Q. My ex was in the service and traveled all over the world. He recently retired and settled in Hawaii, where he was last stationed. We had one child who lived predominantly with me, but was attached at the hip to his father whenever he came home. We broke up last year. I stayed in California and he stayed in Hawaii. We had an agreement that our 14-year-old son would spend the summer with him, but then come back to California to start high school. When it was time for our son to return, my ex refused to return him. He enrolled him in school and I haven’t seen my son in a month. Plus, my son will hardly speak to me on the phone. He did tell me that he wants to say in Hawaii, but he won’t discuss it any further. I feel railroaded. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Oh my. I bet you do feel railroaded. This isn’t what you and dad agreed upon and he switched it up without consulting you. Now everyone’s avoiding you and I bet you feel powerless and furious. You raised this child as dad breezed in and out and now he’s abandoned you for the man he rarely saw. I’m anticipating this is how you feel and if it is, it’s all understandable.
Now let’s speculate about what your child may be feeling. If his father traveled and he was attached at the hip when he was in town, you know he longed to spend time with his dad. Plus, at about 14 or 15, kids start to gravitate to the same gendered parent. They can easily talk about the changes in their bodies and find themselves liking similar activities. A mom who has been the primary caregiver often feels abandoned by a son who suddenly wants to be with dad. In truth, it’s merely biology, and if dad was the primary parent and your child was a girl, he might be feeling the same as you do right now.
That doesn’t alleviate the deviousness of dad’s approach. I can see how you might feel as if he planned this. But, what if he didn’t? What if his intention was to stick by your agreement, but over the two or three months he and your son spent together, they got reacquainted and both decided they want your son to stay in Hawaii? Now what do they do? What do you do?
This is when good ex-etiquette really comes into play. Of course you’re upset, but it’s time to stand back and look at what’s in the best interest of the child. (Ex-etiquette rule #1, “Put the child first.”) Are the schools good in the area in which your ex lives? Does your child have a support system? Will he be safe? You could make him come back, but if he truly wants to stay in Hawaii, that demand could work against you. Better to sit down with dad and design a parenting plan, looking for a compromise (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #10).
Just remember, if a 14-year-old thinks he can run the show, the next time he’s angry he’ll want to go back to mom’s — and now HE’S manipulating the situation. Make sure all are on the same page. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #8, “Be honest and straightforward.”) 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 email@example.com.
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