal with that and/or you’ll keep them and their family in your prayers – whatever response is sincere for you.
Bonus admonition: This is not the time to tell them your divorce-from-hell story. They probably have enough on their plate without the added baggage.
Have you had someone respond inappropriately to you when you said you were getting divorced? Is there something a casual acquaintance could have or did say to you that was helpful? If so, please share so we can all get better at navigating this difficult situation.
Listening to children about how they feel as their parents go through divorce – and afterward – is very important. We need to hear them. Not only their words, but read their demeanor. And we have to remember how well they can hear us. How they can read between the lines to what’s really being said. And we need to be aware of how hurtful it can be.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a parent say something like “they’re entitled to the truth” when confronted about talking to the child unnecessarily about the divorce process or speaking negatively about the other parent. First question: Whose truth? Second question: Aren’t they even more entitled to just be a child than they are to either parent’s version of what the truth is?
Here are 5 things a divorced/separated parent should never say to their child:
1. “Don’t tell your mom/dad . . . ” Unfair, people! Do not put the child in a position of having to keep a secret from the other parent. It’s incredibly stressful. Whether the parent doesn’t want the other parent to know what’s going on at his/her house or whether they’re just trying to be the cool parent by allowing something the other parent wouldn’t, requiring the child keep mum or lie about things creates a tense situation for your child that will eventually take its toll.
2. “Ask your mom/dad when they’re going to pay . . . ” Fill in the blank with all those things parents want paid for: child support, medical expenses, child care, extracurricular activities, etc. You think it’s unpleasant for you to ask your ex such a question? You don’t want to deal with an angered response to such a question? Why on earth would you put your precious child, who doesn’t have near the emotional strength you have, to be in that position?
3. ” I can’t afford it because your mom/dad won’t pay their child support.” And of course there is the flip side taboo: “I can’t afford it because I have to pay your mom/dad child support.” There’s nothing wrong with explaining to a child that some things are not affordable – it’s the laying a guilt trip on them because they need to be supported that’s objectionable.
4. “You’re just like your mother/father . . . ” said right before saying a very negative thing about the other parent. Who is really being criticized? Won’t it leave them wondering: “If I’m so much like him/her, maybe I should be over there more often”?
5. “Ask your mom/dad if you can come here (date during the other’s custodial period) so we can do (something incredibly fun).” A nasty strategy used in the hopes that the other parent won’t be willing to disappoint the child by saying ‘no’ to whatever adventure conniving parent has teased the child with. It’s win-win for conniving parent – either they get part of the other’s custodial period or they have shown what a bad guy the other is. It’s lose-lose for the child whose relationship with non-asking party may be undermined whatever the result.
I’ve talked to many children whose parents are going through divorce. I often serve as a guardian ad litem for children – a cross between an attorney for the children and an arm of the court charged with the task of investigating a divorce matter in order to make recommendations to the judge regarding custody and visitation. In the 22 years I have served in this capacity, I have found three commonalities amongst the cases I’ve worked.
First, most children want their parents to stay together. They don’t care that the parents don’t like each other. They want their world, their sense of security, to stay intact. Yes, I know there are exceptions. I, personally, encountered very few.
Second, if they can’t have things stay as they are, they want their parents to be civil to each other. They want their parents to be civil about each other. They do not want to be put in the middle. They do not want to have to choose sides. Again, there are exceptions. I have found that most of the exceptions – a child wanting to choose a side – result from either the child witnessing/being a target of mistreatment by one parent or (much more often) a parent poisoning the child against the other.
Third, the first two truisms transcend gender and age of the children.
Want to hear a child’s perspective? Take two and a half minutes and watch this video – hear a “Dear Mom and Dad” letter represented to be written by a child whose parents were going through a divorce. I can’t verify that it was actually written by such a child, but I can verify it’s a message I have heard over and over again through the words and actions of children I have represented.
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I spend a lot of time debunking myths about divorce from callers who have gotten bad information from a myriad of sources. Sometimes it’s a poorly written article or folklore. Often it’s from a well-meaning friend/relative/acquaintance who had a bad experience or dealt with a different fact pattern in their own divorce. Here are five of the misconceptions I hear frequently.
1. Living together 7 years equals married. Not so. Less than 20% of states even recognize common law marriage anymore, and those that do don’t base the status on how long the parties have lived together. The behavior analyzed to determine whether or not a common law marriage was formed in such states generally include having intent to be married and holding each other out as husband and wife. Where things get sticky is when parties really don’t intend to be married, but do things like file joint tax returns because they’ll get more money back. Then the relationships takes a bad turn. One party claims they’re married (usually the one asking for alimony) and the other says they’re not. The denier is now in the position of explaining to the judge whether they are lying in court or they lied when they swore under oath to the federal government they were married on their tax return.
2. Mother gets custody of the minor children. There was a time when this was a foregone conclusion, but in most places those days are gone. In many states, judges are prohibited from taking gender into consideration when awarding custody. The courts generally determine what custodial arrangement is in the best interest of the children by looking at factors such as parents’ relationship with the children, employment situations, geographical distances between the parties, if the parties can get along to make joint decisions and whether one party is more likely to facilitate good relations between the other and the children.
3. Joint custody means no child support. Joint legal custody is generally about making decisions together and not necessarily the division of time each parent has the child. How child support is calculated varies from state to state, but most take into account discrepancies in income and the physical custody arrangement. It is disheartening that sometimes financial need conflicts with one party agreeing to more expansive time between the children and the other parent – a situation that often lands in court. But in many cases, agreeing to, or receiving an order for, joint custody does not preclude the parent with the lesser income from receiving child support.
4.The wife in a long-term marriage will get alimony. In the days when women generally didn’t work and when they did their wages were cute, this was a truism. While length of marriage is still factored into an alimony decision, the judge will first look at whether or not there is a need by one party to have assistance transitioning into a more self-sufficient economic position. If there is a need, and if the other party has the ability to pay, the judge then looks at length of time assistance will be needed, the age, health and earning capacity of the parties, as well as other case-specific facts. Notice I didn’t say the ability of the ‘wife to transition’ and the ability of the husband’ to pay? Gender neutrality is required in making alimony decisions.
5. There is a magic age where a minor can choose which parent to live with. This misconception has probably gained footing because many states have a given age where a child can testify, or a child’s testimony will be given deference in stating a preference of where they would like to live. I could have said “with whom” they would like to live, but having represented dozens of children, I have learned it’s often about “the where.” Generally 12 is an age where courts assume a child has reached a level of maturity to put forth a well-reasoned position. As children get older, more deference is given to their opinion. However, as has been stated over the years, the whims and wants of a child shall not be the deciding factor. Sometimes (believe it or not) a teen-ager is more likely to pick the less restrictive parent – or the one with the swimming pool – over what is in their best interest. The judge takes the child’s preference into consideration as well as the other factors necessary to review when making a custodial decision.
If you are facing the possibility of divorce, or trying to support someone who is, don’t buy into the myths floating around. Don’t make assumptions about how custody and alimony work based on the experience that others – people with different facts, different judges, at a different time – have had. Many attorneys have free consultations to explain your rights and answer your questions about how custody, alimony, and divorce procedure work in your state. Take advantage of that service – it’s time well spent.