Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Should I Visit My Dad’s Ex-Wife?”

I’m having difficulty deciding how – or whether – to uphold a relationship with my dad’s last wife, “Charlene.” My father died a year and a half ago, two months after divorcing Charlene, although he never moved out of the house they’d shared and continued to interact with her as if nothing had changed. He was married to Charlene for twelve years, but when he died, he was also two years into an affair with another woman, “Jane,” whom he introduced to my younger brother and said he planned to marry. There was a lot of drama surrounding this relationship when he died, so much so that we had to take special precautions to make sure Jane and Charlene would not encounter each other at the service, and to make sure Charlene would not see the effusive, sappy posts Jane left on various newspaper editions of Dad’s obituary. We believed Charlene did not know about Jane, and we wanted to keep it that way.

I still think of Charlene as my step-mom. I call her to check in every few months, and we have discussed our mutual desire to stay in touch. I’d really like to see her. I’ve mentioned a few times that I’d love to come up and visit (she lives three hours north of me), and she’s agreed pretty vaguely, not suggesting any specifics. We have never scheduled anything, other than when I came up to retrieve some of my dad’s belongings a month after he died.

I’d like to invite myself up to see her – she’s a homebody, and she wouldn’t make the drive down here to see me. But I don’t know if that’s welcome. She seems happy to talk on the phone – we usually talk for over an hour, but she’s never solidified a time to visit. Part of me feels like maybe I just need to take the initiative, as Charlene has always seemed quite reserved, but the other part of me argues that she can invite me if she wants to. Part of my awkwardness in dealing with this stems from the fact that I’m not exactly sure how much she knows about the affair. She’s never mentioned it, but I can’t believe she doesn’t know. I’m not sure, though – the last time I talked to her, she was referring to my dad in a diminutive of his name, like Bobby for Bob, that she’s never used before. I read some sentimentality into that.

I want to see Charlene because I love and miss her, and even though I’m in my late twenties, their divorce and my dad’s death back-to-back was a lot to process. My family just doesn’t feel the same at all with both of them absent. But I also want to respect her space and her right to decide how much of her life from her marriage to my dad she holds onto – which I know might change with time. I’m confused, though, because I am always the one who calls her to visit, and I just learned she had heart surgery almost a year ago and never told me until now. I feel like if I got these signals from a man or a friend, I’d be crazy not to MOA, although this isn’t the same thing, really. How should I proceed? — Still her Stepdaughter?

First of all, I’m sorry for the loss of your father. I’m sure your stepmother, like you, has been processing his death, their divorce, and his affair over these last couple of years. She probably has moments of feeling very angry, and probably has moments of feeling sad. It’s also pretty likely she’s had her share of lonely days, too. I bet what she hasn’t had, though, are any days where she blames YOU for anything or resents you for your father’s behavior. It’s also quite possible that, like you, in the months since your father’s death she has wished that her relationship to you were better defined.

I can tell by reading your letter that you are a thoughtful, compassionate person, and I can imagine what a source of comfort it might be for a woman grieving a man she once loved to have a stepdaughter like you to lean on and grieve with. But I can also appreciate how temping it may be for her to draw some boundaries between herself and the world she shared with your father while she sorts through the mixed emotions of having lost someone with whom she had a complicated relationship.

But it’s been a year and a half and it’s a good bet to think her fondness for you is stronger than any bitter memories your presence might stir. It’s also a good bet to think she’d welcome a visit from you. It’s certainly a good enough bet to take the risk and invite yourself to see her. The worst that will happen is she’ll turn you down, in which case at least you’ll know where things currently stand.

But I doubt that will happen. My hunch is she’ll be pleased that you WANT to see her — that you genuinely welcome a relationship, not out of a sense of obligation, but because she means something to you. And even if she isn’t ready to see you yet, at least she’ll know where things stand. She’ll know that she is important to you — important enough that you’d take the time to drive all the way to see her.

