Psychologist Sarah Pettit gives advice on how to keep this situation from getting gory
When an ex finds a new partner, and even remarries, it’s bound to stir some feelings. ESME talks to licensed psychologist Sarah Pettit about how to handle this situation so that there are no bloody bodies at the end.
Q: So let’s say that the ex has a new wife/girlfriend.
A: This is to be expected, since research shows that 75% to 85% of people who divorce get remarried. Fathers often repartner more quickly than mothers because mothers tend to have more custody, and it’s hard to date with children in the house.
Q: And who has the energy? Meanwhile, my ex has all kinds of time to rebuild his life.
A: Yes. This type of resentment is natural.
Q: What if I think the new wife/girlfriend—let’s just call her Janet—is a bitch?
A: Do you think Janet is a bitch because you are jealous?
Q: No! Well, maybe . . . wait. I thought I was asking the questions. I’m clearly labeled “Q.”
A: I’m a therapist, I can’t help it.
Q: Well, it’s hypothetical anyway. But let’s say I am jealous.
A: That’s natural. You could be jealous that the ex has someone new, or you could be jealous of your children having another mom. On the flip side, maybe you worry that Janet doesn’t take care of your children the way you would.
Q: I certainly would not have chosen her.
A: It’s highly likely that you won’t agree with your ex’s choice in a partner. After all, you probably don’t agree about many things . . . which is why he is your ex. Also, sometimes your ex finding a new partner can reopen old wounds. All these feeling are valid, but don’t place children in the middle of conflicts you are having with your ex and Janet. What’s important is to find people who are not your kids to talk about these feelings.
Q: Like you?
A: Yes. Therapists, support groups, and friends are all great ways to deal with your own issues without burdening your children. Isolation is a big problem with divorce. The support system you thought you had might no longer be there, so you will have to make extra effort to find new ones. It’s very important that you do. You must take care of yourself so that you can be a support to your children. It’s the airplane analogy: Put on your own oxygen mask before you put on your children’s.
Q: Don’t make the kids put a mask on you?
A: No; definitely not!
Q: Where can I find support if my friends and family have made themselves scarce?
A: Some resources I recommend are:
- The Stepfamily Foundation: It offers professional counseling for stepfamily members via telephone and in person.
- The National Stepfamily Resource Center: This is a clearinghouse of information including facts, stats, FAQs, research summaries, useful articles, and a list of support groups and professional counselors by state.
Q: What if the dad doesn’t spend as much time with the kids since Janet’s been in the picture?
A: This is typical. Studies show that when fathers remarry, the amount of time they visit their kids goes down by half within the first year of remarriage. This obviously hurts kids; however, you have to remember that you can’t make anyone else do anything they don’t want to do. This is true of everything your ex and Janet do in their house. They won’t do things the way you would.
Q: Isn’t that the truth! I told them the kids need to have some kind of vegetable at every meal. So what does Janet give the kids for dinner? Candy corn!
A: First, you should give your ex the benefit of the doubt when your children tell you something like this. Secondhand information is not reliable. Maybe you can bring it up with your ex or Janet directly.
Q: I would say, “Yo, stupid bitch. Candy corn is not a vegetable. It’s not actually corn. And corn is not actually a vegetable.”
A: Wrong approach. How about, “The kids think you gave them candy corn as a vegetable. Isn’t that funny?” Janet might explain what actually happened. Or she might own it. Either way, you can’t tell her what she should or should not do. Just take that information and use it to guide your actions. For example, you can serve more vegetables and less sugar at your home. Or, you can play the food pyramid game online so the kids become aware of nutrition. Coparenting is the ideal, but it’s probably not the norm. There are going to be different values in different families. You follow your values in your home, and try to be flexible in your partner’s home. Remember that the greatest predictor of kids’ emotional health is the amount of conflict between the biological parents. Fighting over what the kids eat at your ex’s house is more detrimental for them than having candy corn for dinner.
Of course, it’s in the children’s best interest for everyone to be on the same page, but this isn’t realistic. You probably don’t want to do things he’s asked you to do.
Q: That’s because he’s a dumb ass.
A: Exactly. So just be the best parent you can be when they are with you and know that children are extremely resilient. This sort of experience might make things harder for the kids, but it teaches them to be flexible. Four out of five children turn out just fine.
Q: What about the one out of five?
A: Statistically, they aren’t “fine.”
Q: Should I worry that one of my children will not be fine? I do have five.
A: First of all, that’s not how statistics works. Second, if dinner without vegetables is your biggest problem, you probably don’t need to worry. Kids who come from single-parent families do just as well as kids from a family with two parents together. Even if one household is completely dysfunctional, one functioning parent can be a protective factor.
Q: Well that’s good news because I am a totally functioning parent!
A: Of course you are. Just be the best mom you can be.
Q: When should I worry?
A: The red flags are:
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite and irritability
- Frequent anxiety
- Behavioral issues
- Persistent oppositional issues
If you see any of these signs, seek professional help. Also, if your child is struggling with the transition and doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, therapists can be a good resource. Typically, children between the ages of 10 and 14 tend to struggle the most because they are especially sensitive to new, blossoming romance, and it’s disturbing to them because they have a different understanding; and, of course, if you suspect abuse of any kind, call Child Protective Services.
Q: Any other cheerful statistics?
A: Yes. Research shows that the first two years of a new family coming together are the hardest.
Q: Uh . . . that’s not so cheerful.
A: However, [research also shows that] stepfamilies that survive [those first two years] and stay together for more than five years are more stable than first marriages. Things will get better with time. There can be a lot of positive things about being part of a stepfamily. Remember that extra people loving your kids is not a bad thing. A stepparent is not a [biological] parent but can be a source of support for your children.
Are you confronting a coparenting situation you’d like help with? Post your confidential question on Sister Chat to get advice from other Solo Moms like you.
Mika Yamamoto, ESME's Guide for Public Assistance, has successfully nurtured two children as a Solo Mom and now hopes to achieve the same results as a plant nanny.
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