Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Avoiding Hassles With An Ex-Spouse

November 24, 2008

Consider this. You and your ex-spouse are being asked to communicate effectively, solve problems together, treat each other with respect and courtesy, accept each other's differences, give each other the benefit of the doubt, keep expectations reasonable and share information readily.

Those are a few of the guidelines for parenting after divorce. I know what you are thinking. If you could do all that, you'd still be married. Right?

People grow. People change. The turf is a lot smaller. The issue is only parenting instead of everything else that goes with marriage - money, goals, religion, work, sex, in-laws, etc.

Settling into a new and presumably happier life helps. Getting over the pain and hurt of the divorce definitely helps. Yes, there is reason to hope that ex-spouses can cooperate around the one issue that is of vital importance to both of them: how to raise their kids.

To aid you in that quest, here are some guidelines for ex-spouses:

1. Keep your conversations courteous and business-like. Be a good listener. Stay on task. The task is the care and well-being of the children, not rehashing old marital wars or dragging up old hurts. Establish firm boundaries about what you are discussing.

Too little communication shuts out a parent from vital information and involvement. Too much communication creates pain and makes new spouses insecure. It creates doubt that the previous relationship is really over. Make conversations crisp and to the point. Don't have any more contact than is necessary.

It is natural to disagree. Most kids from divorce families have learned a lot about how to fight. They haven't learned how problems get solved. When you and your ex actually solve a problem, let the kids know about it.

2. Share information, both positive and negative, about the children's activities and behavior. Many custodial parents assume that their new family is a nuclear family and tend to forget that the non-custodial parent wants the opportunity to share special events, awards and activities with their children.

Non-custodial parents need to be proactive in getting the information they want.

Don't keep problems and concerns from the ex-spouse. No surprises. Keeping the ex-spouse informed adds another resource in trying to deal with problems. When conflict between ex-spouses is minimal, then it is easier to communicate about problems.

3. Learn to trust your ex-spouse's judgment. Think of your ex-spouse as being reasonably fair, responsible and reliable. Let go of the things you don't control. Lower your expectations. One woman started getting along with her ex-spouse when she started thinking of him as a 75watt bulb instead of the 100-watt bulb she always wanted him to be. Adjust your expectations to reality.

Most ex-spouses don't coordinate their parenting styles. Accept the differences. Talk about your disciplinary styles, not to change the other parent but to give information about what goes on in your household.

4. Don't get caught up in taking sides between your children and your ex-spouse. This creates loyalty problems that will give children plenty of heartache and problems. Kids don't always express themselves accurately. By the way you question them, you can program the answers. Kids play to parents' concerns. They can give double messages to please the parent they are with at the time.

Give your ex-spouse the benefit of the doubt. Don't assume the worst. Don't undermine his or her authority or credibility by taking sides with the children.

There are two sides to every story. Get your ex-spouse’s side of what happened. Be prepared to listen to a different version than the one your kids give. Pick up the phone or drop a note and check it out.

5. Advice to step-parents: Stay out of it. Listen to your spouse's concerns about the ex-spouse. Be supportive, not directive. Don't try to tell your spouse what to do or to do it for him or her. Don’t be pushy or controlling. Problems with the ex-spouse are already complicated enough without you jumping in with off-the-wall reactions, judgments and criticisms. Detach and be a resource instead of "player."

Your efforts will be seen as an unwelcome intrusion into your spouse's autonomy. Trust your spouse's judgment about how to handle the ex-spouse. Support his or her role with the children and know that your own relationship with them will evolve slowly and naturally.

Men and women who can’t free themselves from the influences of a first marriage usually end up destroying a second. Talk about the powerful emotional experiences from the first marriage with each other. Listen to your spouse in a non-judgmental way and be encouraging. Discuss how patterns from the first marriage may still be a cause for concern.

Your own bond will develop as you work together as a team to define how to deal with the difficulties the ex-spouse presents. It takes a lot of time, trust and patience to gain your spouse’s confidence when it comes to parenting strategies, policies and defining appropriate boundaries. In the end, you need to agree on parenting as it takes place in your home.

For an excellent book on step families, read, "Step Families: Love, Marriage and Parenting in the First Decade" by Dr. James Bray and John Kelly, Broadway Books, NY, 1998.