By Ron L. Deal, LMFT, LPC
Author, The Smart Stepfamily
Wouldn’t it be nice if adults could remember that parenting is not about them, and that it is about the children? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pain of the broken personal relationships of the past could be kept separate from the practical parental concerns of the present. Wouldn’t it be nice…
Yes, it would. But sometimes people aren’t nice.
Dealing with a difficult ex-spouse can be very discouraging and defeating. Yet, we are called to continue trying to pursue good, to “turn the other cheek”, and “walk the extra mile.” Hopefully the following tips can aid you in your efforts to cope—because it’s all about the children.
1. Be sure to notice your own part of the ongoing conflict. Christian ex-spouses, for example, often feel justified in their anger toward their irresponsible ex-spouse. It’s easy, then, to also feel justified in your efforts to change them in whatever ways you feel are morally or practically necessary. Unfortunately, this sense of “rightness” often blinds good-hearted Christians from seeing just how their own behavior contributes to the ongoing cycle of conflict. Any time you try to change a difficult ex-spouse—even if for understandable moral reasons—you inadvertently invite hostility or a lack of cooperation in return. Learn to let go of what you can’t change so you don’t unknowingly keep the between home power struggles alive.
2. Stepparents should communicate a “non-threatening posture to the same-gender ex-spouse. An ex-wife, for example, may continue negativity because she is threatened by the presence of the new stepmother. It is helpful if the stepmother will communicate the following either by phone or email: “I just want you to know that I value your role with your children and I will never try to replace you. You are their mother and I’m not. I will support your decisions with the children, have them to your house on time, and never talk badly about you to the children. You have my word on that.” This helps to alleviate the need of the biological mother to bad-mouth the stepparent or the new marriage in order to keep her children’s loyalties.
3. Keep your “business meetings” impersonal to avoid excessive conflict. Face-to-face interaction has the most potential for conflict. Use the phone when possible or even talk to their answering machine if personal communication erupts into arguments. Use email or faxes when possible. Keep children from being exposed to negative interaction when it’s within your power.
4. Use a script to help you through negotiations. This strategy has helped thousands of parents. Before making a phone call, take the time to write out your thoughts including what you’ll say and not say. Also, anticipate what the other might say that will hurt or anger you. Stick to the business at hand and don’t get hooked into old arguments that won’t be solved with another fight. (For more on how to do this, see the “Be Prepared by Borrowing a Script and Sticking to It” section of the free Common Steps for Co-Parents e-booklet.)
5. Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what you ex-spouse is suggesting. This good business principle applies in parenting as well. Even if you disagree with the main point, find some common ground.
6. Manage conversations by staying on matters of parenting. It is common for the conversations of “angry associate” co-parents to gravitate back toward negative personal matters of the past. Actively work to keep conversations focused on the children. If the conversation digresses to “old marital junk,” say something like, “I’d rather we discuss the schedule for this weekend. Where would you like to meet?” If the other continues to shift the conversation back to hurtful matters assertively say, “I’m sorry. I’m not interested in discussing us again. Let’s try this again later when we can focus on the weekend schedule.” Then, politely hang up the phone or walk away. Come back later and try again to stay on the parenting subject at hand.
7. When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent. Listen and help them explore their hurt feelings. If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones. Let God’s statutes offer any necessary indictments on a parent’s behavior.
8. Remember that for children, choosing sides stinks! Children don’t want to compare their parents or choose one over the other. They simply want your permission to love each of you. This is especially important when the two of you can’t get along.
9. Wrestle with forgiveness. Hurt feelings from the past are the number one reason your ex—and you—overreact with one another. Do your part by striving to forgive them for the offenses of the past (and present). This will help you manage your emotions when dealing with them in the present.
10. Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household. For your kids sake, find ways of being respectable even if you honestly can’t respect your ex-spouses lifestyle or choices. Do not personally criticize them, but don’t make excuses for their behavior either.
Ron L. Deal is the author The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and Director of www.SuccessfulStepfamilies.com. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor with the Better Life Counseling Center, Inc. and Family Life Minister for the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He presents conferences around the country and equips churches to minister to stepfamilies.