Dear Dr. Jann,
My ex is being extremely difficult. Every time my eight-year-old daughter comes back from her dad’s house it’s a barrage of questions about why we got a divorce and when are we getting back together. I chose to leave the marriage. Her father did not want me to leave, and I suspect he’s talking about our break-up with our daughter. It’s difficult to co-parent when he is constantly doing this. What do I say to our daughter when she questions me? What’s good ex-etiquette?
Great question, you are not alone! A lot of separated & divorced people that have children deal with difficult co-parents. When your daughter asks about reconciliation, try to answer in a way that focuses on how she is feeling rather than dad’s behavior. She was happy when you were together. She felt safe and secure. Now that you are apart, she’s not sure where she stands. Daddy’s in one place, Mommy’s in another, she’s back and forth. Plus, she may wonder if you left daddy, will your feelings for her eventually change?
She needs to be reassured and once again gain a sense of stability. That will only happen if her parents set the example. Don’t mislead her by alluding that you may get back together. No parent wants to see their child in pain and it’s tempting to temper that pain with the possibility that mom and dad might eventually get back together, but false hope sets a child up for more heartbreak when the reconciliation doesn’t happen. Be honest, but tactful.
Try something like,
“I know you miss the way things were, but Mommy and Daddy are not going to get back together. We are both building a new life with you because we both love you and that will never change.”
You might want to then talk about her having two homes—and openly demonstrate your acceptance of the other co-parent. That’s a difficult task if you’re angry or resentful, but the break-up and the reason behind it should only be between the parents. Your child does not care about what went on. Children need to know what is in store for them now. Discussions about what the other co-parent did and how you don’t agree with their lifestyle or choices will only further undermine your child’s security. No matter how angry you are, look for ways to paint their other parent in a positive light.
“You’re really good at softball! You know your dad was a great pitcher when he was in high school!” That’s a non-committal statement with a positive flair. Your child will walk away from the conversation feeling good about herself and her father. That’s good ex-etiquette—you’ve put your child first—and that’s always the ultimate goal despite how difficult your coParent can be. At the end of the day maybe you should also remind your coParent nicely that you are not getting back together but you both love your child very much and the only person your co-parent is hurting by being difficult is your child.