Ex-etiquette: Empathy can ease those ‘scary’ situations

Jann Blackstone

I’ve told this story many times — and I’d like to tell it again to hit home that I personally understand how hard it is to practice good ex-etiquette. That’s the reason I came up with the ten rules — I needed a rule book to remind me to put the children first. (Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 1) when dealing with all the exes in my life. So…

My first Halloween after remarriage was quite an eye opener. My husband and his ex, Sharyl, had lived in a very small town for years. They were quite well-known, and when I married Larry, I was considered the interloper. Talking to me casually one afternoon, one of Sharyl’s friend’s husband’s very loudly announced, “What are they talking about? You’re not a bitch.” I guess that was the talk of the town.

It seems the yearly ritual was to attend a Halloween pumpkin carving party with the kids at one of Sharyl’s best friend’s homes. Her kids looked forward to it. My daughter was being raised as their sibling, so when their children were invited to the pumpkin carving party, so was my daughter; but who would take them? Sharyl and I were barely talking, plus she worked until around 5 o’clock. My husband was working, too. I had a home office, so I was voted to take the three kids in the costumes that I had sewn for them to the party at Sharyl’s best friend’s house. I didn’t know any of these people — and I was the bitch. It was pretty uncomfortable. Around 5:15 when Sharyl showed up, I was squirming over in the corner acting like I had no trouble with the whole thing … and where’s the next pumpkin you want me to carve?

Now for a bit of empathy, which is Ex-Etiquette for Parents rule No. 7, “Use empathy when problem-solving.” That means before you lose it, put yourself in their shoes. Looking around, I realized it was all about the kids. My discomfort was no big deal. So, Sharyl walks in and is greeted by her buddies, only to see her daughter and my daughter dressed in darling little matching 50s poodle skirts and little white shirts with pink puff balls hanging from their perfectly coiffed ponytails. The girls begin to spin excitedly, demonstrating the ease in which the darling little skirts that I made spin perfectly in a circle. Sharyl can’t sew a stitch. She looks at me as if she wants to throw-up. I’m a little green myself and totally get it. She greets her daughter (mine, too) and then heads straight to her friends waiting on the other side of the room. Picture the Hatfields and the McCoys in costume.

Needless to say, neither of us could wait to get out of there. We didn’t talk until the next holiday, Thanksgiving.

It has not been easy for either of us, and it took years to get there. We both hope the kids did not see the progression. We found the true bridge to friendship was motherhood. When we left the labels of first wife and second wife behind and started relating to each other as mothers, that’s when we realized the importance of getting along. That became the common ground on which our friendship has been built.

For the sake of all our children, find your common ground, and make this Halloween a happy one.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website exetiquette.com at dr.jann@exetiquette.com.