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Ex-etiquette: When dad’s new woman sleeps over

Q: My ex and I split up about six months ago. We were married for 10 years and share custody. Last week, the kids came home from his house and told me, “Daddy had a woman spend the night.” I was horrified! I didn’t think he would ever do that! What do I do?

A: You think you know your ex because you lived with him or her for a number of years, but you’re making your current judgments based on how your relationship has evolved over the years. Stand back and look at how you both acted when you met. Did you cautiously date? Did you sleep together before you were formally committed to each other? Ironically, he may not have changed that much. The circumstances have. Now, you have kids watching – but he may be acting the same way he always did.

Although it’s probably the last thing you want to do, it looks as if you may have to talk with your ex about his dating behavior. Be careful with your approach. Preface that conversation with something like, “I’m not making judgments about the way you conduct your life. I’m concerned about our children,” and then state the problem. Make sure you don’t bring your leftover baggage into it, (Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 5, “Don’t be spiteful,” and No. 6, “Don’t hold grudges”), and be tactful when you describe the new person in your ex’s life. He’ll be more open to a conversation if you refer to her as “your new relationship.” He may shut you down if you insult him – or her. Make it clear that your concerns are about how seeing him intimate with another woman so soon after the breakup affects your children. Give honest examples if the kids have mentioned something. Don’t exaggerate or make things up. (Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 8, “Be honest and straightforward.”)

Jealousy and anger aside, you shouldn’t be surprised when your ex eventually moves on. For your kids’ sake, come to an agreement about how you both will present a new relationship and stick to it. As strange as it may sound, your ex can be your biggest ally. When your child comes home announcing that Mommy or Daddy has a new partner, a well-informed ex will not act surprised, but be able to calm the child and offer an informed response. Think that’s crazy advice? What do you think a child would rather hear – calming reassurance or angry surprise?

I’ve worked with quite a few clients who are in denial about how severely their behavior with the opposite sex affects their kids. First, they think the kids don’t know. They do. Next, they think the kids don’t understand. They do. And, finally, they think the kids will get over it. They won’t. At least not in the near future, and if it’s in a child’s face, no parent should be surprised that the children don’t want to visit. Children are embarrassed by their parents’ sexuality. They’re doubly embarrassed by their divorced parents’ sexuality.

Bottom line, all this points to a frank conversation – and an agreement about how “dating” will be handled. Most parenting plans give both parents enough private time. Put parenting first when your kids are around – fool around when they’re not. That’s good ex-etiquette.