So, your ex has a girlfriend. This person could be the one your ex was cheating on you with during your marriage, or it could be someone he just met. And, it is starting to feel like she always is being put first when it comes to your kids. It starts off as a swap request for one weekend, but then they get more and more frequent. Your kids might begin saying things to you like, ‘I don’t want to go to Dad’s because his girlfriend is always there,’ or that Dad’s girlfriend won’t let them do_____, when you do.
If you research how to introduce a new love interest to your kids after divorce, you’ll see that the conventional wisdom is to inform the co-parent that you will be doing this, then gradually include the new partner in some non-threatening ways. This means a game of mini golf, or a dinner out. This does not mean sleeping over at her house the first time they meet. Get it? Now, most [but not all, sad to say] Moms DO get it. We don’t do that to our kids because we inherently, instinctually know that it isn’t fair or comfortable for them. The Dads, though, leave something to be desired.
So, here are some coping strategies for when this happens to you, so you will know how to best support your kids through this process.
>Hold Space For Your Kids’ Feelings
If Dad is always putting the girlfriend first, your kids know it. It can be small things like always including her in activities that your kids thought were just with Dad. Or, it can be the girlfriend picking them up at a custody exchange, instead of Dad. It can be bigger things, too, like making the kids sleep at the girlfriends’ house, or meeting her family. Ideally, your ex should discuss all this with you beforehand–but oftentimes, he won’t.
So, hold space for their feelings. This means you allow them to tell you their feelings, and you respond with ‘tell me more about how that felt’ instead of ‘Daddy shouldn’t do that to you! I’m calling my lawyer!’ [though you can think that all you want]. This is not a dirt-seeking mission, nor should it be used as one. It is being curious about your kids’ feelings and understanding of the situation. It is letting them know you are there for them, that you love them, and that they can always talk to you. That’s what it’s about.
>Help Your Kids Problem Solve
You can role-play with your kids about how to approach Dad about always having the girlfriend around. If your kids are unhappy about it, that’s ok. They can learn to advocate for themselves with their Dad so that they can get their needs met when they are with him. You can be their guide.
Maybe your kids aren’t old enough to say what they need or to approach Dad about how they feel. That’s ok too. You can give them words to say [‘I like my time with just you, Daddy,’], or you can pass on their feelings to your ex. This one is tricky because it will be hard for you to say it without sounding judgy or like you are trying to control him. Simply telling him ‘Sally mentioned to me that she misses the times she had you all to herself’, might do the trick, depending on your ex.
>Don’t Get Involved
Attempting to make everything ok for your kids by trying to control how your ex behaves is like trying to hold back the tides. It’s an impossible task that will just make YOU feel worse. Your kids are still going to be hurt when he chooses her over them, he’s still going to do just what he wants that works for him, and here you’ve spent all kinds of energy and worry on fixing it or orchestrating it so they don’t get hurt, but it happens anyhow–and now you are exhausted.
Instead, focus on how you show up for your kids when they are with you. Make them absolutely #1 in your life and your day. Put down the phone while they are telling you about their day at school, get off the computer and play a game with them, take time to read them a bedtime story instead of putting them in front of the iPad.
If they are young, they will figure it out. If they are older, they probably already have a sense of whether they come first in someone’s life or not. Actions absolutely speak louder than words on this one. Let them experience the disappointment that this situation can bring. Will it suck to watch that happen? YES! But here’s the silver lining–they will grow up to be resilient, strong, self-confident advocates for themselves–because you have shown them how to honor their feelings, express themselves in a healthy way, and to value their own time and opinions. That is an amazing gift.
Nothing good comes easy, girlfriends. You can do it.
Need help negotiating a co-parenting relationship with your ex, or navigating something else in the divorce process? I’d love to help you. Feel free to reach out to me or follow me on Instagram for practical tips and advice.