Don’t let whatever complicated issues she and your dad had stand in the way of what could be a mutually fulfilling relationship between the two of you. You had nothing to do with your dad’s affair. Charlene knows that. You may represent your dad in her eyes, and I suspect that’s what your fear is, but you represent the goodness she loved in him. You represent the happy memories. You represent the positive side of his legacy. And it’s true she may not want to embrace any of his legacy yet — negative or positive — but on the chance that she does, you really don’t have much to lose by inviting yourself to visit. And you potentially have a lot to gain.

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

41 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Addie Pray November 13, 2012, 9:09 am

    Beautiful, Wendy!

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  • JK

    JK November 13, 2012, 9:11 am

    WWS: I do know however how awkward it can feel inviting yourself, when the person has given you a vague welcome, but not set any real plans.
    Maybe you could think of something to do near where Charlene lives, and let her know you´ll be in the area on X day, that you´d love to stop by for a coffee, whatever? Then if that goes well you could organize a proper visit for a later date. I think I at least would be more comfortable with that type of arrangement.

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    • avatar

      MMcG November 13, 2012, 9:21 am

      That’s a great suggestion JK! Even if there’s a little white lie involved about being in town… seems like one of the rare perfect moments where a little passive- aggressive action might do the trick. Work your way up to fully inviting yourself over 😉

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    • avatar

      bethany November 13, 2012, 9:33 am

      Great suggestion, JK!
      I find that some people have a hard time planning things, so if the LW says “I’m going to be in town this day, I’d like to take you to dinner”, it might be easier for the Step Mother. Also, I’m sure the LW already knows this, but book a hotel for your visit. Don’t assume you’re going to stay at her house!

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      • avatar

        ktfran November 13, 2012, 9:37 am

        If she has lunch with the step mother, I really think the LW could drive three hours there and three hours back one saturday or sunday. No more than two hours each way for a day trip is ideal, but an extra couple hours is manageable I think. I know I would be ok with that if it were someone I wanted to see.

        I’m only saying this if the LW didn’t want to stay in a hotel. Also a very viable option.

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    • avatar

      jlyfsh November 13, 2012, 9:51 am

      wonderful suggestion JK! and someone below mentioned holiday shopping, you can always say you’re in the area at a certain store or something. and since she’s a homebody i might suggest bringing lunch or a snack to her house. just so she’s more comfortable!

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    • avatar

      CSP November 13, 2012, 10:12 am

      I was going to write this too! such a great idea. LW, sometimes people don’t want to burden “young people”. This is a great way to say, Oh, I am going to this concert, festival, ect. I would love to stop by if you have time. I think it can be a way to take off the pressure.

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    • avatar

      Addie Pray November 13, 2012, 11:16 am

      Good idea, my lil’ JKster! (I dunno.)

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  • avatar

    artsygirl November 13, 2012, 9:15 am

    LW – You should most definitely drive up and see your step mother since it is something that you want to do. Beyond that, I imagine she has not made concrete plans because she probably feels like she is putting you out. After all, you are not her daughter, in fact your father had divorced her before his death, and you have to make a 3 hour drive to see her. If I were in your shoes, I would call her up and tell her that you are going to be in the area of such a weekend (that way she can gracefully bow out if she does not want to see you). Ask if you can meet with her and possibly suggest one of her favorite restaurants or a coffee shop so she will not feel like she has to entertain you. My thought is that she will be delighted to see you, people do not talk on the phone for a hour at a time if they are not genuinely fond of the person they are speaking to.

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  • avatar

    j2 November 13, 2012, 9:34 am

    I agree that LW should try to have a physical meeting with Charlene. Her home may not be the best the first time.

    The holidays are coming. How about asking her to go shopping under the pretext that you want/need her help to pick items for one or more mutual persons, like LW’s younger brother, etc? That would pave the way for lunch on neutral territory, so to speak, and could lead to more later or the next time.

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  • avatar

    ktfran November 13, 2012, 9:34 am

    This letter made me really sad. LW, you sound like an awesome stepdaughter.

