Dear Mr. Dad: My boyfriend’s former wife does not co-parent with him at all. I have seen vulgar emails, heard her use foul language in front of the kids and tell them “your father is kicking us out of our home.” She signs them up for things without confirming it with him but expects for him to pay, without question of course. I could go on and on but you get the point. I know he’s getting pushed to his limit and something needs to be done. He says he feels like he’s drowning but no one will throw him a life raft. How can I help him?
A: Thank you so much for your email. Your boyfriend has no idea how lucky he is to have you in his corner. Your support and encouragement will make a huge difference in his life and will make it easier for him to maintain good relationships with his kids. At the same time, though, you’re in an incredibly delicate and difficult situation. More on that in a minute.
The most important thing to do right now is to document every case of lousy parenting, badmouthing, putting the kids in the middle, using them as weapons, irresponsible behavior, and so on. I’m sure that the last place your boyfriend would like to end up is court, but he has to be prepared. Judges these days take a pretty dim view of parents who do the kinds of things you’re describing. (When you have some time try Googling “parental alienation syndrome”–very scary stuff.)
Another way you can help is to keep your boyfriend from either resorting to the same nasty behavior as his ex, or defending himself to the children. He should, to the extent possible, not respond to their mother’s accusations and lies. Instead, he should try to maintain as normal a relationship as he can with the kids. And if they bring up anything their mother has said, he should tell them that he and their mother disagree about a lot of things and that those disagreements need to be worked out between the adults.
Meanwhile, you need to keep your head down since you’re going to be the next victim of this woman’s wrath. She will blame you for everything that was wrong with her marriage (even if you and your boyfriend didn’t meet until well after the divorce), she will start badmouthing you to the kids, will use them to spy on you and report back to her, and will accuse you of trying to turn the children against her. Sounds completely paranoid, but, unfortunately, given her current behavior, it’s a pretty likely scenario. Also, be very, very careful in your interactions with the kids—leave no room for misinterpretation. Accusations of child abuse (with you named as the abuser) are common in these situations. And of course, you’re going to have to bite your tongue to keep from lashing out at her, whether you’re trying to defend your boyfriend or yourself.
As if that weren’t enough, you also need to keep your expectations reasonable. One might think that the kids would naturally love you—after all, their mother is such a wacko. But in reality, the kids love their mother and they will jump to her defense if they feel anyone is attacking her. Remind them that you’re not their mother, that you aren’t trying to be their mother, and that you just want to be friends with them.
Best of luck to you, him, and the kids. Stay strong.