This is not going to be a super fun blog entry, but a necessary one.
Exes are here to stay, so we better learn how to best navigate this reality.
Here are some helpful things to consider when deciding how best to interact with and integrate your relationship with your ex into your blended family:
1. Respect. Respect that they are your child's other parent. Respect the love that your child has for them and honor that in the way you speak to and of your ex. At the basic level, respect will make for a more safe conversation, which will open more ears for you to be heard than if you are rude. Being disrespectful in words or tone will only shut down what you are trying to communicate that much faster.
2. Own it. You chose your ex to procreate with, so the fact that they are forever in yours and your child's life was YOUR decision; you have no one to blame but yourself. As mad as you may get at your ex, you may as well get as mad at yourself because you created this reality too. This self-talk can actually back you off a ledge that you will want to jump off of from time to time. Sometimes it is not appropriate to place all the blame and anger on just one person after-all. It takes two people to enter into a relationship and two people to demolish it.
3. All aboard! You have to have a spouse that is supportive of your relationship with your ex. It is a reality when there are shared kids, so having a spouse who is constantly at war with this fact will make for a rocky marriage and also make for an uncomfortable household for your children to exist in. *As a side note, please understand that involvement on any level with your ex is likely evoke some sort of "feelings" within your current spouse, rightfully so (be aware and understanding of this). For there to be an expectation for your spouse to have zero feeling or reaction to your continued "relationship" (of sorts) with your ex would be unreasonable. Having said that, there should be the expectation that your spouse make you feel safe to engage with your ex by not punishing you for it, and in turn there should be the expectation for you to not to take advantage of that safe space by crossing boundaries that would not be acceptable nor appropriate.
A helpful tip here from both my husband and I as a rule-of-thumb when engaging with your ex is: If you are talking about anything with your ex that you wouldn't be comfortable sharing with your spouse, you are probably crossing lines that shouldn't be crossed. Make sure you'd be fine with showing all correspondences (text or email) to your spouse, and be more than willing to do so without attitude!
4. Keep it about the kids. This kinda goes along with #3, but deserves it's own point (that‘s how important it is). Do not be baited by your ex to take the conversation to any place other than what is in the BEST interest of your kid(s). I say this to self-protect. Exes can evoke in us some pretty hard emotions and stir up past hurts if we let them (some exes get off on controlling the situation or conversation by steering it in an emotionally volatile direction). They get the upper hand when they are able to break you down. If you are being triggered and enveloped by anxiety you, you need to go about these interactions differently. Don't let it get that far! Stay on topic and be as unemotional as humanly possible.
TIP: If you feel like you are becoming negatively triggered during an interaction with your ex, repeat the following word after me, "NEVERTHELESS". This word was actually given to my by a friend who had a very hard divorce and custody situation. Whenever she recognizes she's about to get worked up, or baited, she stops herself and the conversation, takes a deep breath, and returns it back to the matter at hand (the kids) by stating confidently "nevertheless". This word steals the ball back into your court and completely disregards the emotional bait thrown out there. It is very empowering; give it a try!
5. Break old patterns. You have so much history and shared experiences with your ex that it is natural for you to fall back into old communication habits whenever there is a need to interact. Chances are though, said habits weren't successful (hence the breakup). By engaging in the old, familiar way, you cannot expect different results. Whatever wasn't working for you then, certainly won't be working for you now. You both are still the same people you were at your core when you were together; you should not expect anything different simply because your living arrangements and relationship status have changed. Use the freedom from your past to allow you to operate out of a place of clarity now. Let your past inform you what not to do, but don't let it be the road map by which you continue to travel.
6. Choose your battles. As the saying goes, "You do not need to attend every fight you are invited to." This is great advice. Choose to only fight about the stuff that is significantly important and let the smaller irritants roll off your back. If you are in a tough co-parenting spot where things are not easy-going, ask yourself this before really throwing down: is it worth going to court over? If you are not willing to lawyer up and go face a judge, and put your kids through all that stress, then understand that the person who says "NO" will get their way, they hold all the power. This is a very, very, extremely tough pill to swallow, but in your co-parenting lifetime it will go both ways (which should make you feel a little bit better since you know at some point you will be the one saying no too).
While this reality may not make you warm and fuzzy on the inside, it can help you to avoid entering into a losing battle; sometimes it's just not worth it (especially if in the end in your heart of hearts you know you are not going to win). This may feel like rolling over, and truth be told, it often is, but know that it doesn't diminish the importance of the lessons you are teaching your kids and the impact you are having shaping their lives while they are in your custody and care. The kids need to always remain your focus, not the battle. Just because the other parent may say no to something, doesn't mean that you can't think outside the box to give your children the experiences, lessons and opportunities you want them to have. You will just have to be creative which may mean you will need to let go of your ideals (you are not in an "ideal" family situation after all with an all-in-tact natural family).
6. Pray. A lot. There are some things that are simply too huge for you handle; and for me, dealing with my ex would be one of them. If you can relate, this is what I have to tell you about myself; I do not pretend I can do this alone, nor do I expect to. I pray a lot. I ask God to give me the words, mindset and attitude that will be pleasing to Him and ultimately bless my kids when I need to engage with my ex, because it is them that matters (not me, not my ex). I pray to be on the same page as much as possible (because frankly, it's easier and I am very tired with all of the back and forth). I also ask that my children gain clarity in their own lives about what they want as it can be super confusing for them to have two different voices of opinion in their heads from the two people they trust most in the world. Sometimes when we pray God has a grander plan than our desires. Knowing that, I often ask God to give me understanding and acceptance when things don’t seem to be going my way.
If you are not a believer, mindset is everything. Do what you need to do (for me it is prayer) to get yourself right...into a good head space before you have to engage with your ex. Some people meditate, some people exercise, some people journal and some people take a bath. Whatever it is, your kids will benefit from their parents having the most positive interaction possible, so do what you can to make that happen on your end.
7. Get support. You need a good support system. You will need advice. You will need to vent. You will need to laugh at your ex's stupidity. You will need people removed from your family incubator to unpack everything with. Feeling supported and not alone is a huge component to sanity and being able to handle the hard stuff when it comes your way. Who you choose to share with matters. Some people are just too close to the situation to be helpful or constructive. You need truth tellers who aren’t always taking your side just because they love you. Sometimes you will need to hear that you screwed up. Friends are wonderful, but so are support groups and even a therapist. Make sure you have a safe space to be able to express and get out what you need to so you don’t spew it all onto your spouse (who may be sick of hearing it and become frustrated that they can't fix it), your kids (who will only be hurt and confused by it), or your ex (who will only be given even more reason to be difficult).
8. Acceptance. I believe this is the key to this whole subject. You and your spouse will need to accept that your ex will always be a part of your life. You will need to accept that you cannot change your ex no matter what you do, you can only control your side of things. You will need to accept that you won’t always get what you want out of these interactions (and you will have to learn to function anyway in a positive manner). You will have to accept that your kids will love, look up to and defend your ex (and you will have to support them in their relationship with their other parent). You will have to accept that your ex will move on and choose a step parent of their liking to bring into your kids life (and you won’t have any say who this person will be). There will be a lot of swallowing sand, but accepting what you can’t change or control will allow you to be less anxious and calm you down.
The EX factor is no joke, but you can set yourself up for the best possible outcome for your whole family by being mindful in every interaction and taking the steps you need to be in the right frame of mind when you do have to engage. Having an ex is now your new normal so you better get used to it and make it as painless as possible on all involved, especially yourself.
Peace and Love,