Ex-etiquette: Reframing children’s reminiscing about Dad can ease discomfort
If reframing doesn’t help, talk to your wife about discussing your discomfort with the kids.
Q: I’ve been remarried for two years to a woman with four children, all adults. She has been divorced for over six years and we live in her former family home. Her kids and their significant others come to our home each Sunday for dinner. Each time, after dinner, the kids start to tell stories about their dad. It appears he is an eccentric and the stories are quite funny, but it bugs me to no end. My wife tells me they have done this for years. How do I get them to stop? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: It sounds like this family approaches their after-dinner conversation as a family ritual. Family rituals are bonding time for family members, and if you try to stop it, you are writing your own epitaph, of sorts. A divorce severs family ties, but to their credit, these adult children of divorce have found a healthy way to reinforce their family bond even though their parents’ relationship has ended.
Unfortunately for you, the subject of their bonding is dad, and to you their reminiscing may seem hurtful and insensitive. But your wife tells you that this is not a new practice and the kids have been doing this for years. This is an indicator that they’re not necessarily being insensitive but attempting “life as normal” by continuing the practice that has been in place before you got there. The fact that you are now included in the conversation is an indicator that they do not see you as an outsider, but a family member. As a result, they simply may not see their reminiscing could possibly make you uncomfortable.
Remember, these “children” see your relationship with their mother differently than you do. She’s mom, not the love of their life. When they reminisce, they are talking about their father, not the love of your life’s former lover. Therefore, a remedy to lessen the story’s ability to upset you is to mentally reframe them as amusing stories about their father, not amusing stories about your wife’s former lover.
If reframing doesn’t help, talk to your wife about discussing your discomfort with the kids. During one of the after-diner discussions, together bring up that the stories make you uncomfortable. Be clear about exactly what you want to change—is one or two stories OK, but not hours and hours of Dad stories? None at all? It’s up to you. Just make sure you are on the same page with their mom before broaching the subject.
I have to say, I have personally been in your shoes, and until I reframed it in my own mind, it was somewhat upsetting. The kids were little when their parents divorced, so all the “remember when” stories were more for the adults’ benefit, than the children. In passing, I mentioned this to my husband, who understood completely. Next time a “remember when” story was initiated, he very tactfully cut it short and eventually the practice lessened until tolerable. His support was immeasurable—and 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 .