    I like what others are suggesting. Call Charlene up. Say you’re going to be in the area and ask to meet for lunch.

    I think six hours round trip drive some Saturday is manageable. It’s not ideal, but doable. But I think it might be easier to start off small and let things progress from there.

    Hell, I’m sometimes on the bus for an hour and a half to get on the other side if Chicago.

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  • avatar

    Lo November 13, 2012, 9:36 am

    Beautiful response Wendy.

    I’d add that some people just aren’t the personality to make the step into concrete plans unless you come in first with a suggestion. I like the “I’ll be in the area” plan…though I think you also should just call up and say “what are your weekends like in December I’d love to see you for the holidays…how about x, y or z dates I come over and bring dinner?”

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    • Fabelle

      Fabelle November 13, 2012, 10:33 am

      “…some people just aren’t the personality to make the step into concrete plans unless you come in first with a suggestion” <—this. From the way the LW describes the stepmother's personality, it's likely she just doesn't want to be like "Okay, sure! Why don't you come here next Friday?" (I know I'm kind of a reserved, plans-averse person, & even typing that example sentence out made me cringe a little.)

      I'm guessing Charlene just doesn't want to impose on the LW, now that the boundries are a bit blurred. Maybe she thinks the LW is just trying to be nice. I'll add that being depressed (which I'm sure Charlene is right now) may negatively affect her perceptions– she may be thinking the lack of concrete offer to visit is a sign that her stepdaughter wants to let the relationship lapse. So I think it's a good idea for the LW to extend an offer.

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    • avatar

      Lindsay November 13, 2012, 11:55 am

      I think this is the best idea. It gives her an easy way to turn it down (“Sorry, I don’t think any of those will work.”), but isn’t so complicated.

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  • avatar

    Michelle.Lea November 13, 2012, 9:37 am

    definitely go see her. after 12 years, i would assume she’s fairly attached to you as well. she’s not just your ‘dads ex wife’, she’s your step mother. even the divorce didnt change that.

    go go go.

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  • LK7889

    LK7889 November 13, 2012, 10:03 am

    Awww, you sound like a wonderful person, LW! I agree with everyone else and think that your step-mother would probably love to see you. Good luck!

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  • katie

    katie November 13, 2012, 10:13 am

    definitely try to make plans to see her.

    i think that what might be happening too is a kind of reserve process of what the LW is struggling with… maybe step-mom doesnt want to overstep her own boundaries that she thinks she is bound to. maybe she thinks that the vague plans are just YOU, lw, being polite to a woman you dont want to see anymore, you know? i think a step parent role can be awkward when lines arent clearly defined, and i think after the death of the biological parent, that is one of those times… she might think that your the one who doesnt want to continue the relationship.

    i think the above suggestion of just being “in town” is a great one- its very low pressure and casual. also, with the holidays coming up, i think that also is a perfect “excuse”- everyone wants to see everyone during the holidays, thats not weird at all. so i say go for it! if she doesnt want to, she doesnt want to, and maybe she can continue to be a great friend over the phone. and if she does, awesome. i dont think you really have much to lose. good luck!

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  • avatar

    5oclock charley November 13, 2012, 10:52 am

    Good advise from Wendy. Keep it light and casual, maybe a resturaunt or diner that she likes. Please don’t pressure her with anything too lengthy or involved at first. Also, I’m not sure how believable the pretense of “just being in town” will be for some place that is a 3 hour drive away.

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    • LK7889

      LK7889 November 13, 2012, 10:55 am

      I agree with the believably of the “being in town” statement here. Unless it’s a large city/town, that’s not going to be believable. If someone told me that they were “in town” and wanted to see me, I’d not believe it (unless they were here to stalk some of the filming that they do in town, but then they would have to be one of those fan-types for THAT to be believable… anyways, I digress). Of course, maybe it’s not a big deal if it’s not believable? It would give the impression that LW really wants to see her step-mother.

