Gary and his wife, Jennifer, have a solid marriage and generally agree on how to parent her three young children and his teenage son, Trey. But Gary’s ex-wife, Lynn, won’t follow the guidelines established by the court. And that puts stress on Gary and Jennifer’s relationship.
Gary has primary custody, but his ex-wife manipulates Trey and his attitude toward his dad, stepmom and stepsiblings. This gives Lynn a great deal of power — and she’s not afraid to use it.
When established pick-up or drop-off times conflict with her schedule, Lynn doesn’t hesitate to demand that Gary accommodate her. When she wants to extend her time with Trey, she expects that Gary will allow it and change his plans — even if it means breaking his commitments to Jennifer and her kids. If Gary asserts himself, Lynn threatens legal action to keep Trey away from Gary.
Gary is caught in a Catch-22: He can give in to Lynn’s unreasonable demands and let his marriage suffer for it, or he can refuse to give in and risk being alienated from Trey.
Lynn is figuratively holding her son hostage. Until she decides to change, Gary will continue having to make difficult choices. But Gary can’t afford to let his fear of what Lynn might do overrun his commitment to his marriage and family. The following guidelines can help biological parents like Gary preserve their marriage when the other home holds the kids hostage:
Affirm dedication to your marriage.
This really is not a choice between your child and your current spouse, but it can feel like it. The stepparent needs to hear — and see — proof of how important this marriage is to you. You can improve your relationship with your spouse by doing things such as openly expressing your commitment to the marriage, including him or her in decisions about parenting and carving out time for the two of you as a couple.
Choose the hills worth dying on.
Living at peace with the other home might require occasional accommodations, but some issues are worth a battle. For example, debating different bedtimes between homes is probably not worth your energy. But when the other home is allowing your child to engage in inappropriate or risky behavior, you should speak up. To protect your marriage, communicate frequently with your spouse about these matters.
You’ll also need to fight the temptation to turn your parenting into an opportunity to “undo” the parenting of the other home. For example, because Lynn is permissive, Gary must resist the urge to come down hard on Trey to counterbalance her influence.
Communicate directly with your child.
Knowing that your ex-spouse will use your decisions against you, talk through the situation with your child, explaining that your actions are motivated by love. For example, you might say, “Because we love you, we choose not to buy you a car unless you help pay for it. We’re invested in teaching you responsibility.” This won’t stop the other parent from telling a different story, but at least your child hears your heart. Resist the temptation to speak ill of the other parent or argue with his or her decisions. Just stick to what you’re going to do. “Yes, your mom thinks differently about this; you’ll have to ask her about that.”
Working on your relationship with your child while standing firm in your commitment to your marriage can strengthen your influence as a parent and potentially remove you from the stepfamily Catch-22.
Ron L. Deal is the director of FamilyLife Blended, president of Smart Stepfamilies and author of books for stepfamilies, including The Smart Stepfamily.