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Setting Boundaries for a Meddling Ex-Spouse

When you have a new marriage and blended family, it's important to build a respectful working relationship with your ex.
By Ron L. Deal

Nicole never saw it coming. Since she had a respectful, decent working relationship with her ex-husband, she never anticipated how intrusive her fiancé’s ex-wife, Sharon, would be. While Nicole and Tom dated, Sharon seemed to keep her distance. Nicole naturally assumed that once she and Tom married, Sharon would decrease her texts, late night calls, and “show-up-at-the-front-door-unannounced” behavior. She was wrong. In fact, as soon as she and Tom were married, Sharon’s troubling behavior increased.

Weddings have a funny way of activating ex-spouses toward one of two extremes. Either they increase contact with the ex or they increase movement away from the kids (neither is healthy). In Sharon’s case, she increased contact with Tom around parental issues and petty requests.

Did she feet threatened by her children having a stepmother? Was she still trying to hold on to Tom emotionally? Did she resent Tom moving on after their divorce? Perhaps (but only God knows her motivation). Nicole and Tom will certainly have theories about why Sharon acts the way she does, but they will probably never know for sure.

Nevertheless, they will have to deal with Sharon—and do so with unity.

Working toward a respectful working relationship

In order to protect their new marriage and blended family, it would be wise for Tom and Nicole to set some boundaries. Doing so doesn’t mean Sharon will automatically respect or accommodate them. But when implemented with humility and upheld for an extended period of time, both households just might find a more respectful working relationship. One boundary is keeping between-home conversations focused on just parenting issues.

Tom should also take the initiative to have a regularly scheduled co-parenting meeting with Sharon. That will help him anticipate parenting matters and communicate expectations. When parenting concerns come up, they should only be discussed during co-parenting meetings, unless there is an emergency. (Moderate- to low-conflict co-parents will not have to resort to this extreme request, but folks like Tom may need to.)

If Sharon contacts either Tom or Nicole at another time, they can avoid replying or table the conversation until the next scheduled meeting. In addition, if Sharon tries to engage Tom in more personal topics (not parental ones), he can simply redirect the conversation, “I appreciate your interest, but I’d prefer not to discuss that with you. Let’s focus on what’s happening with the kids.”

Tom should actively head off intrusive behavior. If Sharon repeatedly shows up on their doorstep, he should assertively (but politely) ask her not to. “Do not come over unannounced again. Text me first to see if it is okay. If not, I’ll give you another option.”

Unfortunately, this type of assertiveness often falls prey to the ex-spouse’s manipulation; like telling the kids that you are being mean. Do not let this type of response detour you from following through. If your children get pulled into the situation, tell the kids your request is not theirs to worry about and continue to deal directly with your ex.

Nicole should guard her heart from turning on her husband. An unfortunate casualty of this type of ex-spouse stress is when the stepparent blames the spouse for not stopping the ex-spouse’s harassment. The last suggested tip for Tom is that he set a reasonable boundary with Sharon, but that doesn’t guarantee that she will honor it. Sharon’s behavior is not Tom’s responsibility and Nicole should not take her frustrations out on Tom. Instead, she and Tom need to work hard to lean on and trust one another as they cope with Sharon’s chaos.

Protect your marriage. Find your resolve. Far too many people cater to irresponsible, malicious ex-spouses out of the fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Sometimes our desire for peace leads us to an unrealistic reliance on being reasonable with unreasonable people. Nothing will change the between-home boundaries until you unapologetically stand up for what’s right, become respectfully assertive, and act accordingly. Find your resolve and act.




Read “10 Respectful Strategies to Use with an Unhealthy Co-Parent.”


Children’s and student ministries should take initiative to ask kids how things are going between their homes. Children rarely get to talk about such matters with a trusted, neutral adult. Similarly, parent education programs should teach wise boundary-making with ex-spouses.


© 2012 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

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Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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