It is possible to dissolve your marriage from your former spouse, but it is not possible–and never will be possible–to dissolve your co-parenting relationship. She will always be your son’s mother. He will always be your daughter’s dad. You thought you were free, free, free at last, but the tie to your child’s other parent can never be undone.
Here are some inescapable truths it would be good to accept sooner rather than later:.
1. You may be happy to not have to deal with your former spouse every day, but your kids may still have regular interactions that will affect them.
As long as you were still married and still living in the same house, you were still keeping an eye on each other. If your wife did something to get the kids upset, you were there to step in and mitigate the situation. If she was letting them watch inappropriate movies or keeping them up too late or letting them go to school inappropriately dressed, you still had an influence. Once you are divorced, your kids are on their own when they spend time with her. You have no control over whom she introduces them to–or even leaves them with. She has the right to ask her alcoholic mother or her creep of a neighbor whom she scarcely knows to baby-sit.
2. You have to be much more careful with your relationship with a former spouse than with a spouse.
Let’s say that you and your former spouse split time with the kids 50-50. With the approval of a judge, a custody schedule gets put in place. Now let’s say your parents are coming to town and the only time they can come is your husband’s weekend. If you haven’t established a good relationship with him, why should he be flexible and switch weekends so the kids can see their grandparents?
The irony is that to have any pull, you have to be kinder, more sensitive and a better communicator than when you were married. You have to show more concern and listen more deeply. Skills like active listening will help keep the lines of communication open. The more your former spouse feels that you actually care about his happiness, the more open he will be to your suggestions and requests.
3. Your life will go better when your former spouse’s life goes better.
As much as you may have fantasies about your ex-wife’s life going to pieces (I used to dream about pouring sugar down my ex’s gas tank), remember, that is like wishing your kids’ lives will also go to pieces 50% of the time. You want your kids to be happy. You want their life to be stable. Your former spouse having a job that fulfills her, that pays well, that has benefits–all that will make your life easier. As much as you might get some secret satisfaction seeing her inconvenienced by, say, her car breaking down, it will be your kids standing in front of the school waiting to be picked up. And even if that is not the case, you want your kids’ parent to be as relaxed and happy as possible so she will have the resources of calm and patience needed for good parenting.
4. Nothing in your relationship anymore is about you being right or wrong, about things being fair or unfair: The only metric you’ll care about is whether it is good for the kids or not.
When you are still in the marriage, it is important to do whatever you can to bolster the relationship because a strong marriage supports children’s development. Once you are divorced, however, the first filter through which you evaluate any decision will be the effect on the kids. That is not easy! It can be hard to see what will be best for your kids down the road. When your ex-husband remarries, for example, you may well be torn apart that another woman will be combing out your daughter’s hair, reading her a bedtime story and tucking her into bed. That is your job! How could it be good for your girl that you aren’t doing that for her? But a stepmother may well give her so much–love, advice, structure, support, a different perspective. She may even help your ex-husband be a better father.
5. Kids are able to accept a lot of changes as long as they believe that both their parents believe the change is for the best. Your job is to make your kids believe that you support your former spouse.
As broken up as I you might be about your ex getting remarried, make it your job to speak well of your daughter’s stepmother and to be excited for your daughter about her part in their wedding. Never burden your daughter with your doubts and fears for her. Instead, reassure her that her stepmom will love her and do what was best for her. From time to time things might happen that are pretty different from the way you might handle them. Just tell your daughter, your stepmom is smart and has a lot of good ideas. Let’s give this one a chance. (Unless she really is an evil person, in the greater scheme of things, everything will work out).
6. Even when the kids turn 18 and the legal custody schedule expires, you will still have to deal with your children’s other parent.
One divorced dad used to say, “Just wait until high school graduation. Then we won’t have to play this game anymore.” Wrong. So wrong. Once the child is free from a custody schedule, he has to decide for himself how much time to spend at mom’s house and how much at dad’s. What was a legal ruling becomes a question of convenience or a popularity contest. Young adults are still essentially self-centered creatures. They will gravitate to whichever house is easier. Maybe dad’s house is easier in that it is in the town where most of her friends are. Maybe mom’s house is easier in that he can retreat to the basement and large screen t.v. and basically be left alone in his own man cave. Additionally, the lack of a clear custody schedule makes it much easier for one parent to manipulate the children either with guilt or outright bribes of cars or iPhones or whatever the current hot thing to have is.
7. Even when the kids become adults and move away, you will still have to deal with your children’s other parent.
Don’t you want to be at hand for your child’s wedding? Don’t you want to walk your daughter down the aisle? Give a toast to the happy couple? Be at the birth of your first grandchild? At the grandchild’s first birthday? You can see the list goes on. Again, the irony of your post-divorce life is that you want to have the best relationship possible with your child’s other parent. You might like to wish her to Hades, but if your ex-spouse is not in the picture, there will be a gaping hole in your child’s heart that you cannot fill. In day-to-day life, your child might not miss her other parent, but when she gets that award or big promotion, a part of her will be thinking, “Look, Dad, what I did! Wouldn’t you be proud of me?”
Your former spouse never has to become a good friend, but you should aim for someone you feel benign towards. You should work towards being generally interested in how he is doing and what is going on in his life. You should at least be warmly cordial. Think how you might like your child’s in-laws to treat you. You don’t have to go out for drinks together, but you do have to make pleasant conversation at the 4th of July barbecue.
The bottom line here is that like diplomacy among nations, the more you are in natural opposition, the more important it is to work towards détente. Not only is it the surest way to protect your children, it will add to your own sense of security and well-being.