Q: I am uncomfortable with my husband’s family, particularly his sister, having a relationship with his ex-wife. It feels like she is choosing her over me and my husband. She treats my husband’s kids with her like the “real” family and overlooks my kids and the kids I’ve had with my husband. I try to ignore it and not let it bother me, but my older kids are starting to notice now with, “Why are their pictures on Auntie’s fridge and not ours?” When I see them conversing on Facebook, it’s like they are slapping me in the face. Is this normal?
A: Ah, normal. How I love that word. The truth is, I’m trying to establish a new normal by promoting good ex-etiquette, or “good behavior after divorce or separation,” and although I’ve seen what you describe quite a bit, I wouldn’t necessarily say it is or isn’t “normal.”
It is, however, very bad ex-etiquette — not the staying in touch with the ex, but how you describe your sister-in-law handling it. Unfortunately, it seems to be based on just plain insensitivity and what some might call “human nature.” That means, there was an established familiar connection already in place with the ex when he or she was married to their relative and their offspring are regarded as “the real” relatives. Anyone new who is added to the fold, including you, your children, or children you might have with their relative, are treated like a sort of second-class citizens.
Hopefully, your sister-in-law doesn’t realize she is acting the way you describe and it will only take a polite conversation to drive it home. Although it can be frustrating for the new spouse, ties like that don’t necessarily end because your brother gets a divorce. It’s not anything you can control. Truth is, she may not be able to change the fact that she feels closer to the first wife and her kids, but at least she shouldn’t blatantly act like it.
An easy fix next time you go to her house would be to bring along some newly taken pictures of the family and offer them to her for her fridge. Better yet, make it a point to take some new family pictures together with the explanation that you want new pictures of family around your home. Tact and timing are important components to good ex-etiquette. Offer to print them out and send some to her as well.
Finally, don’t forget that successfully combining families takes time, sometimes a good three to five years before things begin to run smoothly.
Something else to look out for in the wonderful world of bonus living — comparing on any level. When you compare yourself to someone else (“They like her best”) you are already relegating yourself to second-class status. The best thing you can do for your self-esteem and as a role model for your family is set the example. Sometimes it just takes extended family a little time to realize that their family extends past themselves and includes both past and present. Make sure that you are setting the example, as well.