Handling the Emotions with Ex-Spouse and Children
Why is it important? Our children deserve the right to have two parents even if those parents are unable to live together. (This statement assumes that both parents are good parents who do not engage in behaviors or relationships that are potentially harmful to the children. Situations involving such behaviors and relationships are a completely different article.) The children have the right to not feel guilty because they love both parents, want to spend time with both parents, and enjoy that time regardless of how much the parents cannot get along together. If both parents are willing to share the responsibility for the financial, emotional, physical and social well-being of the children, the children should reap those benefits. Children should be allowed to form their own impressions of their parents rather than be influenced by other family members. In this way, no one else can ever be blamed for how a child feels about his parents. His relationship with his parents is derived from his own experiences. Yes, I understand the pitfalls to these statements. I do realize that the noncustodial parent, if he or she can afford to do so, will often attempt to “buy” the child’s love with gifts and excursions that the custodial parent cannot afford. It can be very frustrating and annoying for the custodial parent because they are responsible for the day-to-day expenses and the majority of the discipline, often making them the “bad” parent in the eyes of the children. However, please remember that children do grow up and while you may have to listen to “…but mommy/daddy lets me do this” or “…but mommy/daddy took me there” while they are young, they will come to appreciate the solid value of love that is freely given rather than with strings attached.
This being said, one of the hardest things to do is to hold your tongue when the noncustodial parent says or does something that hurts your child’s feelings. Balancing the need to comfort and support your child with the necessity to not “slam” the other parent is an incredible tight-rope walk. Feel free to hold on to anything necessary to maintain that balance. I have first-hand experience in having my daughter hang up the phone in tears after talking with her father and biting a hole in my tongue as I listened to how he hurt her feelings and attempted to manipulate her affections. I wanted to call him back and tell him off right that minute! But instead I focused on my daughter and we began a conversation about what she really wanted from him that she was not getting. We discussed ways that she should share with him her disappointment in his effect on her life and she felt emotionally safer and more empowered when we were through. (That does not mean that I did not share my thoughts on the subject with him at a later date and I must admit that I was not proud of everything I said, but at least it was not in front of her. Hey, we are all only human!)
How can you curb your emotions regarding your ex-spouse for the children’s sake? I will never tell you that it is easy. First, you must never speak ill of them in front of your children. There are plenty of people to whom you can vent – your best friend, a close member of your family, your therapist – but you should never have a negative conversation with your children about their father/mother AND you should never have a negative conversation with another person in front of your children. If they are in earshot, the topic is taboo. You should never do anything to deliberately sabotage the plans of your ex-spouse with your children. If he/she is taking them to their favorite restaurant for the third time in three months, it may make you very angry, especially when you can barely afford groceries. But that is no reason for you to suddenly have to take them to have their pictures made or schedule a doctor’s appointment on the day of the planned event. On the other hand, if you already have plans with your children on the date that the noncustodial parent schedules an event and they come to you after the fact, you have every right to explain that your plans were made first and he/she will have to change their date. You do not have to give up all of the “good” dates and times just to be accommodating. Your time with the children is every bit as valuable as that of the custodial parent. As we discussed a few moments ago, the noncustodial parent will often use gifts to secure their place in their children’s lives because they feel they do not have enough time to do the same. This can be annoying, especially if the gift is something that you were unable to provide or that is specifically tied to the noncustodial parent. Remember how special it feels when you are able to give your child something important to them? Well, your ex is trying to gain that same sense of worth. Unfortunately, while he/she does not have to be confronted with the gifts you give your children, because they live with you, you are confronted with the gifts they receive from the noncustodial parent. This is where maturity comes into play. It is very important that you summon every ounce of maturity that you possess and handle the situation gracefully. The gift should not come up missing, be unexplainably damaged, or otherwise improperly handled. It should have a place of important in your child’s room and, yes, you may even have to hear from your child on several occasions why it is important to them. And you will sit through that conversation with a smile on your face and suppress every comment, eye roll, and facial tic that you want to express. Because you love your children and want only the best for them.
All this being said, in some situations it is almost impossible to manage to handle these situations. Most divorces or separations are not amicable. If it is simply impossible for you and your ex-spouse to communicate with each other sensibly or meet to exchange the children without arguing, then you should really obtain a trusted family member or friend to be your “go-between”. It is much better than the children be picked up from their grandmother’s house than for them to witness an every-other-weekend argument between you and their mother/father because the two of you cannot manage civility. Grandma’s house saved me lots of stress more than once and she was always gracious about allowing me to use her this way.
Yes, this will be a challenge. However, the rewards are worthwhile. My children are grown now and they both have told me that they appreciate how I always handled situations with their father as they were growing up. They always knew that I was their stalwart supporter and that I would listen to them dump all of their pain and frustration at my doorstep, but they also counted on me to guide them through the sand traps without adding to the mess that got in their way. Today, with them being grown women, I feel that I can agree with them when they make certain negative comments about the man who fathered them, but I still do not share with them the anger and frustration I always felt in regards to how he treated them. They even watch the situations unfold with their friends and family and comment, “Mom, they should really do what you used to do.” Then I am proud that I made the choices that I did. My daughters do not harbor resentment for me because I bad-mouthed their father, but they do appreciate that I was their support and comfort as they learned about him from their own experiences. The high road is always harder to travel, but the scenery and the end reward is much more precious.
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