Dear Dr. Jann: My ex constantly badmouths me to the kids to the point that they don’t want to have anything to do with him. He hasn’t talked to them in months, but last week he sent them all emails telling them that he’s getting married and would like them all at the wedding. They’ve never met this woman. Needless to say, they are heartbroken. They talk as if their dad is dead. I told them that the right thing to do is to attend and do their best to maintain a relationship with their dad. My oldest chose to go, my younger two refused. I’m very confused and I’m second guessing my approach. Should I have forced them to go or let their father figure it out? What is my role in all this? How can I make this okay for my kids? What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: Although you hear the term “co-dependent” most often associated with addiction, there’s an aspect of co-dependency that’s inherent in the type of relationship you describe. These relationships generally involve a dependent partner (your ex) who is reckless in some way and a co-dependent partner (you) who enables the dependent partner’s bad behavior. An educated guess would be that you have spent many years running defense, letting the kids know “Daddy didn’t really mean that,” or “Go tell your dad you’re sorry” to smooth over rifts between dad and the kids. Even though you’re no longer married, that behavior still lingers and you find yourself asking questions like, “What is my role in all this?” and “How can I make this okay for them?”
The answer is, your role is to be supportive of your children. Listen to their feelings, guide them to be forgiving of their father, but strong in their own personal convictions. It never was your responsibility to run defense for dad and perhaps if you hadn’t he would have learned how to communicate with his children on his own. As it is now, he’s made his bed and it’s up to him to fix it—just don’t badmouth him (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #3) or undermine his efforts (Ex-Etiquette for Parents rule #5, “Don’t be spiteful” and rule #6, “Don’t hold grudges.”). You have seen firsthand that badmouthing backfires and so will spiteful revenge.
Truth is, not including the children in the courtship of his new wife actually undermined her relationship with them. They needed to cook dinners together, go to movies, watch TV, form a relationship of their own before anyone got married. AS it is, they don’t know her and have no desire to call her family. Plus, not including them in the wedding festivities actually creates an “us against them” sort of atmosphere that will be difficult to fix.
Dad has some heavy lifting ahead of him—and it’s not up to you to help him fix it. It IS up to you to set the stage for healing, and then let him take the lead. I know you don’t want to see your children hurt, but there comes a time when you must let people grow up and take responsibility for their own actions—I’m talking about dad here, not the kids. That’s good ex-etiquette.