Learning to play nicely with beloved stepson’s parents

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I have moved to the city where my ex lives. We divorced three years ago amicably. His ex-wife, who is also the mother of the now-adult I helped raise, has moved here too. Their son recently married, and I adore him and his wife.

I want to develop a relationship with them as a couple but also be respectful of the relationship they are developing with his parents. How do I love and support them but also make it easy for them to relate to all of their parents? I admit I wish I was the only “mother” in the picture.

— Finding My Place

I admit I had to read this twice to get the connections, but it might not be important after all, because the first thing you need to do to make your relationship with the couple work is let go of the preference for only-momhood. That just opens you up to all of the corrosive behaviors in the emotional closet, like competitiveness, bean-counting, jealousy, insecurity, possessiveness.

You are not the only parent in your stepson’s life, and that’s true whether it’s a good or bad thing — so why not push yourself to see it as a good one?

It means there are more people to love him and his wife. More people to support him and his marriage. More people he can lean on in a crisis, or learn from on an ongoing basis.

We can quibble about whether it’s good for you, versus good for your stepson, but it’s so good for him to have all of you play nicely together that showing your love for him has a one-item to-do list: Do your part to play nicely.

And you know what? That can be good for you, too. For one thing, comity serves all, where being competitive and quick to take umbrage wins you nothing but stress.

Also, it’s a community-builder. My years in this job (and several relocations) have taught me that making friends is (1) crucial to our emotional health and (2) a serious challenge among adults. One thing that makes it work is having a common interest to bring you together and give you something to talk about, which are two of the highest hurdles. You have this young man and his wife as a common interest with your ex and your ex’s ex, and while exiness is not typically seen as the beginning of beautiful friendships, it really can be — if you bring the right spirit to it and if the others do the same.

So please start your life in your new city with your heart open to this family-of-awkward-origin.

With a good attitude in place, it’s easier to be mindful of boundaries and flexible in the face of everyone’s needs, which is what being respectful mostly entails. Kick it off with a conscious decision to be slow, even glacial, to take it personally when things don’t go quite your way. Especially in a complicated emotional situation, that’s a gift to others that tends to find its way back to you.

© 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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