The low point came in 1998, when Lynne saw Louise wearing strappy sandals identical to ones she owned. "She demanded, 'Why are you wearing those?' " says Louise. Appalled at how petty their feud had become, says Lynne, "we realized we had to end it or it was only going to get worse."
Now the two former rivals have joined forces to take that message to the more than 90 million Americans who are part of a stepfamily. In May they published Stepwives: 10 Steps to Help Ex-wives and Stepmothers End the Struggle and Put the Kids First, which offers a point-by-point program for achieving peaceful coexistence. Among the tips: Observe boundaries (for example, Louise and Lynne don't go to each other's houses but meet on neutral turf) and show mutual respect (which includes referring to each other as a "stepwife"). After all, explains Lynne of their newly coined word, "you can't go on calling the woman married to your ex his 'new wife' forever."
Louise and Lynne also dispense advice on www.comamas.com, the Web site they launched in 1998. And with the help of San Diego marriage and family counselor (and coauthor) Marjorie Vego Krausz, 53, they train family therapists to conduct group workshops—which typically meet for two hours a week for six weeks and cost around $200—based on the principles outlined in Stepwives. "We recommend their program," says David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council advocacy group. "We can see that their work makes a difference."
It certainly did for Jeff Levenson, 42, a San Diego property manager; his wife, Monika, 34, and his ex-wife, Debi Levenson, 47, both sales reps. The three had frequently fought—mostly over parenting issues such as time spent on homework and music lessons—since Jeff and Monika married in 1999. But after completing one of Louise and Lynne's workshops in January 2001, they all got together to celebrate the 12th birthday of Brittany, Jeff and Debi's daughter. "And it was pleasant!" Levenson says. "If you had told me this could happen 18 months ago, I would have laughed in your face." Now Monika and Debi are jointly planning bat mitzvahs for Brittany and her sister Jessica, 14.
Success stories like that inspired Louise, 44, a sales executive, and Lynne, 51, a speech pathologist, to quit their jobs earlier this year to focus on Stepwives business full-time. But reaching this stage of civility wasn't easy.
Lynne had met Greg Oxhorn when they were students at Cal State Northridge. Married in 1972, they had Evan, their only child, 10 years later. In 1988 they split, citing irreconcilable differences.
Later that year Greg, now 54 and the owner of a computer accessories business, went on a blind date with Louise, a University of Buffalo grad who had moved to Los Angeles in 1980. They married in 1993 and settled into a two-bedroom San Diego home—just 10 minutes from the three-bedroom house Lynne shares with second husband Paul Ringwood, 57, a FedEx pilot she wed in 1993.
The proximity enabled Evan, now 19 and about to start his sophomore year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to divide his time evenly between his parents. Growing up, Evan says, Louise and Lynne were good about not fighting in front of him and sharing holidays like Mother's Day. "But consciously or unconsciously," he says, "I didn't talk about one of them to the other."
Thanks to Stepwives, which grew out of meetings Louise and Lynne had to address their gripes, that's no longer a concern. In fact, last fall, when Evan started college, both couples traveled to Washington to help him settle in. Before returning to California, they all went out for dinner. "We sat at the table together and enjoyed the moment," says Lynne. "I couldn't believe it was happening," says Greg. More special still was what had occurred in Evan's dorm earlier in the day. "Louise and I," says Lynne, "made his bed together."
Maureen Harrington in San Diego