Dear Dr. Jann: My partner and I have been together for about a year. He coParents his two young children quite well with his ex and they share their children’s time equally. They talk often, and she has been accepting of my helping when the kids are with us. This Christmas his parents have invited us all to spend the holiday with them. I’ve never met his ex. Got any tips? What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: There’s a lot going on here, so let’s take it one issue at a time.
First, your partner’s parents are the hosts — they have done the inviting — and after only one year of being together, that could be a rather insensitive move. It usually takes more than a year to get in the groove when a new partner is added to the mix, especially if the former partners are equally coParenting. After only a year, people are still jockeying for position. You’re very lucky if mom is understanding and not intimidated by the fact that you’re taking on some of the mothering responsibilities when the kids are with their dad.
That said, family holiday traditions are often considered sacred by family members. That’s why it’s not a good idea to use holidays for first meetings. It makes most people uncomfortable and impacts the day — and the kids are watching. If you’re committed to going forward, it’s a better idea to meet first in a neutral setting. The ideal situation would have been to meet your partner’s ex prior to moving in and all three of you discuss how you all envision your role pertaining to the kids. (Ex-etiquette for parents rule #4, Parents make the rules, bonusparents uphold them.” Make a pact and stick to it. But, that’s in a perfect world—which this is not. You may have to do some backtracking.
When extended family invites everyone, it’s usually in an effort to let the ex know he or she will not be discarded and also let the new partner know they are accepted, but this can be a disaster without the proper preparation. Since your fiance’s parents are the hosts, your fiance is the one to set the proper boundaries. If this holiday is too soon to try to all be together, tell them. The truth is, being a good coParent does not dictate that you must spend holidays together. It means you teach your children respect for their mother or father even though you’re no longer together, consult the other parent when considering decisions for the children, stay open and honest when problem solving, and use the children, not each other’s desires as the criteria for making decisions. That’s good ex-etiquette.