Maintaining an amicable relationship with your former spouse can be tricky when there are children involved. It can become even more complicated if they have a new partner in their lives.
Now that there’s a new person in the picture who might become a step-parent to your children, everyone involved needs to find a way to make it work. While you and your ex’s new partner don’t have to become friends, it’s advisable to form a good-natured relationship for the sake of the children, advises Karen Moross, a therapist dealing with divorce, family mediation and counselling.
‘Parenting children through separation, divorce and post-divorce is stressful and can have a long-term effect on their own relationships, how they perceive themselves, and their world view. Take your time when introducing your new partner to your kids. It can be a series of frank conversations, but they also need to be sensitive conversations,’ Karen explains.
It’s important to be civil
Forming civil relations with the new partner is less about the adults and more about the children. Whether you like it or not, when you have children you and your former spouse have no choice but to communicate regularly and effectively. That being said, ‘You do not have to like their new partner,’ adds Karen. ‘If the kids are benefitting from the new relationship and there’s a caring and stable environment, it’s a lot healthier to go with the flow and make the transition simpler for you and your family. This promotes good communication,’ she says.
Make things clear
Meet with your ex to have an open discussion about your fears, worries and expectations regarding the children in relation to the new partner. Come to an understanding about maintaining the standards and principles you shared while raising your kids together. ‘As the biological parent you should specifically state what you need and expect from the get-go. For example, if you feel the kids are spending too much time gaming instead of studying, tell them why you feel this way, your concerns, and agree on a reasonable amount of time for gaming and homework – and be consistent.’ As much as the two homes will have their own rules, it’s important to meet each other halfway and agree on certain values that will benefit the children.
While it’s essential to build relations, remember you’re parenting with your ex-spouse and not their new partner. Set boundaries for yourself and the other party. ‘When there is a parenting issue, ask your ex to keep the discussions
private, unless the issue involves their partner. Furthermore, you should not discuss parenting issues with your children or put them in the middle of adult problems.’ This just confuses the kids and puts them in an awkward position where they’ll feel like they have to take sides.
Tips to make it work
In the beginning it might be easier to avoid the new partner, for example asking your ex to come alone when he fetches the kids. But eventually, if their relationship becomes serious and long-term, events such as birthday parties,
school concerts, sports events, and Christmas cannot be avoided.
Keep things cordial:
- Remember they might also be feeling just as unsettled as you, probably even more so as they’re the ‘new parent’ who is also trying to fit in and be liked by you and your kids.
- If you can see they’re trying their best, and your children really like them, try to acknowledge that through a ‘thank you’ text now and again.
- Next time there’s a family gathering, like a birthday party, invite them yourself. Perhaps you might be ready to ask them to help with the planning, so they can feel more involved.
- Don’t ever speak badly about them in front of your children. Keep any problems between the adults away from the kids. And remember you’ll move on at some point too, and you wouldn’t want your ex speaking badly about your new partner.
- You won’t always be right. You may be the biological parent and think you know what’s best for your children, but it doesn’t mean you’ll always be right. You may have your own set of rules on how you want your children to be raised, but once they’re at your partner’s house, it’s their rules that apply.
Just not working out?
Ultimately, how you define the step-parent role and your expectations of them will be up to you. If you’ve tried your best and all means possible to make it work, but things aren’t getting any better, then it’s fine to stop trying. Some things are just out of your control. Another option is to try going for family therapy. ‘It may help to talk to a counsellor or relationship specialist in order to make a smooth and calm transition into the next phase of your life, and work towards being a happy family.’
And if you’re the step-parent?
Firstly, remember you are just that – the step-parent. Don’t immediately try to impose your own rules and values onto your partner’s children, and don’t try changing whatever foundation the biological parents have laid. If you would like to meet the biological parent, don’t rush things. Let your partner know you’d like to form some sort of relationship, and if they agree, that’s positive, but if they don’t want to, don’t take it personally. Continue to support your partner and try to get along with the children whenever you or they are visiting. Let them know you’d like to be on good terms, and further down the line, that they’re welcome to contact you should they need help with things like lifts for the kids and looking after them.
‘How we made it work’
‘My son’s father grew up without his dad (who died at an early age), which was partly the reason for our divorce. While going through the separation I understood how much the situation still hurts him, and as a result it wasn’t difficult for me to forgive him. Even though the damage had been done, I decided my son would have a relationship with his dad at whatever cost. No matter what our situation was, I didn’t want my child to endure the same heartache as his dad had while growing up.
‘A year after our divorce I met my husband. My relationship with my ex-husband took strain as he struggled with accepting this new man who would be part of his son’s life. Both dads went to see a pastor at church, where they discussed their concerns, and once my son’s dad realised everything was in his son’s best interests he became part of the partnership in raising him. Eight years later and the four of us are a happy family. My son has two houses, but
we’re all one team and we keep the communication open.
‘Most people think we’re totally crazy as the three of us are good friends; in fact we’re a support system for one another. My husband, on the other hand, is not so fortunate with his ex-wife; he has no access to his children and no communication. We’re living extreme opposite situations with our former partners. I’m just so grateful we all made the choice that it was not about us but about our son. Today we live in peace; no hate and no one is suffering. It took work from both parties, but it just goes to show that although our friendship is rare, it is possible. My son is privileged to have three parents who love him and have his best interests at heart.’ – Heloise Wiggett
FEATURE: NOLWAZI DHLAMINI IMAGE: FOTOLIA.COM