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Dr. Norman Brown
Dr. Norman Brown, Marriage Therapist
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Experience:  Family Therapist & teacher 35+ yrs; PhD research in couples
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I just read the following quote as the final sentence in an

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I just read the following quote as the final sentence in an article: "Sadly, there is no real answer to how to deal with your wife’s ex husband apart from patience, perhaps therapy and making the best possible life for your stepchildren." Do you think this is true? As the new husband, I am sometimes frustrated with my wife in the way she deals with her ex. They had a toxic relationship when married, and it continues to be toxic. I would like to step in more and do some of the negotiating, because it would take out the toxicity factor, but my wife won't let me. I think deep down she thinks that this means her ex "wins". I don't really care what he thinks inside his own head, as long as it makes for a better life for the kids. But overall my allegiance to my wife comes first, so I have to watch her muddle along trying to communicate with this man she despises. I mostly manage to bite my tongue but sometimes my frustrations boil over. Any thoughts?

Dr. Norman Brown :

This is a very charged issue, and I want to think this through, but it's too late at night. To start out, I'll point out that you have every reason to believe the same sort of thing about her insisting that she must deal with exhusband by herself as she believes about your having contact with him by yourself: She has many years of emotional-mental-patterns with him, and you have much less. You think she's getting trapped by her past dealings with him, and you want to protect her from the toxicity of their interaction.

Dr. Norman Brown :

It is actually the normal outcome of very toxic relationships that your wife would think that only she can handle her exhusband in the right way--because she has so much fear & shame that things will turn out badly if she doesn't do the relating the best way she knows how. Yes, you need patience, because you can't work changes at any rapid pace. But your presence as a very involved partner WILL change the (usually only partly conscious) emotional/mental dynamics between them. So I don't agree with whatever expert made that statement. I can feel in my bones the high emotional investment you both feel about making her exhusband-relations go a better way than they do now. But YOU don't have the ruts she has with him, so YOU have a natural dynamic advantage for bringing about change. OVER TIME of course.

Dr. Norman Brown :

But I must wait till tomorrow, at least afternoon, if not evening to discuss this more with you. It would help if you provide more details of what's set up in their divorce & custody agreement, and how you'd like to see the interactions change. OH NO I can't stay up! Its' 4:30 AM here.

I was afraid the computer system just robbed me of everything I've written. So I changed to Q & A. But it's no different than chat. Please write everything you want to write. But I won't see it until tomorrow. I wrote one of the best textbook chapters some reviewers had ever seen on divorce back around 2000, and also a doctoral dissertation on the relationships of children of divorce, so I have some extensive knowledge.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

Hi Dr Norman,

Thanks for your thoughts above. They're helpful. Especially the comment about my wife's fear and shame that only she can deal properly with her ex. She's kind of protecting me I suppose.


Not having used JustAnswer before, I don't know how it works. If I send you more information and you reply again, I presume I would need to keep paying more? Is this correct? Assuming this is the case, I won't continue with the counselling at the moment because funds are a bit tight, but it is helpful to know that I could keep my login details and continue this conversation at any time.


Dear XXXXX, No, actually you don't have to pay more to continue with counseling conversation. You have up to 1 week to complete a consultation. I won't go on forever, but I'll try to reach a significant result with/or you--esp because I'll want you to trust me with further inquiries later. I know very well about fund's being tight, so I'm sympathetic.


I thought a little bit more about your wife--and in fact, while I was waiting over 3 hours in the middle of the night for my daughter (who is disabled and was apparently uncomprehending and incoherent with lack of sleep & pain drug interactions) to be released from jail after I bailed her out--while waiting in my car with her toy poodle, I made a valuable new realization for my book on Emotional Dynamics of Love: Since (no researcher has yet paid any attention to this likely consequence of the last 20 yrs of cerebellum research) not only complex physical performances like riding a bicycle care conserved for repetition in complex neural structures, but also complex combinations of Perception, Physical performance, Feeling and Thinking--it follows that a specific form of LOVE-patterning itself (when established thru intense emotions and years of repetition, esp with one's first-great-love or first marriage) is also conserved for repetition. This I already figured out over a year ago. But last night I realized that Carl Jung's well-known "Mother Complex" and "Father Complex" are also similar specific forms of Love-Patterning with specific target people, so one could call the situation of your wife a "Love-partner Complex" --and like MC & FC, LPC would also be partly functional&useful & partly toxic, but pretty likely to continue for her whole life unless one of two things happens: 1. She has nothing more to do with her exhusband AND puts that LPC away in a dusty corner of her attic, AND develops an entirely NEW LPC with you that doesn't repeat too many of the elements of her former pattern--but she won't be able to do that until they have a lot less (or no) need to ever see each other, OR 2. She "works on her conscious awareness" of what happens IN HER & WITH HER BEHAVIOR, either by reviewing that relationship repeatedly with a skilled psychotherapist or by writing about what happens, preferably by doing both of these. However YOU could also stand in somewhat for a skilled psychotherapist, if you know how to use your own observations of her behavior and thoughts and feelings vis-a-vis him WITHOUT putting her on the defensive (tho it sounds like she's going to feel defensive anyway, because she knows she's not satisfied with how she can manage that interaction.


