Relationship Connection: My husband still takes family pictures with his ex-wife

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Question

My husband and I have been married 15 years. We each have children from first marriages. It’s always been my understanding that his ex-wife wanted the divorce. I later learned from her it was because he was condescending, and it seems he’s always experienced some guilt over it. He seems to try really hard to be accommodating to her.

I am always in support of him being the best father he can be, which includes being good to their mother. Over the years she has given her opinion about many things regarding our family life and influenced many decisions – including calling him on our vacations.

Even though his youngest is 23 years old, his ex-wife is constantly trying to take “family” pictures without me. We have gotten along fine over the years, but now at every event where we are all there, she frequently asks me to take a picture of all of them – or has one of the kids ask me.

I found out last summer that his ex-wife regretted divorcing him shortly after she’d done so and wanted him back. My husband’s sister said the ex-wife always thought he’d come back. He ignores me when I tell him about how the “family” picture issue makes me feel. He acts like he doesn’t notice. I have even told him that if in any way he wants his old “family” back, I would step aside. He says that’s ridiculous, but these episodes of her trying to take “family” pictures continues.

I got counseling about this issue in the past, and what I got from this is that it was my husband’s fault that he didn’t draw appropriate boundaries. It is still happening. I never used to be an insecure person but am feeling more insecure as time goes on.

I don’t think this is good for me. I love my husband and believe he loves me, but I feel absolutely horrible about this when it occurs. For the last year or so we have tried to avoid the picture issue, but this last weekend when I was asked to take a picture of them, I refused and later got very upset at my husband because it was still happening — and told him he needed to take care of it. I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t want to continue this way.

Answer

It sounds like you’ve been actively trying to address this difficult dynamic with your husband and his ex-wife for many years, but nothing is changing. They’re both stuck in an unresolved attachment dance that neither of them is willing to change. While you can’t do anything to make either of them change their behaviors, you need to know you still have options.

You’ve brought it up with him, you’ve declined to take their picture and you’ve even sought counseling to figure out how to cope with this strange dynamic between your husband and his ex-wife. Since this is something that bothers you more than it bothers them, you have a personal responsibility to decide if this is something you want to continue addressing.

While I can agree with you that it’s odd to keep taking family photos of the old arrangement while you’re standing on the outside, you have to determine how threatening this is to your bond with your husband. 

My guess is that this photo-taking interaction is just the tip of the iceberg in your years-long frustrations with your husband’s unwillingness to set healthy boundaries. If he’s still making room for her in all of these different scenarios, what do you want to do? Is it a deal-breaker for your marriage?

It sounds like it’s serious enough for you to consider moving aside so he can go back to his original setup. Again, he’s not bothered by it enough to do anything different, so you have to decide if it’s something you want to continue addressing it or accept it as part of the conditions of this marriage. 

If you decide to keep addressing this with him, instead of making it about the picture taking, talk with your husband about your worries about him wanting to be with his ex-wife again. Let him know you count on his loyalty to you and your new family. If he won’t reassure you and dismisses your concerns, then you can seek out marriage counseling to have a professional help you resolve this impasse. 

Regardless of your decision to address it or accept it, you can still have boundaries with this situation. Here are some examples of boundaries you might consider:

  • Inviting him to marriage therapy.
  • Refusing to take any photos of their old family.
  • Insisting on being in the family photos next to your husband.
  • Expecting him to talk with you about this when it happens.
  • Agreeing on a game plan when you’re going to be around his ex-wife.
  • Excluding the ex-wife from parenting decisions.
  • Surrendering this dynamic and trusting your husband’s commitment to you.
  • Asking for ongoing reassurance from your husband.
  • Addressing this directly with his ex-wife and asking for her cooperation.
  • Create more marital separation if he continues to involve her in these ways.

As you can see, you have options and don’t have to stay bitter and fearful in a state of perceived powerlessness. Your husband is exercising his ability to direct his life, and you have the same right. Obviously, your goal is to create marital harmony, but if this isn’t your husband’s goal, then you have some tough decisions to make. However, you need to know that you can still make decisions.  

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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