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      • avatar

        Lindsay November 13, 2012, 2:39 pm

        I’m just not a fan of the “just being in town” thing, either. What if the stepmom asks the LW what she was in town for or what else she’s done? Or if she thinks that since the LW is going to be in town anyway, it’s not necessary to make concrete plans or thinks that it’s not a big deal in case she has to cancel? Not trying to obsess over hypotheticals, but it just seems so darn complicated to me.

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    • avatar

      CSP November 13, 2012, 11:22 am

      It might be “close by” though. So Let’s say she lives 25 minutes outside of Witchita, KS. Well, the LW can say. “I am going to be in Witchita for a concert, rodeo, fair, and I thought I was so close by that I would stop by and see you. Are you available?” It isn’t, “I just happen to be going to the Walmart in your town and thought I would stop by.”

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      • JK

        JK November 13, 2012, 11:38 am

        Yeah, that´s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind.

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    • avatar

      MMcG November 13, 2012, 12:48 pm

      I was thinking that since it’s also where her father presumably lived that she might have other people or places in the area to visit… though when I was referring to telling a little white lie in my comment above it was to massage this exact point. Make up a reason you have to be an hour away and then extend the close by and if it isn’t received well during the call no harm no foul (and no driving).

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  • avatar

    Sue Jones November 13, 2012, 10:56 am

    How about you offer to take her out to lunch or dinner? That way you aren’t going to be her houseguest which may take a bit too much of an effort on her part. Make it easy for her and keep it short. I know that it is a bit of a drive for you, but perhaps it is something you could do every few months or so?

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  • avatar

    MiMi November 13, 2012, 11:08 am

    Instead of trying to parse vague signs and circumstantial evidence in order to draw a conclusion before acting in a circumlocutory way, why can we not just speak to the person in a direct manner? “Charlene, no matter what happened there at the end between you and Dad, I care about you and miss your company. May I come up this Sunday and treat you to an early Christmas lunch?”
    If you put where you stand and what you want out there it is a risk, but then you’ll know one way or the other if she wants a relationship, yes?

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    • avatar

      CSP November 13, 2012, 11:25 am

      See, I wonder if leading with a negative will start something that maybe doesn’t need to be started.

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      • avatar

        MiMi November 13, 2012, 12:09 pm

        a very good point! the hushing-up of the girlfriend/wife-in-waiting, etc. alone makes the past a potential mine-field to bring up indeed. better to lead with the LWs feelings and hope for the future

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      • avatar

        AmyRenee November 13, 2012, 12:41 pm

        instead of leading with a negative about the relationship, instead LW could lead with “even though Dadl- gone, I care abut you and still want to be part of your life …” leave out the part about the divorce and just go into how you feel about her. Let her know that you love her because she’s her, not because she’s you dad’s wife – ignore what happened at the end and just focus on the relationship the 2 of you had, regardless of your dad.

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      • avatar

        CSP November 13, 2012, 3:17 pm

        Totally agree 🙂

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  • avatar

    Lindsay November 13, 2012, 11:28 am

    Finally, a letter from someone who isn’t crazy. I agree that you shouldn’t feel bad about reaching out to her. It’s not wrong to ask if you can come up to visit, and enough time has passed that she should be able to turn down the offer if she’s not comfortable with it. What the some of the others are suggesting — saying you’ll be in the area or something — would work, but I think that’s all a little unnecessary and that, if you’re comfortable, just being direct is fine.

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  • KKZ

    KKZ November 13, 2012, 11:50 am

    LW, just curious, is your brother close with Charlene the same way you are? Could you feasibly do a visit together?

    With the holidays coming up, I can’t help thinking the widowed stepmom could be facing some lonely times in the next couple of months (depending on what kind of social support system she has where she is). If you haven’t already made plans for Christmas or New Years (or whatever winter holiday is relevant to your faith), maybe those could be opportunities to make an ‘excuse’ to visit.

