Dear Dr. Jann,
My husband seems too chummy with his ex. The hot water heater breaks, he’s there. The car has a flat tire, he’s there. This makes me a little uncomfortable. They were married for over twenty years and have three children, ages 15, 13, and 10. Can you go too far trying to be an amicable ex?
Dr. Jann says: Yes, you can, and if you told me that your husband had no children and wasn’t in a co-parenting relationship, I would have said his actions go way beyond the call of duty. However, if parents are going to successfully co-parent after divorce, then they must interact with each other on a regular basis, and their new partners often misunderstand this constant interaction. More important are the mixed messages too friendly interaction between divorced or separated parents sends to their children. All children, including teens (and even adult children) have strong fantasies about their parents getting back together. This wish may not be squelched even when one or both parents marry new people. Therefore, too much time spent together trying to be “friends” may give their children the false hope Mom and Dad may reconcile, and once the children truly understand there is no chance for reconciliation, that blow may be more sever than the original decision to divorce. That’s why it is important clear boundaries are established early on.
Some may find it surprising that I hold this opinion. After all, I make it quite clear that I am friends with my ex and his ex-wife and we often talk about celebrating various holidays together. We even share many of the same friends. Isn’t that confusing to the kids? After a long enough time has passed and the children are clear about the boundaries of the relationship, that’s when there is a possibility divorced parents and their new partners can become openly friendly. We did not interact on the same basis as we do now when the kids were very young. It was all we could do to stay cordial and polite.
That said, make sure you are not misunderstanding the motive behind your husband’s interaction with his ex. Many divorced parents have told us that the reason they pitch in to help is not for the ex so much as it is for their children. For example, if your husband’s ex’s car is not running, there will be no one to help carpool his children. If the hot water heater is broken, his children will be without hot water when they are with their mother. So, even though your first inclination as the new wife is to think your husband is pitching in to help his ex, his true motive may be to give his children a better life. Talk to him. Find out his thought process and his motivation. Odds are he feels pulled in two directions and will welcome a conversation to clarify how he feels.
Our lives after divorce are simply not the same today as they were years ago. We are all writing a new rule book. Let’s make the preface, “in the best interest of our children.”