Q: My husband has been divorced from his first wife for 35 years. He has adult children and grandchildren. His ex visits for months at a time, which is great for the grandkids, but when she’s here, she’s far too familiar, talking about how good their sex life was and how she was the one to leave. It makes me so uncomfortable I don’t want to go to family get-togethers when she is in town. I expressed this to the family and I became the bad guy — my husband’s children turned on my husband and me and we didn’t see them for months. I don’t know what to do. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: To begin, I’m having a little trouble with the fact that the adult children thought a discussion of this sort was appropriate, but I’m taking your question at face value and suggesting how to handle it using good ex-etiquette.
Sounds like it’s time to check the family dynamic. Let’s start with your husband’s role. He is the senior member and there is a certain amount of respect that goes along with his age and position. As the leader of the family he must be very clear. Respect is key, here. If his children have not been brought up to understand such a family dynamic, he is paying for it now.
Truth is, it’s not uncommon. Divorced parents often feel so guilty for being divorced that they allow their children to run the show. They don’t call them on bad behavior for fear it will hurt them further or they won’t want to come see them. That’s really counterproductive. Children look to their parents for direction. If direction is not offered it forces children to fend for themselves — and they are unprepared. They then develop a dynamic they think works for them. It may be based on things like intimidation or withholding affection or communication. Someone has taught these adult children that not talking to someone for months gets them what they want.
So, what does good ex-etiquette for this situation look like?
The implication is that the kids think you are out of line and grandma’s behavior was appropriate. It was not. How it was handled was ineffective which gave the adult children the impression it was okay to dictate policy.
Feel free to rely on the 10 rules of good ex-etiquette for parents. Each rule applies — and you can find all ten on the ex-etiquette website. Of particular interest, rule No. 8, “Be honest and straight forward.”
Your husband initiates the discussion with his family. If the problem was with your extended family, you would initiate the discussion.
Approach is of primary importance. Many would think it is his job to support you because you were clearly uncomfortable. It is not. He leads. You have confided in him and he sets the stage with the family. He is firm, but kind. He states very clearly to his family members there is simply no place for openly discussing his former sex life, the reason for the break-up, past issues, etc. when the children or his new partner are present. No manipulation, no ultimatums. His request for silence openly respects his ex, his children, your place in his life, and himself. He can even state that if he fells it needs to be clarified. 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, www.bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.