Q: My partner asked me how I’d feel if she had a sleepover with her ex this Christmas so that they can both spend the whole day with their son. I have always understood wanting to do things for the sake of their child; however, there is history concerning her ex being abusive and manipulating (mainly to try and get me out of the picture). Every time he is nice she feels things like this will be okay and I feel uncomfortable with it. Am I wrong for opposing this? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Most would say it’s insane for your partner to ask, so if you are uncomfortable with the proposal, say no. Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 8 is, “Be honest and straightforward.” Good communication is essential if you want your relationship to work.
Believe it or not, I’m asked this question quite a bit, particularly around Christmas time. It appears when co-parents have a good relationship they want to keep the holidays bright, so they try to recreate a feeling of family by all waking up together on Christmas morning. This is not to imply that they sleep together, but even so, presenting the one big happy family scenario in front of a child can be confusing and give them false hope of reconciliation. Congenial co-parents must create obvious and clear boundaries, so there is no misunderstanding on anyone’s part — including dad’s.
More importantly, if dad’s abusive, then good ex-etiquette for mom would be for the parents to be cordial for the sake of the child, but for mom to distance herself from everyday interaction. If she can’t make that judgment, it sounds like she’s caught in the classic cycle of abuse, and her rationale may be a little skewed. (Or, she’s not finished with dad.) She may need counseling to help her establish clear boundaries and prevent any manipulation, especially if their child is watching. Those boundaries can get pretty blurry when you’ve got the ex sleeping in the next room.
The healthier alternative, in this case, would be for mom and dad to sleep in their own homes and if all of you agree to spend the day together, start the day out early with a Christmas breakfast. However, I must caution you. If there is abuse of any sort or even the standard sarcastic animosity after a break-up, spending the day together is not a good choice and not in the best interest of the child. “Putting the kids first” (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 1) does not mean to set yourself up for failure by attempting to do something with an unpredictable outcome. It means you make choices that will give your children their best life and keep conflict to a minimum.
Most parents who are no longer together communicate for the sake of the child, but don’t hang out together around the Christmas tree. If you can’t do it well, don’t attempt it. That’s good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.