The divorce is over, but if you have kids, your relationship with your ex is not.
As you’re undoubtedly well aware by now, your relationship with your ex does not end just because you’re not living together anymore. In fact, some of the stresses you may have experienced during your marriage, especially conflicts over parenting styles and beliefs, can be exacerbated when you separate. However, your divorce is an opportunity to achieve greater clarity about what you can and can’t control, and to let go of the latter in a way that will improve the quality of your life.
One of the most important things to remember is that you cannot control or change your ex. The only behavior that you can control is your own. It’s possible, and entirely likely, that if you begin treating your ex-spouse with respect you will eventually get more respect in return—but you shouldn’t do it for that reason. If you choose to behave reasonably, to always put your kids first, to try to focus on appreciating positive things your ex does, and to communicate respectfully, do it because you think it’s right, not because you hope it will cause your ex to do the same.
Remember that your children observe everything that you do. You can’t tell them to solve their problems by using their words and their inside voices if they see you scream curses at your ex when he doesn’t meet your expectations. That doesn’t mean you can’t set healthy boundaries—in fact, it’s a great lesson for your kids when they see you doing that. For example, letting your ex know—calmly and without anger—that you’ll no longer intervene in conflicts between her and your nine-year-old son during your ex’s parenting time will give both of them the important message that they have their own relationship and they’ll have to work things out for themselves.
Here are some concrete tips for working toward a productive and reasonably harmonious relationship with your kids’ other parent.
This may be a challenge, especially if you are the primary (and therefore, you may feel, superior) parent. It may be even more challenging if you’ve lost custody and feel that you’re being shut out of your children’s lives. But kids need both of their parents, and most important, they need to know that both parents love them. Whether you are the primary caretaker or have limited contact, make sure your children know that their relationship with you is secure and that you will be there for them.
It is truly harmful to your children to hear that someone they love and rely on for their care is a loser, a louse, or whatever other pejorative you want to lay on your ex. And don’t think that the kids aren’t listening while you complain about your ex to your best friend on the telephone. If you must express your frustration, do it when you know the kids are nowhere to be found. Better still, try not to do it at all. Every minute you spend putting down your ex-spouse is a minute you don’t spend thinking about how to be a better parent yourself, or considering all that you have to be grateful for in your own life, or simply doing something you consider fun. Keeping that type of negative thinking out of your daily life will improve it.
There’s always a way to get information to the other parent without asking the kids to carry it. There are a number of effective ways to communicate with your ex-spouse, including websites that allow you to deal with scheduling changes and information-sharing. Better to practice the ways that don’t involve the kids. And never ask your kids to tell you anything about the other parent’s life. They will feel trapped and confused about what’s the right thing to say. If they volunteer information, respond as neutrally (or positively) as you can.
“Don’t mention to your mother that we had ice cream before dinner” might seem harmless, but it will stress your kids out to have to think about what they can and can’t say in each household. You might think that certain things, like whether your new love interest spent the night at your house, is your business alone—but while your kids are young, you are still sharing your life with your ex-spouse. The only way to keep events in your personal life private is to make sure you do them when you’re not with the kids.
These days, many kids have constant access not only to a phone, but to texting and email—all good ways for them to be in touch with their other parent. Feel free to monitor your kids’ use of electronic devices in general, but don’t interfere with their regular, reasonable contact with the other parent. If your kids are young and have to rely on you to make contact with the other parent, don’t be stingy. It will only backfire on you when you find them ever more anxious to speak to your ex.
It can be hard to deal with the transition between households—either because the kids want to go or because they don’t. Most kids do look forward to spending time with their other parent and in their other household. Let them have their anticipation and their appreciation of the other parent. It’s possible they might not have the best dental hygiene when they’re there, or that they are allowed to stay up later than you think is appropriate. But no matter how frustrating you may find the other parent, there is absolutely nothing you can do about that. Unless there’s something truly dangerous or abusive going on, let it go. Acknowledge that the kids have a relationship with their other parent that is separate from their relationship with you, and also separate from your relationship with your ex-spouse.
Excerpted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Child Custody and Support, by Emily Doskow.