Co-Parenting with a Challenging Ex: It’s Just a Barrette

Picture this: Your Ex is a gatekeeper of your time with the children. You are painstakingly trying to eke out more time with your kids through cooperative, non-threatening strategies that stay out of court, but your Ex continues to make it hard for you to have the time you want to spend with your children. So you walk on Egg shells, in the hopes of pleasing your Ex, and getting him or her to relax the gates. You worry about being pushy, and about making dump parenting mistakes – because your Ex is lurking in the corners of your mind, and the corners of your Life, waiting for you to screw up. So he/she can remind you that you are a less than perfect parent, and you should feel guilty, guilty, guilty for leaving the marriage.

After one weekend you spend with your children, your Ex emails you, with “Urgent” in the subject line. The email says that your daughter has lost her Halloween barrette, and is heartbroken. Do you know where it is? Did it fall off in your apartment? Your daughter is “very disappointed” that she lost her barrette during her time with you and your Ex is “irritated because that barrette was a special one purchased at a crafts fair.”

Here is the trap. If you fall in, you will:

  • Allow yourself to become very anxious.
  • Listen to your heart beating very fast.
  • Go online while at work and spend 45 minutes searching for Halloween barrettes to try to find one that looks like the one you sort of remember in your daughter’s hair.
  • Call a friend or your mom or your sister to tell them about this whole incident and ask them if it is, in fact, a terrible thing that you might have lost your daughter’s barrette.
  • Promise your Ex or your daughter that you will hunt for the barrette tonight.

In order to step around this trap, or choose not to fall into it, you could:

  • Email reply to your Ex, and briefly but politely note that you are not sure what happened to the barrette, and you are sorry your daughter “cannot find it.” (Note: do NOT blame your daughter for losing it! Language is important.)
  • Briefly acknowledge that you are sorry it is lost especially because it was a special one.
  • Say nothing else to your Ex.
  • Briefly look for the barrette when you are home – but do not obsess.
  • Let it go. It’s just a barrette.
  • If your daughter mentions it some time in the future, repeat steps one and two: “Sounds like that was a special barrette. I’m sorry it got lost.”
  • Avoid apologizing for losing it: you didn’t!
  • Avoid promising to buy another barrette: immediately replacing things to help a child avoid feeling a tiny minute of angst about a lost object is not a helpful parenting approach. All she needs is your recognition – for a minute!
  • Let it go. It’s just a barrette.

Moral of the story:

If you are carrying around guilt, or shame, or self-blame about the end of your marriage, and/or about spending too little time with your children, you are a prime target for an Ex who wants to trigger or elicit feelings of guilt, shame or self-blame in you. Try to avoid these triggers. Keep small events in perspective. Remember that – even if you DID lose the barrette because you put it in your pocket and you KNEW your pocket had a hole in it – it’s only a barrette. Acknowledgement and empathy – for a minute! – are enough for barrettes (“Sounds like it was special. I’m sorry it got lost.”) Allowing yourself to become anxious, defensive or obsessive about replacing something and erasing your “mistake” are signs that you are triggered. Gaining confidence in yourself as a “good enough” parent will help you maintain your balance when small things go awry.

On the other hand…..if you are the parent who CONSTANTLY loses things, forgets things, and runs late to pick up your children, maybe this blog isn’t for you: see my next blog about being a disorganized parent.

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