Be careful what you ask for.

Three and a half years ago, I met a wonderful lady on  She had two charming kids who went to the same elementary school where she taught first grade.  She was well-nested in her small community, and was held in high esteem by school officials, coworkers, and parents alike.  She began her career there, and was proud of the degree of independence she had achieved since leaving her husband four years earlier.

My new girlfriend (I’ll call her M) went through a turbulent divorce, and was still dealing with frequent aftershocks.  They had a 50-50 parenting-time schedule, and were governing the kids according to what Oregon calls joint legal custody.  This means decisions for the children are made together, by mutual agreement.  It works if parents are cooperative, stick to what’s best for the kids, and have the ability to sideline their differences as adults.  That’s the core disconnect for these two:  Joint custody does not work when there is a high-conflict divorce.  Apparently, no one told them that, or no one was listening.

Her ex (whom I’ll call R) is a tall, handsome, gregarious man who works in the federal probation office.  He’s had a lifetime career in corrections.  He sees himself as a responsible Dad, and loves to show his kids and their friends a good time.  He’s very reliable in terms of the parenting schedule, has enthusiasm for their achievements, and attends their activities religiously.  It looked good, on the surface at least.

When the kids were with R, M was “off-duty” as a Mom, and we could spend lots of time together.  And, because she was a teacher, she had time during the summer to travel.  Meanwhile, I was beginning a second career as an landscape photographer, so I saw a good fit with M, exploring new places together during the summer, and having some family time with her kids to balance things out.  M was always talking about how we should make adult plans for doing things when the kids were with their father.  I liked that.

After a few months of dating, we got engaged.  It was a relatively short engagement, and from the time we met to our wedding day was only eight months.  I was 49, and she was 39.  We would tell each other that the second time around, you can spot a keeper pretty quickly.

I have two great kids from my first marriage that had finished college, had good jobs, and were beginning families of their own.  I am very proud of them, and we have good relationships.  They were both happy for me, that I had met someone special, and they liked M, too.

My Match profile didn’t say I was looking for a mate with kids living at home, but I wasn’t feeling like that was a deal-breaker, either.  I wasn’t looking to be called Dad again, nor did I want to become a substitute for her kids’ real father.  Been there, done that.  Still, I enjoyed her children, and I thought I could help out as a parent.  I saw myself as making a positive difference in their lives.  Besides, I could be a team player.  Now I see that orientation works a lot better if everyone else is a team player, too.

I knew that R was nearly impossible to deal with at times.  He kept trying to control his ex, even after they were divorced.  (Privately, she called him “butthead”, and even had this label in her cell phone for a while.)  It didn’t hit me right away, but a few years later, I realized that by marrying her, I was also marrying him in a way, as well as the baggage from their high-conflict divorce.  It’s hard to live in a household with this kind of ex-husband sickness, because you can’t completely isolate yourself from her pain, and there’s a tendency to become an ally in the battle.  It’s nearly impossible for this to not take a toll on your marriage.

As one custody evaluator wrote, “As it is in marriage, so it is in divorce.”  M went through 15 years of emotional and psychological abuse.  Even with her Catholic guilt, after seven years of on and off counseling, she decided to leave.  She got a masters degree, and worked hard to establish herself as a good teacher.  She got stronger in her ability to stand up to R, and not let him push her around.  She was seeing that their divorce arrangement was not working.  I observed that she was getting stronger, too, but I also could see by the way she reacted to situtations that she still had a ways to go, and that R continued to manipulate her and do a lot of crazymaking at times.

Before the wedding, we saw an attorney to get his take on things.  Her ex was doing stuff that showed blatant disrespect for M, and he was denying her parenting time that was ordered in their divorce agreement.  Privately, they almost always argued about stuff, and they even showed their colors in public settings at times.  Unfortunately, R always saw it as Monica’s fault, didn’t have enough humility to see that he was least part of the problem…a trait a custody evaluator later pegged as narcissism.  He thought he was, at least to some degree, above the law.  Little did he know that he would soon lose the first major legal battle of his life, a battle that deepened the wounds of his divorce.

We married in May.  By the end of the summer, after M tried mediation to address her concerns, it was clear joint custody was not going to work.  The children were exposed to way too much conflict between their parents.  They were getting older and the decisions were getting more complicated, and more expensive.  The family needed an executive decision maker who could break through logjams.  The mediator they worked with was relatively weak, and could not reign in the pathology.  Even new agreements made in front of her were broken, with little remorse, and much rationalization.

I still remember the attorney telling my new wife that “a custody change is going to be needed here.”  I didn’t have a clue what that would entail, and was still asking basic questions like, “So what does primary household mean, anyway?”  The courts permit joint custody only if both parents agree, but if one says it’s not working anymore, the judge will designate one as sole custodian.  The custodial parent is the boss; he/she makes the major decisions, is the primary caretaker, and usually has a larger share of the parenting time.

Naturally, I took up sides, and did my best to support my wife.  For nearly 18 months, I cut into my work hours to help out.  I helped with some of the legal bills.  I helped make binders for the evaluator.  I took calls from the attorney during the day to keep things moving.  He was good, and I could see that she had a strong case.  We saw legal action as a gateway to a more peaceful marriage.  And, we knew it could help stabilize things for the kids, who were beginning to suffer from a lot of back-and-forth during the school year, and their parents’ bickering.

M had always been the primary caretaker, and this is always a major factor for a judge to determine custody.  Another big one is which parent is more likely to show respect for the ex-spouse.  M had some well-documented issues, and the attorney was confident she would prevail, to one degree or another.  What I learned is that even big legal victories don’t necessarily solve the underlying problems, nor do they guarantee that things will be more peaceful going foward.  They can actually make some things worse.  (I’ve learned a lot about unexpected consquences.)

This blog is about my experience as a new stepfather, and what it’s like to put on those shoes in a blended family with a perpetually angry ex.  It’s about how a mother can become torn between wanting what’s best for her new marriage, and the need for her kids to stay connected with their father.  It’s a story about the trauma and the aftermath of a difficult and lengthy (albeit victorious) custody battle.  It’s a story about narcissism.  It’s a story about how, even when the judge gave us everything we asked for, what resulted from that pushed our marriage to the breaking point.

More soon… 

Published in: on July 25, 2007 at 4:20 am  Comments (1)