Q. My ex and I share our kids’ time equally – one week with me, one week with her. I just remarried and my new wife is very concerned that the kids are telling my ex what goes on in our home. She’s instructed them to say nothing to their mom, and now they don’t want to come back. I don’t know what to do. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. It starts with establishing boundaries way before you marry. You and your wife should have been clear about what is expected right from the start. There’s an exercise I often suggest to those about to move in together or marry. I call it the BEFORE exercise and you can find it on the Bonus Families and Ex-etiquette websites. Key word: before. Basically, it’s an exercise you do together that asks you to envision what you expect from each other and openly discuss how you will create the relationships you want with each other’s children, extended family and, in your case, ex-wife.
Why should your new wife have any sort of relationship with your ex? Because the kids live in both homes. Your ex and your new partner don’t have to go shopping together, but they should be able to comfortably problem solve in the best interest of the kids.
While we are on this subject, your new wife married you with a particular custody agreement intact; therefore, it’s her responsibility to join the club and not make waves. Ex-etiquette rule No. 1 is “Put the children first.” That means all the children in your care, not just your own. If your wife doesn’t like the parenting plan, or doesn’t like that you interact with your children’s mother on a regular basis, she shouldn’t have married you. An important unwritten rule of good ex-etiquette is “Never interfere with an already established parenting plan that’s working.” Of course, if you already have children, with rules of your own and a parenting plan in place, then a discussion is in order. But for an outsider to come in and try to change everything just because – that’s very bad ex-etiquette. The goal is to become “bonus,” to combine families, and the key to how well you do it is how well you synchronize the input of the players.
Regarding being “concerned that the kids are telling their mother what’s going on in your house,” your kids have one life that is split into two homes. Ideally they should feel comfortable talking about what goes on at either house at any time because they are talking about their life. Abusers want kids to keep secrets. That’s a huge red flag. Plus, expecting your children to keep secrets from their other parent will drive them away from you faster than a speeding bullet. That puts them right in the middle of the two people they love most. Rarely will they choose. They won’t want to come back.
Bottom line, how much privacy can parents expect when their kids go back and forth between homes? If you are doing it right? Very little. Teach them to respect all the parent figures in their lives by demonstrating it firsthand, and they will not betray any of you. Ask them to take sides, and someone will be hurt – most of all, the kids.