When I decided to get a divorce, I resolved early on to take the high road. Whenever my children are in earshot, I am careful to refer to my ex in only positive terms. I’ve stuck to blame-free explanations for why my marriage ended and keep my venting phone chats with my sister to late at night when my kids are asleep. It hasn’t been easy, and no, I’m not perfect. I’ve slipped here and there, but overall, I’ve protected my children from the fallout of my feelings. Last weekend, though, my daughter returned from her mother’s house and said, “I know why you and Mommy divorced. It’s because you lied to her!” Guess what? It’s not the first time. I’ve spoken to her about it, and she only defends her behavior so I don’t think my ex will ever change. Now what?
Divorce often brings out the worst in people, and, unfortunately, some parents simply do not resist the urge to stir up the pot. They may try to draw their child into their cause by saying negative things about their ex or behave in ways that they know will upset their ex. What should you do when you’ve managed to stay above the fray and your ex seems to be doing all he or she can to pull you back into the fight? First, it’s important to remember that children are always observant.
They notice and don’t forget which parent showed up late for visitation, criticized the other and made life difficult. They also recognize who rose above the mess, made the extra effort and helped them move on. Believe me, your child does not overlook who slammed the phone down and who answered it cordially, who ignored the other parent at the school play and who said hello, who bad-mouths the other and who behaves maturely. Second, bear in mind that not everything your ex says or does necessarily demands your response.
You might want to think about what’s most important to you and what you feel is best for your child. If for example, the end of your marriage was fraught with angry words and loud arguments, you may wish to spare your child further anguish, by letting many of your ex’s transgressions go by. When she returns the child late from visitation, or according to your child, criticizes your driving, you might decide she’ll never change anyway, and simply address the problems that relate directly to your child (while continuing to vent your frustration to another adult).
If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with a custody battle, and your ex is doing her darnedest to poison your child against you, it may be necessary to answer her every charge. Think through your situation. How does your ex’s bad behavior affect your child (not you)? How seriously does your child (not you) take your ex’s actions and words? How likely is it that your confronting your ex will persuade her to change her ways? Or how likely is it that she’ll only step up the attack? What is really at stake’? Third, whenever you repeat to your ex remarks your child attributes to her without your child’s permission, you run the risk of breaking your child’s confidence and trust. If you have any reason to believe that your ex will confront your child about your confronting her, address the issue with your child first, or just leave it alone.
M Gary Neuman is a New York Times best-selling author, and creator of Neuman Method Programs. He was on the Oprah show 11 times as well as having made multiple appearances on Today, Dateline, the View, NPR and others. Oprah referred to Gary as “One of the best psychotherapists in the world.”