Dear Carolyn: My 25-year marriage ended about five years ago, due mostly to his (not first) affair. He is now married to The Other Woman. He and I remain stiffly cordial because we have two now-grown daughters.
Sooner or later, I am going to have to meet this woman. There will be a wedding or a graduation or something, and I am already dreading it.
Do I have to take the high road and shake her hand if she offers it? I don’t picture doing anything too dramatic, but I do picture looking at her proffered hand and saying, “Oh, no thank you.” And then I picture my ex-in-laws shaking their heads at me.
To me, a handshake is a sign of respect, and I do not respect either of them. Do I have to take the high road here? Or can I refuse to shake the hand of the lying cheater who broke up two families? What guidance do you have for the inevitable day when she and I will be in the same room? – Already Full of Dread
This is so hard, I’m sorry. Weddings and graduations are chances to share a sense of connection across generations, and to have them corrupted must feel like a slap in the face.
Dreading them now, though, before you even know they’re happening, is a good way to let your possible future ruin your certain present – so I think you’ve found a good way to address both of these concerns by facing this in advance. Coming up with a script you can live with will allow you (mostly) to put the whole issue away until you have to face it for real.
To that end, a key point: The “lying cheater who broke up two families” is as much your ex-husband as it is his new wife.
More so: Your ex is the one who made vows to you, and therefore betrayed you far more profoundly than the other woman did. And he did so more than once.
Yet you have found a way to be “stiffly cordial” to your ex. So I urge you to resist the temptation to cast the Other Woman as the archvillain who is beneath even your stiff cordiality. Don’t make her the convenient repository of all the rage at your ex that you’re holding back in the name of peace with your children’s father. Instead, recognize that your grievance with her is minor compared with the one you have with your ex.
If not for her, after all, wouldn’t there just have been someone else? And isn’t there a better than usual chance her life with him will turn out somewhat like yours?
Accordingly, as is ruthlessly fair, give her the same stiff cordiality you give your ex.
“Hello,” you say, as you proffer a hand – so much better to be in control. For inspiration, try Bette Davis movies.
Then: “If you’ll excuse me, I” … have reasons to be elsewhere.
You have good reasons, by the way, in a larger sense – with “elsewhere” being where you no longer have to wonder whether your philandering spouse is lying to you again. As painful as the process has been, you live in honesty now. I hope there is at least some consolation in that.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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