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Ex-Etiquette For Parents
Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation
By Jann Blackstone-Ford, Sharyl Jupe
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Jann Blackstone-Ford, M.A.
All rights reserved.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
"Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them."
Webster's Dictionary defines etiquette as "conventional requirements as to proper social behavior." However, "proper social behavior" and divorce are rarely mentioned in the same breath. Some think it is ridiculous to believe that parents who could not get along in a marriage should be able to get along after divorce. Yet research continues to tell us that our children's emotional health depends on their parents' relationship. For that reason alone divorced parents must look for positive ways to talk to each other and resolve conflicts.
What Is Ex-Etiquette?
As explained by Emily Post, proper etiquette is "a code of behavior based on consideration, kindness, and unselfishness." We currently have no ground rules for a code of behavior when it comes to an ex-spouse. When an ex behaves badly, it's understood that the reason is that he is the ex. Poor behavior seems acceptable and is perpetuated by each generation. When it comes to dealing with — or being dealt with by — an ex, rudeness is the norm. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 1.5 million children experience the divorce of their parents each year — ultimately 40 percent of all children. Perhaps it would be less acceptable if we replaced the word ex with parent. Then the impact of the bad behavior might be more easily understood.
The essence of ex-etiquette is simply good behavior after a bad divorce. This chapter introduces the necessary mind-set that will allow divorced parents to interact successfully based on what is really important — the children — and discusses how to take the necessary steps to make well-balanced decisions even in the most stressful situations.
In the Beginning
Newly married Lisa and Mike Johnson had an unanticipated problem when they attempted to raise their kids from previous marriages in their new blended family.
"It's embarrassing for me to admit," said Lisa, "but this is my third marriage. I have one child from my first marriage and two children from my second. I also have a child from this marriage to Mike, and he has two children from his previous marriage. We both share physical custody of the kids, the fifty-fifty split, which means there are a lot of different parents involved in the decision making."
With five marriages between them, Lisa and Mike's organizational problems may seem extreme. However, now that 50 percent of all first marriages end in divorce in the United States, and an even more staggering 60 percent of all second marriages end the same way, more and more parents like Lisa and Mike are looking for creative solutions to raising their kids after divorce. These solutions include reaching out past their normal comfort zone to coordinate efforts with their ex — or their current spouse's ex.
I first met Lisa during a mediation session with her second ex-husband, Jason. She was married to Mike, but she and Jason were finding it impossible to coordinate their parenting efforts, and their youngest child had stopped sleeping through the night. They decided to try mediation instead of going to court to adjust their custody agreement. Lisa confided that her marriage to Mike was also in jeopardy because of the chaos created by the ex-spouses. It put so much pressure on the kids that they, too, were showing signs of stress.
Like so many other divorced parents, Lisa had decided that coordinating parenting with Jason was impossible and she'd begun to plan her life around her "new" family with Mike, no longer considering Jason when making decisions for the kids. Rather than help, this caused additional resentment. The adults quickly realized that something else had to be done, but they were at a loss. They needed tools to help them resolve the conflicts. I suggested Lisa start by waving the white flag.
"Wave the white flag?" asked Lisa. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"Wave the white flag," I repeated. "Ask for help. When you are at a loss and you can't figure out what to do, that's when it's time to ask the other person for his or her suggestions. Stop talking and listen."
Both Lisa and Jason seemed surprised by my suggestion, and Lisa made a face in disgust.
"I'm not asking him for anything. He makes me sick, and so does his new wife."
"Then your children will just have to suffer," I replied, and I began to walk toward my office door to let them out. Lisa didn't budge. She sat there, dumbfounded, realizing for the first time that cooperating wasn't just Jason's problem — it was hers too. That's when we finally got down to work.
Wave the White Flag
In most instances waving the white flag means surrendering to the opposing party, but that is not what I'm suggesting at all. In the world of ex-etiquette, waving the white flag can also mean stop forcing your own agenda and ask for help finding the answers. As a divorce and stepfamily mediator, I am trained to help warring parents manage their own conflicts — to look within themselves for the solutions to end the war. I have found that when divorced couples come up against a brick wall, it is because they are usually behaving in the same manner — holding on for the sake of being right and trying not to lose ground. Waving the white flag says to the other person, "I can't figure this out on my own."
Am I saying to give up your cause? Roll over and play dead? Let that $%#& win? Not at all. I am saying that the responsibility for finding a solution to any problem is shared equally between the opposing parties. The key lies in something Albert Einstein said: "Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them." Answers to problems often lie in the most unconventional places; therefore, if you can't solve the problem by yourself, don't be afraid to look to the opposition for a solution. Granted, this is an unconventional approach. Most people throw up their hands and let the courts decide. When this happens, one person wins, the other loses, and both continue to resent each other for years. I try to remind divorced parents — those who ask for help often get it.
