How can I prevent my negative feelings for my ex from affecting my relationship with my children?
It is not unusual for there to be some negative feelings towards your ex, following a separation. This might be even more the case if the break up is not initiated by you, or is the result of infidelity. With the world around you and your children changing, and them wanting to understand ‘why’, it can be really tempting to want to put your version of events across and to blame your ex. However, it is important to try not to get drawn down this road too much, and it can actually lead to creating difficulties in your relationship with your children
The blame game
It is very common for children to blame themselves when their parents’ relationship ends, especially when they are younger and cannot yet understand the complexities of adult relationships.
It is therefore really important to avoid the concept of ‘blame’ at all – this is no one’s ‘fault’ – it is just a change in the relationship between you and your partner. This might be difficult for you, and it might not be how you feel, but the aim is to help them come to terms with the changes.
By not having to witness each of their parents blaming the other, they will find it easier to not blame themselves either, as it sidesteps the issue of ‘fault’ and focuses on change. If they see you blaming someone else, it might raise the question in their minds of whether you may also blame them behind their backs.
You might want to talk to people about your partner and how they are at fault – and where these are friends, family or counsellors – this is fine. But it is not advisable with your children who are not equipped to be able to handle these kinds of situations, and can cause a range of strains and difficulties. What your children will need, to keep their relationship strong with both of you, is reassurance and support to navigate the changes ahead, rather than looking at the past.
How do I do this?
If it is possible, it would be helpful if you and your partner can come to an agreement in advance of talking to your children, about what you will say and not say. If you want to give a reason for your separation, keep it as neutral as possible and both agree to what you will exactly say, when you talk about it together, but also are asked about it separately, by your children.
Try and make sure you have spoken to your children about changes, before the changes actually happen, for example, before any living arrangements change. This is important for helping them feel that they can trust you both and you have told them about changes which are going to happen, before it has already happened, as this can make them feel like a lot was being hidden from them. In reality, there will have been a lot already going on behind the scenes, but you are trying to give them some time to process and come to terms with it, before it all becomes very real for them.
Plan what you want to tell them and the best time to do it. See How do I explain what is happening to our children for more ideas on this.
Don’t tell your children ‘secrets’ to be kept from their other parent, as this can make them feel confused and as though they are having to choose one parent over another, which can backfire. If they see their parents keeping secrets, this may lead to them feeling a burden of being secretive about different things, which would be much better out in the open.
Interacting with your ex
In these circumstances, it is normal to feel anger or frustration at your ex, which can filter over into everyday discussions with or about them, or even into full-blown arguments.
We’ve all seen those movies which show children standing in the hallway, overhearing their parents arguing, and saying things which are very confusing and even hurtful. Be mindful of what your children can hear, even if they are not in the same room as you. Even if they are tucked up in bed, they may hear arguments drift up to them which can cause them as lot of stress and heartache. Try and have those discussions when your children are not around.
Don’t tell them things about their other parent which they don’t need to know, or details of how their behaviour may have caused the relationship breakdown or how it continues to cause problems. Those might be very real issues to contend with, but they are issues for adults, and children will only feel caught in the middle and confused about whom to believe – which isn’t good for their relationship with either of you.
Where possible, be polite and civil with your ex. You don’t have to like or even forgive them, but just work on developing a relationship with them which is not hostile. This will be very reassuring for your children, will make it easier in the long run to deal with any worries they have, and also be a more peaceful arrangement for you all. If you can’t do this, then try and limit your interactions with them to being only what is necessary and talking about what is necessary.
Focus on your kids
Even in the most amicable separation, there are going to be difficult times. In some circumstances, a separation will be very traumatic and difficult for you. Whatever is behind what is happening, one way of making sure you can work through it as positively as possible for you and your children, is to keep the focus on them. You might not be able to have much influence over your relationship with your ex, but you can have on your relationship with your children.
So, think about what they need, and how you can help give them that. This might include:
- having a positive relationship with both their parents
- their emotional and physical wellbeing
- to just be children, not messengers or weapons in a battle
- to have support through times of change.