The following article was first published on December 21, 2005.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am a divorced father of two young children. The separation occurred two years ago. We are doing a very good job of co-parenting. My ex-wife, “Sue,” and I had agreed from early on that we would NOT be introducing people we are dating into the lives of our daughters unless it was well into the relationship (e.g., six months with the possibility of remarriage). This is to protect the children from the revolving door of people coming and going in their lives.
That lasted for about a year. The last two Christmases, my daughters have woken up to two different men in Sue’s house. It’s almost Christmas, and I am afraid it will be yet another man on Christmas morning, creating more confusion for the children.
While I can’t control what Sue does, I would like her to know that this could be harmful to our children as well as their future values or opinions of their mother. But by confronting her on this, I feel like I would come across as way too judgmental, and would open myself up to her criticism of my parenting, just like I am being of hers in this regard.
Let me start by acknowledging you for the spirit of your question. I’m sure that everyone who reads it will be inspired by the pure desire it shows to put your children first. I’m grateful for adults like you—and your ex-wife—who are willing to suck it up when their own emotions are raw and do what’s best for the most vulnerable people involved—the children. Bless you.
With that said, let me re-frame the problem. This isn’t about what “may or may not happen.” This is about what has already happened. You had an agreement. She appears to have broken it. That’s the conversation you need to have.
You are rightly sensitive that if you appear to be throwing rocks at her she might defensively throw some back at you. In other words, if you come across as moralistic, judgmental, or accusatory, you will be incapable of focusing on the real issue: the agreement the two of you made in the best interests of the children.
So be sure to be hyper-attentive as you begin and as you proceed in the conversation to creating safety for her. She needs to be affirmed, respected, and appreciated enough that she understands this is not about you judging her, but about you wanting to have a strong relationship with her while you attempt to do what’s best for the kids.
Remember, people feel safe when they know that a) you care about their interests and problems, and b) you care about and respect them. So you might begin like this:
“Sue, I want to discuss a concern I’ve got when it works for you to do so. I want you to know I have no other agenda than to keep the air clear between us so we can continue working well together for the children. First and foremost, I want you to understand how much I appreciate your efforts to work with me over the past two years. I know it hasn’t been easy. But you’ve been wonderful to work with. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
Next, move into “Describing the Gap” between what you expected and what you got. Again, do so in a way that ensures she feels safe—that she interprets your intent correctly. Also, focus on the facts—not your interpretations or judgments of the facts:
“The issue is this: two years ago I think we agreed that we would not introduce new people to the children until we had a relationship that looked close to marriage. Is that right? I think we both felt at the time that this would help them appreciate the importance of commitment and would minimize instability in their lives. The past two Christmases the children have said that when they woke up in your house on Christmas there was a man who had slept over, greeting them in the morning.”
Now that you’ve laid out your concern—it’s time to encourage dialogue and reassure safety:
“Now, I realize that I might have some facts wrong. I realize also that even if this is what happened, your feelings and needs are an important consideration. I don’t want to be judgmental at all—or to keep you from something that’s important to you. But I want to be clear on our agreements with each other and continue to put the children first. So am I seeing this wrong? Is there something I’m missing here?”
At this point you follow the dialogue where it needs to go. Remember though, to keep the conversation focused on what you really want—what’s best for the kids. Not on your need to punish Sue for her behavior, or jealousy, etc. This is a conversation about a broken commitment, not a moral code.
Thanks again for your splendid example to me and others. I wish you the best in this accountability conversation and have every confidence your good heart will lead you right. And I wish you a Merry Christmas as well.