One way you can do that is to BE THERE as often as possible when they make contact (for exchanging the kids etc.)--and you observe HOW she feels, what happens to her thinking & behavior with him compared to how she acts with you, plus also how YOU feel (putting jealousy aside as much as possible, but recording your urges to protect her, your anger, your embarrassment about how she's acting & reacfting. I've done this over the years with my wife's mother and her sister, where her mother is very narcissistic and discounting of her children. Your observations don't have to be therapeutic as suggestions for how she SHOULD have responded, but by expressing how YOU felt and what YOU felt like saying&doing, you can then ask what she herself was thinking/feeling at that moment--and use that as an awareness-raising process, also telling her that's what this online couples therapist suggested you might do to help her become enough aware of what's going on within her so that she can "swim against the neurobiological stream" of her cerebellar LPC structures. If as I suspect, you can let such old love patterns fade over time and also overwrite them with new love patterns, but never just erase them With That Person altogether, because her perceptual triggers (him & his behavior) will remain powerful for years2decades from now.


Sorry for the complex formulations, but I'm doing it for myself with your situation as a trigger & focus.


The fact that she expects her ex to "turn you against her" if she's not there to stop it, implies to me that he was very used to making her feel worthless as a way of controlling her. So she may also be feeling on the edge of worthlessness even when you're present and she's not showing it. So if you pick up any feeling that he could be subtly criticizing her (like what she "hasn't done right" for the kids, or "why weren't they ready to go right away when he arrived?") then you could counteract his effect Without just defending her, but by praising her instead.


Complicated, yes. But not as pessimistic as the conventional wisdom you were quoting.


Customer: replied 4 years ago.



Thanks Norman. This is a wonderful response, and has clearly taken you a lot of effort, especially given your own current dramas! To be able to exchange with you over the course of a week seems like a luxury, but I am grateful for your thoughts. I will certainly be rating you with the "Excellent Service" smiley face!


I have a degree in counselling, but only a small amount of actual practice. But I have also been in therapy for short periods, so am used to the interactions between counsellor and client. I am really enjoying this written exchange between you and me. I kind of like the time gaps between responses because it allows for further reflection and thought.


I would like to start by highlighting an area in which you are exactly right:


"this implies to me that he was very used to making her feel worthless as a way of controlling her". My wife has often said this to me. A few years ago, she shouted at him very angrily in a public situation, and he came across all agrieved and said he would no longer speak to her in person. So all communication with her is by SMS or email. As I think about that moment now, I feel very proud of my wife, because it suggests to me that at that moment he no longer felt in control of her.


In my meeting with him the other day, he took the chance to "subtly criticize her" and for the most part I simply listened. I hoped that by doing so, it might help him to relieve some of his bitterness. I shared very little of the meeting with my wife. I asked her could she trust me that I had not changed over to his side, but could we please not speak about the meeting. She agreed to this, but as I have said earlier, she was highly skeptical, because she felt he would be doing his "snake in the grass" thing. I must admit I am now starting to think the same thing!! After very little contact for about two years, this was now his chance to air his grievances, and he raked up incidents stretching back many years. In many cases I was well aware of the part that he had played in these incidents but I said nothing. It was throughout this meeting that I was formulating my thought that I mentioned earlier, that in fact these two hate each other's guts, and that absolutely no good can come from them communicating with each other. Because even the simplest detail about arranging a meeting time can get both of them extremely angry. This vitriol then spills out onto the two kids, the boy sides with dad and the girl sides with mum. I figured that if I could be the go-between, ie the sender and receiver of SMS and emails, it might take some of the heat out of the contact and there would be fewer flare-ups. The risk of course is that the flare-ups could occur between my wife and I instead! Even as I write this, I think that actually my wife is very wise and that it is better that I not become the go-between. What I can do is to be more involved with her in the sending of messages, and help her with wording and timing etc, and as you said to praise and encourage her in her dealings with him. Even though she has vowed to no longer be a doormat, I take your point that there may well be a certain fear on her part of him trying to control her again.


