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Ex-etiquette: Be conscious of your message to kids

Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation.”

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Jann Blackstone
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Q: I have been divorced from my children’s father for 10 years. He cheated and even though we explored therapy, he kept cheating, and I was done. My kids were all adults and knew what was going on, understood why I left, but always wished I stayed. Their family life has never been the same. My ex and I now get along really well. Whenever there are family get-togethers we end up in the corner laughing about old times and afterward each child in one way or another starts talking about our reconciliation. I’ve explained I will always love their dad, but I don’t think we will ever reconcile. I’m afraid I’m actually hurting them by getting along with their father. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: I have to say, I understand your predicament more than you know. The Ten Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents were designed after my own breakup journey.

When there has been betrayal, rules #5 and 6, “Don’t be spiteful" and “Don’t hold grudges” play a special part in your personal healing. Feeling as bad as one does, sitting in spite and a desire for revenge does little to make you feel better. But what happens when you get to the point where you no longer resent your ex, but actually enjoy seeing them at a family get-together? You know your boundaries (hopefully), but onlookers immediately go to reconciliation, and if those onlookers are your kids, you’ve got a problem.

It’s rare when a child expresses a desire for their parents to stay apart. Most children I have worked with, no matter their age, hold out that maybe someday their parents will reconcile. In your particular case, if reconciliation is definitely not in the cards, you may have to do two things:

  • Have a conversation that sets the stage.
  • Follow up with appropriate behavior.

When children are adults, a franker conversation than “we will both always love you” may be merited. That’s what professionals seem to suggest you say to your children when parents breakup, but it doesn’t address how you and Dad feel about each other, and that’s what kids often want to know. “Do you still love Dad/Mom?” If you say, “I will always love your father/mother,” your kids will want to know why you aren’t together, and that may be a conversation you are not ready to have. That’s why I suggest you stay away from the word “love.” Consider the phrase “care for.” It puts a different spin on things, and kids find comfort if their parents don’t hate each other.
The last thing you may have to do is take responsibility for your own behavior. If you are being so friendly that your children misunderstand, take a look at that. It reopens the breakup wound each time they question your actions. Be conscious of your message. That’s good ex-etiquette.

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Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com . ©2020 Jann Blackstone Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Related Topics: FAMILY
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