A Little Empathy Changed My Relationship With My Husband's Ex-Wife

by Michelle Murphey
Originally Published: 
Michelle Murphey

It’s been five years since we met. The mother of my now-stepson and I stood face to face in the house she’d once called hers. It was one of the single most awkward moments in my life.

I’m big on perspective; both having it and realizing when that perspective needs to shift. I tried my hand at it back then. I told myself to give her extra assurance that I loved kids and her son would be safe in my presence; it’s what I thought she needed to hear. I dug deep to give her some slack, especially if she wasn’t happy to meet me. She had after all had to face the reality that her ex-husband had moved on with seemingly no issue after their dismantling of lives together. I was fully prepared to be sympathetic.

I was struck by her entrance. She had forgone ringing any doorbells or knocking on the door. I noted that this home still felt like hers. Her greeting was polite; her energy bore a film of nervousness that was palpable. Perhaps I was too much, the idea of a girlfriend, a new person in her toddler’s life, a then-20-something with no kids and the glow of new love worn all over. I don’t recall the first couple of questions that she spouted off as the three of us stood around the kitchen island. I could tell at that moment of time none of my answers mattered anyway.

Soon after our conversation started, she turned to her ex-husband (my boyfriend) and they started speaking about a few items that still needed to be signed off on from their divorce. The tone was contentious as they sped up the tempo of their conversation, clearly annoyed. I peered down at the blond-haired boy who was standing next to me, also feeling the residue of tension that mounted by the three of us having this meeting. Wishing to disappear from the conversation altogether, I did the next best thing and plopped myself down on the floor next to him.

I quickly realized this meeting was over. She had seen me, exchanged words with me, and was done with me all in a matter of moments. So there I sat, on the kitchen floor of my future home, playing peek-a-boo with this sweet boy as his parents worked through sentences between gritted teeth, unable to comprehend what the future may look like.

The years forged on, the tension was a tide that rose and receded in a familiar ebb and flow. My boyfriend and I cemented our roots deeper and eventually married; I slowly found my place in the step-parent role.

Just like that, we had fallen into a new normal. Small talk at baseball games between us came easy, we sat together on our front porch taking pictures of our two family units on this now 5-year-old’s first day of kindergarten, we were doing it, and we were co-existing. Hooray!

My stepson came home from school one day and excitedly declared that he’d soon be a big brother. He was over the moon about his mother’s new baby. I was equal parts happy for him and a little dizzy from this news; you see, I was holding onto a secret of my own. I, too, had taken a pregnancy test with a very clear positive. He was about to be a double big brother.

The surprise of my pregnancy took on new life when we found out the baby we were expecting was actually twins and that the due dates of our duo and her baby were mere weeks apart. Open conversations on how we would handle the impending births, hospital visits, and emotional whirlwind this now 6-year-old boy would soon face going from being the one and only beloved child to a brother of three infants were in full force.

And just like that, I was a mother for the first time to two delicate, sweet, small, precious and [insert every adjective to describe how a mother loves a child here] babies. They were my whole world. I had a new purpose for life, and a new desperation to make more time in a world where time felt fleeting.

These new feelings were tiring, rewarding, and agonizing all at the same time. And that’s when it happened — at some point in the ungodly hours of a Tuesday morning, my perspective shifted once more. All the misunderstood moments between her and I. Me wanting to reassure her that I was a nice person, a trustworthy step-parent. These ideas of her trust in me weren’t her focus.

She wasn’t forcing herself to be diplomatic to a new girlfriend; she was doing everything in her power to keep her heart from bursting out of her chest and exposing the most vulnerable part of her soul. She was reconciling with the fact that the person she loved most in this world would now only spend 50% of his time with her. That’s 50% of life that her heart would be living outside of her body. I could have been any women on the street and nothing about my reassurances of loving kids would have made a difference.

I looked down at the two babies curled in my arms and winced in pain at the thought of not feeling their weight on me every night. Five years of misunderstanding came to a front in my mind. Every time I rolled my eyes at something she did or a reason she was frustrated felt shameful. Here I sat, the whole world in my arms, sobbing at the thought of going through what she had.

So I posed the question: could I do it? Could I stand where she had once stood, face-to-face with someone who had no idea of the loss I was feeling, trying to be a decent and good-natured human while I felt thrown off the axis of my whole world?

What I had five years ago was forced sympathy, what I so plainly lacked was simple empathy. This question of standing in her shoes still flashes in my mind. It happens more than I could ever admit to my husband, more than I could ever express to her. Could I have stood where she stood with as much grace as she showed?

So I shift. I no longer give slack to her, rather due credit, for standing amidst the pain and not completely unraveling. For that, in itself, is a feat I never wish to accomplish.

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