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  • avatar

    Jubietta November 13, 2012, 12:14 pm

    LW, there may be a generational aspect that hasn’t been (directly) mentioned yet and that is passivity as a habit. I don’t want to paint a whole generation with the same broad brush, and yet stereotypes come from somewhere…many women born in the 1940s and 1950s were raised to not be direct about their needs. Many of them never had power balances in their primary relationships that paved the way for making decisions on their own, they could only get what they wanted/needed through manipulation of their partner.

    A friend of that generation once said to me, “The man is the head of the family, the woman is the neck, and the neck turns the head.” There’s so much beneath that statement that I’m still trying to understand all that it means…years later.

    If this might be playing a role in your relationship with your step-mom, you might have an easier time understanding that she’s may be acting on a lifelong habit that’s very different from your other experience and that she truly wants to see you…but it’s outside her comfort zone to ask because you might say no.

    Good luck!

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    • avatar

      MMcG November 13, 2012, 12:51 pm

      WOW — ““The man is the head of the family, the woman is the neck, and the neck turns the head.””

      I don’t know if I love it or hate it, but thanks for sharing… now we can all wonder what it means!

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    • avatar

      sarita_f November 13, 2012, 1:44 pm

      I think that saying also comes from the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding!” That and the windex thing is about all I remember from that movie :).

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      • avatar

        sarita_f November 13, 2012, 1:45 pm

        oh, and I agree about the passivity.

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  • AKchic_

    AKchic_ November 13, 2012, 12:29 pm

    I come from a family of a lot of divorces. Case in point – my godfather/step-grandfather, Hal. He was my paternal grandmother’s LAST husband (I think #5 or #6). She died in 1984 or 1985 in a federal prison (oh the stories behind both her inprisonment AND the issues surrounding her death are both a source of family “shame”. I love outing those that would make the ‘ol bag a saint), making Hal a widower. He met Velma shortly after. Velma, being a widow or divorcee herself (with grown-ass kids), married Hal quickly. The issue? She wanted nothing to do with our family. It got messy.

    It’s time to have a heart-to-heart with Charlene. Does she want to continue a relationship? If so, what kind? Friendly? Familial? Set boundaries and keep ’em.

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  • Brown-eyed NoVA Girl

    Brown-eyed NoVA Girl November 13, 2012, 12:52 pm

    So.. I guess I’m a bit tired for a Tuesday, but I initially read the letter headline thinking “oh gross, some guy wants to shack up with his dead dad’s wife?” Boy, was I pleasantly surprised to read a healthy question from a compassionate LW.

    LW- I commend you and your family for navigating such an emotionally trying time after your father’s passing. I only hope my brothers and I can behave that way in such a crisis.

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  • avatar

    MMcG November 13, 2012, 12:55 pm

    It’s time to have a heart-to-heart with Charlene. Does she want to continue a relationship? If so, what kind? Friendly? Familial? Set boundaries and keep ‘em.

    This x 1000. I have nothing else really to add today, just riding others coattails and enjoying the sanity, function and compassion of this LW.

    *meant this as a response to AKChic

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  • avatar

    SallyS November 13, 2012, 7:24 pm

    Thanks for all the great suggestions, guys! (I am the LW.) And to Wendy of course!!

    Sometimes issues can get so emotionally built-up inside our heads that, when we give them over to others, we are suddenly able to see them in black and white. I was mostly trying to spare Charlene the possible pain or annoyance of having to spell out for me “No, I’m not comfortable getting together” if that’s how she really felt, but I think I’ll take the small risk and definitely try to plan something soon. The six-hour round trip is no issue at all, so I wouldn’t expect to stay either in a hotel or at Charlene’s house. I do have some plans on the books the next few weekends, though, so it may not be this month.

    You guys are a great community!! Thanks again to all for the thoughts!

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    • avatar

      Taylor November 14, 2012, 11:19 am

      Hope it goes well LW!

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      • avatar

        SallyS November 14, 2012, 7:06 pm

        Thanks!! I do too!

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