Ex-etiquette: What’s in a name?

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Q. My son and daughter-in-law have been separated for a year. They have shared custody of their 4-year-old son. My son was very unhappy but chose to put up with it until he met someone else. Daughter-in-law did not handle the break-up well. There was lots of crying, screaming, threats, accusations and harassment by phone, text and email. As a result, my son will barely talk to her. They minimally co-parent. Son originally came up with a unique nickname for the child to call his girlfriend but in the last week I have heard the child and my son refer to her as Mommy. When I spoke to my son about this, he got defensive, said the child did it spontaneously, and that his girlfriend is a better mom to the child than his real mom. Although she seems very nice, she’s not a better mom, they just have different parenting styles. Am I wrong? What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. I always try to be as diplomatic as possible when answering reader’s questions, but in this case, I’m putting diplomacy aside. No, you are not wrong. You are absolutely right — and so was your son by making up a unique nickname for his girlfriend. Where he went wrong was when he let his personal animosity for the mother cloud his good judgment. Never compare a biological parent and a new partner. A new partner is simply a third voice that supports the biological parent’s parenting. If they love the child, that’s a bonus. That’s why I call them bonus parents.

How would Dad feel if the shoe was on the other foot? If this happens again, the best plan is for Dad to gently correct his son, even if it is initiated spontaneously.

That said, I don’t know the true history, but your email makes it sound like your son just moved on when he found someone he liked better. Unless I’m missing something, I’m not surprised his wife acted as you described. Of course threats and harassment are inappropriate, but very few would meet the news of their partner seeing someone else with calm acceptance, and when the parties are hurt or angry, co-parenting is very difficult. But, all that is no excuse. Their baby didn’t ask for any of this and it’s his welfare that needs to be considered first. (Good Ex-etiquette for parents rule No. 1) The rest is all selfish drama.

Finally, although today, families come in all shapes and sizes, many were brought up to believe what’s regarded as a “nuclear family” is the best family. Based on that, sometimes angry divorced parents try to reconstruct that nuclear best family by acing out the other biological parent in favor of their new love. They do things like call the biological parent by their first name and the new girlfriend or boyfriend, Mom or Dad. It’s emotionally and psychologically detrimental to their children and when this is pointed out, most will stop, but there are those few that are dedicated to undermining the other parent no matter what, and their children pay the price. That behavior puts a child right in the middle and asks him to weigh his allegiance to either parent every time he goes back and forth — and if he does like the new partner, the child often feels guilty and is not emotionally equipped to cope. This is when parents wonder why their child seems so depressed or refuses to return to their home. They have no idea their behavior laid the groundwork for the child’s reaction. So, it’s time to wise up, stop being selfish no matter what went on in the marriage, and make decisions with the child in mind. 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


©2020 Jann Blackstone

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