Can you be too friendly with your ex-spouse?
Is your "good" relationship unhealthy?
by Greg Ramey, PhD, child psychologist at Dayton Children's and Dayton Daily News columnist
The holiday season can be difficult for children from divorced families. Some well-intentioned parents may be making this problem more confusing by being too friendly with their ex-spouse.
Divorced parents are well aware of the impact of their behavior on the children. Most parents go to extraordinary lengths to avoid criticism of their ex-spouse, and maintain a positive relationship for the sake of the children. If a friendly relationship is good, is a very close relationship between divorced parents even better for the children?
One dad told me he regularly cuts the lawn at his ex-wife鈥檚 house and stops by every Saturday morning for breakfast. He has a key to the house and makes unannounced visits to his son. The parents talk on the phone at least once a day. In another family, the divorced parents continue to spend holidays together. They鈥檝e maintained their Christmas traditions of attending church together and then visiting relatives for the family dinner.
While those parents鈥?intentions are positive, this degree of closeness is probably unhealthy. Children report that these types of family activities cause them more conflict and confusion than comfort.
Why is this?
- It maintains the hope of the parents鈥?reunification. When children see their divorced parents in close contact, it only reinforces a fantasy that the family will get back together. You may think that this belief would only occur with young children, but I鈥檝e been surprised by the number of teenagers, usually girls, who maintain such longings. Some teens feel they can maneuver their parents into remarriage by behaving exceptionally well, convincing each parent how much they miss the other or encouraging guilt in their parents.
- It may only continue a bad marriage. You got divorced for a reason. In many situations, you and your spouse simply did not get along. When you try to maintain closeness for the sake of the children, the same problems may continue. The children may see you being argumentative, bossy, controlling, and unreasonable. They now have to deal with all the bad effects from the divorce and continue to experience tension when you are together. They experience the worst of both worlds.
- Emotional conflict. Most children love both of their parents and hate being put in a situation where they have to choose between them. Children report it is very difficult being around their divorced parents when the entire family is together. They may feel that each parent is trying to win them over to their side and the emotional strain is enormous. They feel they have to be very careful of everything they say and do for fear that they may hurt the feelings of the other parent. Many children, particularly teenagers, prefer that the family not be together for the holidays.
Holidays can be emotionally demanding for children from divorce. Don鈥檛 make it more difficult by being too close with your ex-spouse. Maintain a cordial and business-like relationship. Be flexible with your scheduling of visitations and holiday functions. Recognize that you and your children may experience a particularly intense sadness at this time of the year.
If you are not sure how to handle some of these situations, try talking with your children. If you listen carefully, you may just learn what really works best for them.
Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a child psychologist at The Children鈥檚 Medical Center of Dayton and a columnist for the Dayton Daily News.