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I’m writing to you today about my husband’s ex-wife. They were together for seven years and have a six year-old daughter together. I adore his daughter and have a fairly amicable relationship with his ex-wife. My issue arises from her familiarity with him. For example, this weekend at a soccer game while we were all socializing with other parents, his daughter went up to my husband and insisted he pick her up which he did. He picked her up while lying on his back put his feet on her hips held her hands and lifted her in to the air. When he put her down, his ex-wife rushed up and demanded “me next” to which he obliged and half-heartedly lifted her up and set her back down. I was across the field watching the entire incident. I spoke with him later about how I felt and he felt just as uncomfortable as I did but didn’t know how to avoid the situation. This isn’t the first time she has crossed the line of being inappropriate. I get the feeling that she is extremely socially inept. How do I get the point across to her that is it very inappropriate and insulting that she acts the way she does with my husband without creating strife? I want to have an open and productive relationship with her for their child’s sake, but I cannot put up with her being flirty with my husband like she does.
Your reaction to their interactions is completely understandable. That level of familiarity should only be reserved for his daughter and for you. Regardless of her intentions, engaging in physical play with a married man isn’t appropriate. Let’s talk about how you can address this situation.
First, this isn’t a conversation you need to have with her. It’s your husband’s responsibility to protect the marriage. Her intentions with your husband are less important than his commitment to protecting the marital boundaries around physical touch and emotional sharing. She can only get as close as his boundaries allow.
If you and your husband haven’t formally discussed these boundaries, this experience opens up a timely opportunity to address them. While their behavior was clearly off sides, don’t limit the discussion to only their interactions. You both need to be clear with one another about how much access other people have to your emotions, your thoughts, and your bodies.
The good news is that your husband felt uncomfortable with her proposition. Start the discussion from this mutual understanding that the interaction didn’t feel right. Share why it made you uncomfortable and ask him why it was uncomfortable for him. The discomfort for him may not only be touching her, but also how to talk with her about her inappropriate requests. It sounds like she is someone he has difficulty redirecting.
Defining the boundary is only one element of the conversation. In fact, he may already have an internal sense of his boundaries around touch with other women. The other element is how to enforce that boundary and still maintain a working relationship with her ex-wife as a co-parent.
I recommend he place a phone call or compose an email to her discussing his concerns. He can lead with accountability and let her know that he appreciates their ability to get along with one another for their daughter, but he made a mistake in allowing them to have that interaction. He doesn’t need to criticize or blame her. The boundary will speak for itself.
He can explain that he won’t be physically close to her in the future and would appreciate if she could honor that boundary between them. He doesn’t have to be rude or shaming. They both made a mistake; so to blame it all on her is unfair.
Regardless of her cooperation with the boundary, the boundary can still stand. She can’t cross any lines he is actively protecting. Every couple benefits from defining boundaries around potential threats to the marriage. You can never be too united and purposeful about protecting your marriage from outside threats.
In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites learned the importance of protecting their “places of entrance” from outside threats.[i] After experiencing terrible losses, the Nephites were commanded by their prophet-general Moroni to reinforce and strengthen their vulnerable entrances. These areas were the direct targets for their enemies. Your husband has created an opening that needs to be closed and reinforced.
Let your husband lead the discussion and expect him to protect you and your marriage. He can show her that she’s not welcome to have access to him in these ways. She needs to hear it from him and you need to see him close off an opening he never should have created.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Alma 49:21