My ex-wife is always putting the kids in the middle. Even when it’s my parent time, she makes sure the kids know that I’m the bad guy if I say “no” to letting them go stay with her. We have review hearing with the court coming up soon. I’m hoping we can set up a schedule that is a year out on assigning parent time. Can you help?
I can’t help your wife play fair, but you can learn to step out of the drama with her and allow your children to have an experience with you that lets them be children, not referees. Make sure you’re not blind to your own contributions to this tension. Even if it’s true that your ex-wife is being reactive, it’s common to counter her movements with unhelpful responses. Elder Neal A. Maxwell reminded us that, “Most of our suffering…actually comes because of our sins and not because of our nobility.”[i]
I think it’s a good idea to work with a judge so the parent time can be arranged and documented. Make sure to stick to this arrangement and encourage your wife to do the same. Are you frequently mixing up the schedule and asking her to adjust her parent time as well? Sometimes the resentment creeps in when the constant adjustments don’t feel fair.
Once the new schedule is set, make sure the children know what they can expect. Regardless of their ages, there are ways to communicate to them when they’ll be with mom or dad. Make every possible effort to let the new schedule be the norm for at least the next year so the children aren’t confused about why and how they end up with mom or dad.
Your children won’t think you’re a “bad guy” if they have a positive and nurturing experience with you. You don’t have to defend yourself from your wife’s comments. Discussing this with your children only puts them back in the middle of your problems.
Instead, immerse them in a world where they have structure, connection, and time with you to just be kids. Make sure they have their own clothes, bathroom supplies, and space set up in your home just for them. Make the back and forth transition between parents as seamless as possible.
You might consider meeting alone with your ex-wife in person to work out some ground rules with parent time. Commit to each other that you won’t speak ill of the other in front of the children. Make a joint commitment that the children won’t have to carry the burden of your relationship issues. It’s simply not fair to the children to have to choose sides. You are both their parents and, if safe, they have a right to time with each of you.
If your wife won’t cooperate with you and agree on some basic ground rules, then you just make sure your children are protected from your issues with their mom. If they want to bring up things she’s said about you, focus on their distress or concern, but don’t defend anything. You can reassure them of how you feel about them without becoming contrary or defensive.
Your children only need to know that regardless of where they are living at the time, they have two parents who love them and want the best for them. You can’t decide how your wife will send that message, but you can make sure to send it clearly and regularly.
Divorce is messy and the children are the true victims of a failed marriage. Do everything you can behind the scenes to be decent, fair, and supportive to your ex-wife so you can both create conditions that put your children’s needs ahead of your own.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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