Q: I’ve been living with my girlfriend and her two kids for about six months. Everything is OK between us, however, it really bothers me that she refers to her ex with an expletive. She calls him that to friends, family, and in front of her kids. Her phone ID uses the same slur when he calls. She’s also drinking way more than she used to and she makes comments in front of the kids that are way out of line. I want to talk to her about it, but I’m not sure how. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Your girlfriend referring to her child’s father in the way you describe is about the worst ex-etiquette possible. I have to say, I do see this all the time and I keep telling myself if parents really understood what they were doing to their kids, they wouldn’t do it. But, there are the parents who let anger and resentment color their judgment, and it sounds like your girlfriend is one of those parents. The 10 Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents were developed just for situations like this. It’s a simple list to which people can refer when facing conflict with an ex – anyone’s ex. It doesn’t have to be your ex.
The cornerstone of the 10 Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents is Rule No. 1, “Put the children first.” That means parents should make their judgments based on what is best for the kids – and badmouthing their other parent certainly is not. (Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 3, “Don’t badmouth.”) Children of divorce often feel pulled in two directions and constantly fight an internal battle – “If I like being with Dad, will it hurt Mom’s feelings?” “If I like being with Mom, will Dad be mad?” It’s very confusing for children and undermines their security. Rather than feel more secure at one home, they don’t feel secure at either home. The goal should be that your children feel comfortable at both homes with both parents. Parents who act like you describe need to do some serious soul searching. Their actions are based on spite and anger – and that breaks two more very important rules of good ex-etiquette – Rule No. 5, “Don’t be spiteful” and Ex-etiquette Rule No. 6, “Don’t hold grudges.” Very bad parenting. Very bad ex-etiquette.
Although it’s important that you talk to your girlfriend about your own observations, it sounds like she may also need to talk to a professional. People often use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate when they’re depressed or angry or to keep anxiety in check. Alcohol and/or drugs lessen your inhibitions and parents under the influence are then more likely to do and say things they shouldn’t to the kids. Bottom line: Counseling – and the Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette – should help to get your girlfriend back on track.
You can find the 10 Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette on the Bonus Families website, www.bonusfamilies.com. Key word: ten rules.)
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.