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Heavy Meddle: How Do We Protect The Kids From Badmouthing Exes?

Our exes have become friends and we suspect they’re saying terrible things about us to our kids. What should we do? (Elk City Oklahoma/flickr)
Our exes have become friends and we suspect they’re saying terrible things about us to our kids. What should we do? (Elk City Oklahoma/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My current husband's ex-wife has befriended my ex-husband and his wife. They get my biological children and my husband's biological child together during their time-sharing. We both had nasty divorces and they have disparaged us to each other. The courts say there is nothing we can do about it, that they have the right to be friends with whomever they please. It is such a strange situation and I don't know what to say to the children when they say they saw each other during their other parents’ time-sharing.

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Please help!

Signed,
Ex Marks the Rot

Dear Ex,

This sounds like an extremely frustrating situation. There’s some chance that your ex and his wife, and your husband’s ex, simply hit it off. But there’s also some chance that a mutual antagonism for you guys plays a role here. And I understand perfectly why you don’t like the idea that they get the kids together, especially given the history of acrimony and insults. My advice, however, is that you say nothing to the kids beyond the standard, “That’s nice” or “I hope you had fun.”

Remember: your kids are basically innocent bystanders here. They feel badly enough about your respective marriages ending. They may feel awkward about being in contact with one another, and with the ex-spouses in question. It’s a complex and confusing situation, especially if your exes are making the immature decision to badmouth you guys.

The best thing you can do is to be loving parents who provide your kids with an environment free of resentment and ad hominem.

But you owe it to your children, and to yourselves, to rise above any of that pettiness, hard as it might be. Kids aren’t dumb. Your exes aren’t going to “win them over” by talking trash. They’re going to make themselves look mean-spirited and small. Remember: your kids still regard you as mom. And your husband’s kids regard him as dad. That’s not going to change. So be the positive role models they need right now, the people with the grace to not engage in a destructive conflict.

This is especially important because it sounds like you feel your exes are trying to provoke you. In fact, there’s a chance that your kids may start telling you about things that were said and done with the other parents. I would react to these confessions with as much deference as possible. Because if that’s how you react, chances are that’s how your kids will react.

And if they come to you with statements, such as, “Last time we visited with BLANK, he said mean things about you” or questions about how to deal with this, I would urge them to ignore such statements, or just change the subject. If you can bring yourself to do it, I would even try to find a way to make positive statements about your exes, so as to counteract the negativity. Because the last thing you want is to use the kids as pawns. I suspect that after a while, the lack of a response will take the wind out of such efforts.

If your exes continue to say and do provocative things in front of the kids, you can always consult a lawyer.

I would even try to find a way to make positive statements about your exes, so as to counteract the negativity.

But the truth is that divorce with kids is tough. It’s a traumatic event for everyone. And you can’t really forbid your exes from becoming friends.

The best thing you can do is to be loving parents who provide your kids with an environment free of resentment and ad hominem. They’ll not only feel relieved of the obligation to “take sides,” but they’ll be learning how to avoid being in emotionally and psychologically draining conflicts — a skill that will save them countless hours (and days and weeks and months) of misery in the years ahead.

I wish you and your husband and those children of yours every good thing.
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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