I have encouraged my wife on several occasions to seek counselling about her past. Not only does she have her ex, but her father was an alcoholic and there have been other tough family situations. But she is very stoic and says she doesn't need it. I am a person that believes in the hope of things improving, but in her down times, she can be very resigned to thinking things will never improve. I am hoping that by attending some counselling myself, it might model for her that this can be a good thing. (I have yet to tell her about my exchanges with you, but will hopefully do so in time).


So for the moment, I like your advice of monitoring my own thoughts, feelings and behaviour and using that as a springboard for discussion with my wife about her own.


I agree with you that the triggers will be there for years to come, but for the time being I am hopeful of at least the following: That through my increased emotional support for my wife, that she will be able to communicate even slightly more effectively with her ex, and that my conversation with him might have diffused his own anger a little. Therefore there will be less misunderstandings and hopefully also less vitriol fed down to the kids. Given that the latest crisis all sprung from the anger of my stepson, I hope that there will be less to feed his anger and that he might become a happier boy. (He is 13 y.o)


Dare I lead to another implied point of yours? That maybe my wife's LPC also has an impact in our own marriage? I certainly feel at times that I can never please her and I sometimes feel like saying "I'm not your ex. I am a different man altogether. You can trust me to always encourage you and never put you down or let you down. I may make a few stuff-ups, but it is simply out of my male-ness or whatever you want to call it, but it does not come from a deep seated place of control or bitterness or anything like that".


Norman, I welcome any further comments, because I am enjoying this conversation, but please tell me if enough is enough and that it's time to end this dialogue.


A final question - will all this conversation eventually be made public to the members of the JustAnswer website? Its unlikely, but I am slightly concerned that my wife's ex or someone else could find it and know who this is about.





First: It is possible for other socalled "experts" to view what we are writing. But once any other viewer notices that it's only you and I communicating -- and the majority of them know that in marriage counseling I'm top-o-the-line for this website: Not one marriage counselor in 1,000 has written a substantial research-based upper level college textbook on love relationships, because psychotherapists rely far more on their own experience, training and intuition than on any research that they're only rarely forced (by biennial continuing education credit-requirements) to notice. So very rarely does any other counseling "expert" try to come in & offer a contrasting or complementary approach, and therefore it's unlikely that anyone but you and I will ever read this--since it's not available to anyone else once it's closed.


And the other "customers" or "clients" have NO access to anyone else's communications.


With that said, I assure you that your blended family problems are closer to half a dozen NORMAL enduring hassles than to any outlier experience that would stand out if it were used as an example in an article like the one you read.


Next: "she shouted at him in a public setting. " What's very likely to happen when a woman (or man) has been belittled & controlled by her mate for many years, and she's been used to it and naturally ducking her own opportunities to right the balance of power for a decade or more--her path to redeeming her own self-esteem and personal power will normally be marked by quite dramatic outbursts of anger that are long overdue. I'm guessing she initiated the divorce too (since around 2/3 of divorces are initiated by the woman), unless he ran away by grabbing onto another woman.


Next: I like your intention to help your wife formulate her messages to her ex. I've done stuff like that for many years with clients. What I do is imagine how the ex might react when she puts it on paper, and then advise her on editing. And if you also say things like "If I was writing this to him I would want to make sure he knows I have good advice to make sure that what I'm suggesting is going to be good for the kids and us too--and I'll try to be fair to you too." (Or whatever. Since you've had some counseling yourself, you'll have an idea of what your goals in counseling her are: That she has the power of considering what she feels and wants to say each time before she makes a move. And she needs to feel that with you at her side she can have equal power to her ex, and she can avoid antagonizing him whenever possible.)


She has a very negative father-complex from the alcoholic too.


