Q: I live a very comfortable life, married to an absolutely great guy and all the ex’s — his and mine — get along just fine. The problem is every time my husband’s ex’s new husband is not around, she starts with the "remember the good old days" stories. She doesn’t do it if her husband is present. This Christmas her husband had to run to the store for something and as soon as he left, she cornered my husband and started talking about their past Christmases together. The kids were there and heard it all. It made me very uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to handle it. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: You shouldn’t have to handle it. Your husband should. The good ex-etiquette rule of thumb is whomever is related to the offending party is the one to address the offense. That means if it was your brother who was offending, it would be your responsibility. If it was his mother, it would be his responsibility. This is the mother of his children, therefore it’s up to him to set the boundaries with his ex—and they should be clear and concise.
What if he doesn’t see anything wrong with her reminiscing? That’s a red flag for a multitude of reasons.
First, it makes you uncomfortable and hopefully you have had the conversation with him explaining that it does and why. If she’s waiting for her husband to leave, they may have already had the conversation, or she knows it’s inappropriate and waits until he’s not around, which is also worrisome.
Second, even more important than the first, reminiscing is great, but when past partners are too familiar in front of their children, it confuses the kids and gives them false hope of reconciliation. It’s difficult for a child of any age to understand why their parents are apart if they continue to joke and flirt about the good old days. The kids wonder, if the good old days were so good, why are you not together? They may then resent their parents’ new partners, misunderstanding that their presence is keeping their parents apart.
If its obvious to you that your husband’s ex waits for her husband to leave before she does it, the kids have seen it, as well. Although they may not say anything — after all, it’s their mother who’s acting that way — it registers. That kind of behavior doesn’t offer children (who may have already witnessed questionable behavior) an integrity-based model for relationships.
Third, there may be some unresolved feelings between exes and reminiscing just adds fuel to the fire. If reconciliation is a possibility, you have to address it with more seriousness than goofing around at a family party. So many lives are affected, particularly the children.
So, what exactly should your husband do?
Start with a calm conversation, preferably before the next get-together, and set the boundary. Be clear, not wishy-washy, not rude, and your husband takes responsibility for the request. He doesn’t say things like, “Joyce feels uncomfortable, so I guess you should stop.” That’s a cop out and makes you the bad guy. It’s simply, “I prefer that you not reminisce about our past in front of my wife and the kids. Please stop.” If she pushes, state the obvious, “It makes us all uncomfortable and it confuses the kids.” Period. That’s good ex-etiquette.
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.