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Ex-etiquette: Celebrations after breakup can be tricky

Q: My son is recently divorced after a 15-year marriage. He has two beautiful daughters, ages 7 and 10. His ex was seeing someone else and wanted the divorce. My oldest daughter (in another state) will be 50 years old in a few months and my son, his two daughters and I want to surprise her for her birthday. I mentioned this to my daughter’s husband and he wants us to also invite my son’s ex-wife. He said they feel strongly that either both be invited to functions or neither one be invited. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: Although it sounds like your son-in-law is trying to not take sides after thinking of your son’s ex as a sister-in-law for a very long time – and that’s commendable in principle – what he’s proposing is just not practical. Life DOES change after a breakup and expecting to include your son’s ex or exclude him from every family gathering from this point on is not a real-world answer. Of course there may be holidays, like Christmas, for example, where your family may opt to celebrate the same as always, but this is not a requirement for every get-together as your son-in-law proposes and should not be attempted unless everyone is on board.

Good ex-etiquette suggests that family members can invite anyone they want to a special occasion they host, but they can’t dictate the guest list when others throw a party. You and your son should be able to celebrate or initiate a family get-together without consulting your son’s ex-wife. However, if you were suggesting your son-in-law host the party, then he’s in charge of the guest list.

This approach may take some of the spontaneity out of family get-togethers for a while and that can be frustrating. All you wanted to do is celebrate a milestone birthday with your daughter. But, if your family is so close that family members still want to include your son’s ex – although this is a little surprising since she initiated the breakup by leaving for someone else – you will work through this in time. Let your genuine affection for each other be your guide, coupled with frank conversations (Good ex-etiquette rule No. 8, “Be honest and straightforward”) keeping family gossip to a minimum (Good ex-etiquette rule No. 3, “No badmouthing”) and you will be moving in the right direction.

Finally, the basis for Good Ex-etiquette for Parents is, “Put the children first,” and we haven’t addressed how celebrating with both mom and dad present so soon after a breakup may affect your 7- and 10-year-old granddaughters. Be mindful that most kids, no matter their age, harbor a fantasy that their parents might get back together. Celebrating together so soon may give the kids a false sense of hope of reconciliation and really set them back. Don’t be afraid to call this to your son-in-law’s attention, (it may be better if dad does it) and for now, suggesting a surprise get-together at a neutral restaurant could be the best possible compromise (Good Ex-etiquette rule No. 10).

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at dr.jann@exetiquette.com.