But now my daughter has come downstairs in full freakout because she was manhandled saturday night when caught stuffing expensive makeup into her purse--when she wasn't even trying to hide that fact because of narcotic & other medicine interactions, etc. and her body and spirit are very bruised, as well as the level of narcotics she has don't manage the increased pain--but I have to drop everything, since she's now weeping at me so I must help her relieve her hysterical&fibromyalgia&jointpain crisis. She has an inherited (mostly from me) connective tissue disorder that's incurable, tho she's no longer suicidal. I just have to stop writing to you and deal with her. She hopes to achieve some respite from pain through my attention, so that's where I will go. I'll be back some time tomorrow. Sorry.

Customer: replied 4 years ago.

Morning Norman. Hope things are settling down for your daughter. It sounds pretty traumatic.


I have plenty of material from our conversation to mull over and use in the future.


Can I run one final thing by you?


I have been chatting with my wife a bit about the whole thing and she told me today that her ex has recently been telling her older children that she was unfaithful to him (not true) and he has certainly made other untrue claims such as she "took all his money" in the divorce settlement. He continues to tell his 13 year old son that he does not know why the marriage ended. Consequently the son comes to his mum in an angry way asking the same question. When the son comes back to stay with us, (he alternates one week with his dad, and one with his mum), over the last few months it is as though he is returning to "The Enemy". We feel like we are in a war zone with him, with his physical and verbal abuse of us.


I will be interested to see how things go from this week, after my discussion with the ex. In our discussion, I asked him not to put his grievances on to his son. He admitted that he does this sometimes as he has no-one else at home and therefore inappropriately shares his frustrations with his son. In all honesty, I don't expect it to improve much, but even a little bit would be nice.


But I suppose my question is "what can we do in our household to counteract the negative vibes from the ex that are picked up by my stepson and then transferred on to us?" Because we have no control over what is said and done in the other household. My wife holds her tongue as much as she can, but sometimes she will come out with "Your Father does this and does that blah blah blah.." and my stepson always takes that so defensively and gets extremely angry, even though we believe he knows deep down that what she says is often true.


If you have a comment about this Norman, it would be welcomed, but I promise that's my last question for this long conversation.


Warm regards


I'm sorry but I can't focus on JA inquiries tonight, because I've been embroiled in medical issues with both my wife and my daughter since the weekend. I'll try to get back to you tomorrow. It's a pretty tense situation that requires a handful of strategies and time to practice to find out which work better. But that's not saying anything.
Customer: replied 4 years ago.

Thanks Norman. Your family comes first. I appreciate your support in the midst of your own crises.

It sounds like the ex is capable of insight and also respectful towards you. Counseling training does have its uses in real life when w'r able to slow down our own reactions so we can recalibrate our approaches before they color our outward behavior--which is far easier to do when you don't have your own cerebellar-structured interaction-pattern with the other person--and YOU don't, so you're in a better position to mediate frictions between her & him than she is.


Now that raises the question of how to get your wife to recognize that you are more successful than she in interaction for conflict reduction. You could approach it with the concept of "Good Cop, Bad Cop" because YOU got a partial confession of culpability out of him, that he does let his frustrations out to his son, which he could not easily do with HER. And you didn't tell her (much) about that, I'd guess. So he can be more vulnerable with you than with her. He's also not re-partnered, so he's feeling one-down to her and may also be constellating his own oedipal triangle from childhood with you as the (new) Father. SO any kindness and understanding you show towards him may be both humiliating and (if it does not seem to have a shred of condescension in it--and you can monitor that by watching your own feelings) liberating him from the inner (denied) prison of "I wasn't good enough for her, and she won't let me loose." [That's the paradoxical opposite face of the controlling husband, who is controlling&imprisoning his wife's soul because that's his desperate strategy to make sure she has to love him: That's HIS own Mother-complex &/or Father-complex re-embodied in his LPC.] But YOU can give him a pathway to redemption of his (already in childhood) deformed self-love, by giving him subtle hints on how to improve relations in the whole family and thus earn his own rehab from the guilt&helpless-regret prison--eg by teaching his son about how to show his mother respect even when he doesn't want to trust her, and by gaining his own insight about how the marriage deteriorated and crashed that does NOT rely on the lie that she was cheating.


