When An Ex Remarries: How Do I “Protect” My Kids

Divorce is usually painful enough, but when an ex remarries additional negative feelings can arise. It may become more difficult to accept the idea that our former partner was damaged in some way and unable to have a relationship. If infidelity was involved and that relationship has continued, more intense anger may occur. The thought of our child spending time with this person we feel so negatively about may be intolerable. However, we are often forced to deal with this reality—how best to cope?

First, it is important to clarify our own feelings and examine who and what we are upset about. While it is tempting to blame the “new person” for our pain, the reality is that in most cases we had no prior relationship with this person (if she was a friend that is another, even more difficult matter) and it is the ex that has betrayed our trust, not this stranger. Another sobering reality is that it takes two people to create and maintain a relationship, so whatever problems allowed this new person in, we probably have a small bit of responsibility for ourselves. To move forward it is important to come to terms with what we might have done differently in the relationship, to be able to move on and have a better relationship in the future. If all of our anger is directed toward the “stranger” or even our ex, this is not likely to happen. We can only change that which we take responsibility for, so this is the first order of business (after allowing ourselves a reasonable period of time to grieve and vent.)

Once we have begun to come to terms with the end of our marriage (a process that can months or for some people even years) we can begin to deal with our feelings about our child spending time with “their other family.” From my experience, most parents worry most about losing their child to the new step-parent. Let me assure you that the parent-child bond is very strong and will not be broken by the person who buys them the newest toy. Children know who love and care for them and it is positive to have more of such people in their lives. Rather than “protect” our children, we need to help them adjust to what may be a confusing situation for them. If we can, we should encourage their sharing what they choose to about their time in the other household. It is critical that we not be judgmental about this new family which may have a different culture than our own or even the one we created with our ex. Try to refrain from negative comments about food, tv preferences, or the other family’s choices in friends or attire. Such criticism, while tempting, will only cause our child to shut down and either defend the other family or not share with us about them. Of course if we think our child/s health or safety is compromised we must become involved but in my experience these situations are thankfully rare (and often generated out of anger, rather than concern.) We may have to deal with even more consequential differences, such as religious training that we do not agree with. Our ex has as much right and responsibility as we do in influencing our child, and while these differences are often litigated, this can be an expensive process which takes its toll on the children in emotional ways as well. It is better for all concerned if we can find a way to embrace these differences and help our child navigate her two different families and become the best person she can be through integrating these divergent values.

There are many challenges inherent in co-parenting, particularly when we factor in the influence of a step-parent. Our child will benefit if we can handle these in an adult manner, putting the child’s needs first. And we will benefit by being able to move on with our lives and embracing the freedom that we gain from our non-parental time, unencumbered by anger and resentment.