Do I Have to Get Along with My Ex?
If you don't have children, you don't have to interact with your ex after your relationship ends. However, if you do have children, it's time to put your own issues aside and look at the bigger picture. In order to successfully co-parent after divorce or separation, you will interact with your ex on a weekly, perhaps even daily, basis. Know this going in and make the necessary adjustments. Don't torture your children by putting them in the position of watching you and your ex continue to argue even after the divorce is final.
The Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette
The "rules of ex-etiquette" are very similar to the unwritten rules of common decency and fair play. However, divorced parents often ask me for a formal list — something they can use to help them keep their wits about them when times get tough. As a result I have devised "The Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette."
1. Put the children first.
2. Ask for help when you need it.
3. No badmouthing.
4. Biological parents make the rules; bonusparents uphold them.
5. Don't be spiteful.
6. Don't hold grudges.
7. Use empathy when problem solving.
8. Be honest and straightforward.
9. Respect each other's turf.
10. Compromise whenever possible.
Putting the Children First
We have all heard this for years, but what does "put your kids first" really mean in the world of ex-etiquette? It means that you must have enough respect for your children to put their needs before yours. Forget about "the principle of the thing" when disagreeing with their other parent. Make your love for the children the principle thing. From this day forward, make all your decisions based on their welfare, no matter if you have to be uncomfortable, swallow your pride, move, do without, or go slower in a new relationship than you would like. Your children did not ask for the separation or divorce. Most children would sacrifice just about anything to keep their parents together, so if you have made the decision to go forward without their parent or to commit to someone who has children from a previous relationship, accept that this child is rightfully your first priority.
Good Behavior After a Bad Divorce: Ex- Etiquette in Action
The Time Consideration
"My ex-husband expects me to give up my time with the kids so he can take them to the World Series! I'm not giving up my time to anyone. What kind of mother would I be?"
By law, if parents accept shared custody of the children after divorce, they are obligated to share the children's time with the other parent. Some parents find it hard to accept that the other parent has equal rights after divorce concerning the children. For this reason, each parent's time with the children becomes the issue. The possibility that their children will have more treasured memories with the enemy becomes more important than the children's welfare and happiness.
Sam and Kathy have been divorced for three years. Now that their son, Marcus, is twelve he likes to watch Monday Night Football with his dad. Sam and Kathy's fifty-fifty custody agreement allows Marcus to spend every other Monday night with his dad. Therefore, Sam asked Kathy if they could alter the visitation schedule during football season so that he and Marcus could enjoy the game together. Kathy refused to consider giving up one minute of her time with her son — until Sam offered her an extra night a week.
"I had always vowed that I would not be one of those parents who used their children to get back at the other parent after divorce, but here I was, doing exactly that. All my son wanted to do was watch Monday Night Football with his dad. In order for him to do that I had to force his dad to trade for an extra Sunday night dinner? Who was this really about? I swallowed my pride and admitted to Sam that I was embarrassed by my behavior. From that day forward Sam's attitude toward me completely changed, and now he is far more open to compromise."
Ex-etiquette dictates that parents must follow their custody agreement; however, the essence of good etiquette is consideration and politeness. Parents who are more concerned with preventing the other parent from spending additional time with the kids rather than weighing the positive outcome of the act are being selfish and maybe even abusive. The essence of "put the children first" means parents must put their children's needs ahead of their own.
Decide to Cooperate
Some divorced parents do not want to cooperate with an ex. They block communication and schedule things around their "own" family, which consists of "the kids" and their new spouse. A parent who takes this approach to parenting after divorce is actually in denial. He is trying to remake his new life to fit into the conventional family mold. But he's forgetting one thing — they aren't a conventional family.
If your ex is being uncooperative, you can do one of two things — you can buy into his behavior and compete on the same level, or you can look for a new solution. Many exes realize that change is necessary but don't know how to break out of the old patterns of communication. They continue to do the same old things and then state loudly, "I've done all I can do! She is an idiot!"
"The thought of cooperating with my ex, after what he put the kids and me through, seems unfathomable to me."
It's hard work to get along with someone you despise. Find consolation in the fact that you are not doing it for yourself. You are doing it for the people you love the most — your kids. I'm not suggesting that you block a bullet, which many parents say they would do to save their children. I'm suggesting that you cooperate with your child's other parent after divorce. There are three behaviors that lead you to this end.
1. Break the old patterns of communication.
2. Let go of negative emotions.
3. Acknowledge your mutual interests.
Break the Old Patterns of Communication
Breaking an old pattern of communication is not easy. So much of it is mental preparation. What you think about your ex — and the thoughts you run over and over in your mind before you meet — has an effect on your actions when you finally interact. Your behavior can become a negative thought/negative behavior chain reaction. In the psychological community this is referred to as a conditioned response based on past experiences. Examining where and why the term conditioned response originated may be helpful.
