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Question

My ex-husband I are now two separate parents with totally different parenting skills and our kids are figuring out how to get what they want by splitting us. It used to be “what I say, dad supports. Or, “what dad says, mom supports.” But now, I’m trying to have order and hold the bar high for my children. I’m doing my best, but I feel I’m alone in this. The kids have not wanted much to do with their dad, hardly talking, never going to his house (except my youngest, occasionally), no weekends or dad time. My ex-husband has totally smothered our youngest because he’s the only one to pay attention to him. Now, one of my teenage sons wants to go to his dad’s house because I watch his phone time, I won’t let him have Snapchat or Instagram, keep him accountable with his grades, and monitor his new girlfriend texts. Since he is unhappy with my level of supervision, he’s now asking his dad to buy his phone and to be on his plan and give him more freedom and space. My question is what can you recommend for staying strong in parenting for the good of the child, not our own egos or insecurities? I may lose some peaceful good times with my son because I need to say “no” or have boundaries for him that he kicks against. I want to stay strong and do what is right. I don’t want to give in just so he won’t go with his dad to simply get what he wants. I just want to do it right and really could use some insight.

Answer

Working with an ex-spouse in a co-parenting role will often surface the same difficult patterns experienced in the failed marriage. Listening, taking turns, giving the benefit, expressing empathy, and other critical tasks in healthy relationships are often in short supply when divorced parents are attempting to discuss what’s best for their children. Divorced parents hope communication will be less complicated now that they aren’t fighting about the marriage, but often find familiar relationship dynamics. It’s important to understand and accept this reality when deciding how to respond to your ex-husband.

If you and your ex-husband can’t have a productive conversation together, can you work with a mediator or therapist? Would having a third-party present slow things down enough to hear one another and make decisions on behalf of your children? If attempts to find common ground on topics (such as schedules, electronics, money, and other parenting decisions) don’t produce any results, then you’ll have to decide if you want to continue attempting these conversations with your ex-husband.

I encourage you to do everything you can to stay engaged with your ex-husband in these conversations. Be flexible, listen, try to understand, and do everything you can to stay in conversation so you can help create as much unity as possible. As you said, ego and insecurities can’t get in the way of creating consistency for your children. Even though the rules may not play out exactly as you would like, having a unified front for your children is worth all of your best efforts.

While you can certainly fight these issues in court, recognize that it may leave you feeling bitter and depleted, especially if they’re areas that are more about personal preferences instead of safety and stability for the children. You may feel strongly about certain issues enough to go this route, but I encourage you to recognize that you will have more positive influence in your home if you’re not tied up in an ongoing battle with your ex-husband. Do everything you can to direct your limited emotional resources toward having productive and respectful conversations with your ex-husband and building a strong home environment with your children.

You might find that your ex-husband spends the rest of your parenting years (and grandparenting years, for that matter), ignoring you and indulging your children with things you don’t feel good about. And, as you’re discovering, your children may exploit the parenting split by doing what works best for their agenda. This is a painful reality of divorce, but you aren’t powerless in your ability to influence your children.

Recognize that even children from intact families still have to decide how they will live their lives. They will hopefully have had enough time to internalize values as they make their way into the world with less supervision. Although it’s now happened sooner than you would have liked, your children have to face this same challenge of deciding what they’ll do with the values you are teaching them.

Continue to discuss the feelings you have about social media, girlfriends, and other areas of concern. Offer him a listening ear as you understand why these things are so important to him. Engage your children in conversations to help them make better decisions about the new world in which they find themselves. Because they have less supervision, you’re not able to be in the manager role you’ve been accustomed to. So, your new role is now one of influence and persuasion.

I agree that your children are exposed to more potential harm by having less supervision when they’re with their father. However, they still have agency and can choose. You’ll have to be more explicit in your teaching about choosing between right and wrong. You can continue to set limits with the devices and behaviors they bring into your home. Your influence isn’t over because their father has a completely different way of structuring their environment.

Continue to do the best you can to be your best self in the interactions with your ex-husband as you discuss the children. Take accountability for any difficulty you create when your own ego or frustrations get in the way. It’s okay to apologize and repair those interactions so you can continue moving forward in your efforts to create a unified approach. However, regardless of what environment your ex-husband sets up for your children, you can continue to influence and guide your children with your own values, even though it’s not under the ideal conditions of a two-parent home.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT