Divorced dad struggles to set boundaries with ex-wife for parenting
Christmas can be a tough time for divorced parents
I divorced two years ago and this will be the first Christmas I am not spending time with my children. They will be with my ex and her boyfriend, whom my children hate as our marriage ended due to their affair. But my new girlfriend broke up with me after finding out about double dates that my ex organised for my daughter's birthday - she thinks our relationship is too cosy. What can I do to prepare for my next relationship and preserve family time with my children and my ex-wife at the same time?
Christmas is often the hardest time for divorced families. Before I go further, have you taken the time to work on your own emotions, such as anger and grief from the end of your relationship with the mother of your children? From what you wrote, I assumed you were celebrating Christmas as a family last year even after your divorce or during separation.
In his book The Truth About Children and Divorce, psychologist and family mediation expert Dr Robert Emery points out: "If you have been separated for more than two years, you should have sorted out most of the tasks of divorce and be looking towards your own and your children's future."
We can all learn something from our failed relationships. It is possible that your ex-wife's affair was an act of recklessness or all about her own pleasure, but what can you learn from it? Was it because she felt lonely or not connected with you or have you become incompatible?
Children can be very aware of how their parents feel about a new partner. Most see the new partner as an intruder into their lives or as a factor that prevents the parents from getting back together.
If you posted a picture of your recent "double date" with your daughter on Facebook, what kind of comments would you be getting? This might be a good indication of whether your girlfriend's discomfort or jealousy is valid.
If your children think that you and their mother are going to get back together, they are unlikely to want to develop any relationship with her boyfriend or your girlfriend. The children might actually like them but if they have a choice, they'll nearly always choose their parents.
Also, they might have sensed your resentment of their mother's boyfriend. Likewise, if their mother wants you back, they might hear jealous comments, or worse, from her about your girlfriend. From what you are saying, it seems you and the mother of your children may be preventing each other from moving on and sending mixed signals to your children.
Your children won't accept the divorce as final if one or both of you keep talking about getting back together.
My suggestion: as a Christmas present to yourself and your loved ones, reflect on what you want. Are you ready to let go of the mother of your children and the idea of being a family? You seem to appreciate that a new relationship can bring what was missing in your marriage, but are you ready for it? What is the possible conflict? You are no longer just yourself but a package deal with children, their mother and possibly extended family.
If you decide to start a new relationship, instead of maintaining a soap opera-style intimacy with your ex-wife, you could develop a more "parent business" relationship so that boundaries and expectations are clear for all involved.
Trust is fragile in a new relationship and takes time to develop, so how you communicate will set the tone of your future relationship and help your children to move on.
Dr Emery suggests: "Things are likely to be on a better footing if you spend some time establishing new boundaries around your parenting and co-parenting relationships before getting involved with someone new."
They have no say in your divorce, but your children do not need additional drama to fuel a fantasy of their parents getting back together. Helping them see their new life in context may be the best Christmas present you can give to them in the long run.
Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor working in private practice as an adjunct to her work at St John's Counselling