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist of the early twentieth century. He made a number of important discoveries in the realm of physiology, particularly related to digestion; however, he is best remembered for an experiment in which he "conditioned" dogs to initiate a salivary response to the sound of a bell. Dr. Pavlov began his experiment by measuring the amount of salivation the dogs produced when responding to food. As the experiments continued, he rang a bell at the same time he presented the food. Again, he noted a salivary response. Over time, Pavlov observed the same salivation response when he rang the bell, whether he presented the dogs with food or not. The dogs equated the sound of the bell with getting ready to eat. Pavlov defined this as conditioned response.
In some ways anger against an ex is a conditioned response. If your thoughts conjure up feelings of anger and resentment, you are not likely to want to cooperate. If you can change your thinking process, you can change your behavior and break old patterns of communication. You will have broken the negative thought/negative behavior chain.
Here's a perfect example of how thought processes affect a person's behavior — and what that person must do to break the cycle. It's a personal story, one I have used many times while teaching stepfamily seminars.
My husband and I were married for six months, and during that time Sharyl and I were not the best of friends. Every morning I would sit in front of my makeup mirror, and as I put on my makeup I'd rehearse exactly what I was going to tell her the next time she did something that made me angry. As I put on my foundation, I was a little miffed. As I progressed to the blusher, I was angrier still. By the time I was adding the finishing touches with my mascara, I was livid — and I hadn't said a thing to anyone! This went on day after day. I thought I was keeping it all inside. I didn't think anyone knew how angry I was until one day my husband timidly tiptoed around the corner of the bathroom.
"What are you doing?" I snapped.
"Well," he said. "I was checking to see how much makeup you're wearing. It seems the more makeup you have on, the angrier you are with me."
I had no idea my husband was so perceptive, and I was very impressed. His comment made me realize that I was the one making me angry, not Sharyl. As soon as I sat down in front of my mirror each morning I started the same vengeful angry thought process. My anger was simply learned behavior. I had taught myself to be angry!
Since I had learned to be angry in my plight, I decided I could learn not to be angry. Rather than rehearse all the bad things in my head each morning, I made myself think about the good things — how happy I was to be married to my husband. How happy I was that the kids had accepted me and seem to be adjusting so well. Everyone was healthy. Every time a bad thought came to my mind about Sharyl I pushed it out and replaced it with a more positive thought about my life.
Lo and behold, the next time my husband crept around the bathroom corner, I said, "Hi honey!" rather than growling at him. But, equally as important, the next time I spoke to Sharyl I didn't have one bad thing to say to her. And oddly enough, she didn't have one bad thing to say to me, either.
This story is a perfect example of how changing your thought process changes your behavior. I was thoroughly convinced that it was Sharyl's fault that we were at odds. If I had not made the necessary changes to break the negative thought chain, to change those negative expectations into positive affirmations, I would still be furious, sitting in front of my mirror and snapping at everyone who crossed my path.
"But I can't make communication with my ex work by myself."
Like most people, you have probably been taught that communication is a two-way street. If one party does not wish to communicate, then it is unlikely things will change, right? Wrong. Things can change when only one person is committed to change. Rather than try to change your ex's mind, what you really have to do is change your own. Adopt a new mind-set when dealing with your ex — one that allows you to change your negative expectations into positive affirmations. That way, you don't have to convince your ex to believe something different. All you have to do is change your own belief about your ex. Whatever you believe, you manifest in your life. As proof, take note of my makeup mirror story. I was the only one who changed my thinking. One person, not two. Neither Sharyl nor my husband had any idea I wanted to change the status quo — yet changing my mind brought about that larger change.
Excerpted from Ex-Etiquette For Parents by Jann Blackstone-Ford, Sharyl Jupe. Copyright © 2004 Jann Blackstone-Ford, M.A.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Basic Ex-Etiquette Defining and Practicing Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,
1. Laying the Groundwork,
2. Everyday Ex-Etiquette,
3. Remarriage or Integrating a New Partner,
4. Getting Along with Your Spouse's Ex (or Your Ex's New Partner),
Part II: Intermediate Ex-Etiquette Parenting and Family-Building,
5. Turning Your Stepfamily into a Bonusfamily,
6. Ex-Etiquette for Bonusparents,
7. Improving Extended Family Relations,
Part III: Advanced Ex-Etiquette Managing the Formalities,
8. Introductions, Correspondence, and Other Conventions,
9. Babies, Weddings, Showers, and Announcements,
10. Holidays and Special Occasions,