At some point you might even mention that the BEST thing that a man can do after he's been shoved out by a divorce is to get a year of counseling for his own personal development, so that the next time he gets involved with a woman he's far more in command of his own emotion-colored behavior, AND even his exwife might recognize that he's REALLTY turned a good corner in his behavior and the kids will then benefit from the personal insight he's passing on to them. [otherwise it's possible his boy will grow up to feel 2nd-class like his father and also try to control a girlfriend and get even worse if it works, and it often does, even for the first 3-10 years. (Your kindness towards the boy will help reduce that--same as for the father).


[I mention the idea that his exwife might be impressed with a self-insight-based turnaround in his behavior, because THAT’S WHAT HE SECRETLY WANTS, and needs to GET HIMSELF OUT OF HIS LONELY PRISON of personal FAILURE —where he probably grew up too.]


A further point: They wouldn't be spewing anger & "righteous outrage" at each other if either of them had worked through the anger (from tumultuous emotional chaos) stage of their grief. That would be likely to happen whenever expartners have little consciousness about grief and more motivation to avoid it than to suffer with it, and especially if she got involved sooner than he did, SO HE ACTUALLY FEELS LIKE SHE'S CHEATING ON HIM, because he hasn't even started to let go of her and let her be happy even when he's not happy. (That could be where his accusations that she was cheating come from.)


There is one simple step that both could take to help begin the purging of those undigested emotions: Write a long letter to the other to express EVERYTHING that's waiting inside to come out, LOUD & CLEAR, and explicitly give permission to express ANGER, HATE, HURT, UNFAIRNESS, SORROW, DISGUST, SHAME/HUMILIATION and FEAR. Each should do it in privacy, so no one else knows about it or sees it. (Just knowing she'll do it might feel threatening to you, so it's better if she doesn't tell you whether she'll do it or not.)


The digestive tract analogy is a good one: Getting out the sh*t that's clogged in the lower bowel will get the digesion process moving again, but NOT COMPLETE it the first time it's done, so some other manifestations of grief reactions will show up, including dreams (which are higher power videomessages to help guide the dreamer thru the tunnel of grief to the new dawn on the other side). 2 more consequences are also likely: 1. one person's secret emotional turmoil hour(s) may trigger reactions in the other by psychic influence, because people who were each other's first loves can often have such strong unconscious bonds afterwards (LPC again, perhaps).


Did I mention that these letters, tho printed out, are normally NEVER sent to the addressee, nor are they showed to anybody else, least of all YOU. The writer may hold onto the script until it's burning a hole in her/his pocket, and then burn or bury it or both, whatever feels (symbolically) right. Yet some transmission may still proceed via ethereal channels. So one person's purging-expressing may trigger and foster the other person's.


2. The digestive & bowel-voiding events may seem to be getting out of the organism's control. And at that time YOU're in a position to advise either one of them to see their own counselor privately, because they are then doing grief counseling. There might be divorce counseling groups in your part of OZ too, but I'm not convinced that divorcees can show that much chaotic emotion in a group setting--you'd have to look into that.


"It's not your job," true, not in your Newhusband jobdescription. But your life is being cramped and jostled by their unmoving grief reactions, so you're supplying psychological laxative! I'm concerned that your wife may well NOT BE ABLE TO TOLERATE EVEN KNOWING that you're fostering her exhusband's healing too by subtly counseling him, and even by visiting with him at all. Perhaps your coaching efforts for her distant communications with him will soften her up to realizing that there are some ("viral") parts of the situation that you are best suited to handle. Nevertheless, it IS risky to set up a dual relationship for yourself (husband & counselor) and also Without either person's explicit permission. But people with counseling skills are likely to use them even when they "shouldn't."


And I think, seriously, that you CAN mention to each of them separately, that you had a class in grief counseling, and it reminds you now that their rapid-onset anger&outrage means their anger NEEDS expression, but in safer ways than by instigating snarling messes between them. It''s an "abstract conclusion that you're naively repeating" from a teacher you had way back when. (How does your wife get to accidentally marry a trained mental health counselor anyway?)


I can't spare the time to do this, but I'm glad that I did a little core-dump of how you as step-father can play a very influential role, if you utilize the counselor's ability to observe and intervene from an insightful distance. I expect you'd be least able to do that with your wife, because your own LPC is operative: but you CAN learn about what your unconscious expectations are by noticing when you're frustrated.

Dr. Norman Brown and other Relationship Specialists are ready to help you