Q: I've been divorced for about a year and I can't get my ex to cooperate with me on anything that has to do with our kids. She seems much more interested in punishing me than in working together. Is there anything I can do to make the mother of my children change?
A: Communication and cooperation are supposed to be two-way streets, but things don't always turn out the way they should. No matter how much of a jerk your ex is and no matter how horribly she treats you, it's critical that you learn to be a mensch (that's a Yiddish word that means "a decent human being" or "someone who does the right thing"). Here are some things that can help make you the mensch you and your kids need you to be:
- Remember that everything you do has to be done with the best interests of your kids in mind.
- Unless your ex is doing something truly dangerous, let her parent the way she wants to. She may have been a rotten partner, but that doesn't mean she's a rotten mother.
- Don't use the kids to relay messages to your ex.
- Honor your commitments. This means not being late, keeping your promises, following the terms of your parenting agreement to the letter, and making your child support payments in full and on time.
- Share information. Send your ex a copy of any information you get about your kids that you think she doesn't have or would be interested in. This includes report cards, notices of parent teacher meetings, school photographs, and even copies of the kids' art projects.
- Remember that you can't control her but you can control yourself.
- Keep your comparisons to a minimum. Yes, she may be living in a mansion while you're sleeping in your old bunk bed in your parents' garage. But that's just the way things are.
- Be flexible. Kids get sick, and plans change. But don't be so flexible that you let your ex take advantage of you. Stand up for your rights when it's appropriate to do so.
- Don't deliberately do things that you know will annoy her.
- Listen to what she says to you. Try to find the truth in it. Who knows, she may actually come up with something that can help you.
- Give her the benefit of the doubt-at least for a while. Don't assume that she's doing things to deliberately hurt you.
Get some help. If your anger for your ex is so consuming that it gets in the way of your parenting, you really need some help dealing with it.
- Apologize to her if you've done something wrong. It might hurt you do to this, especially if she never apologizes to you, but it's the right thing to do.
- Don't assume you know what she'll say or how she'll react in a given situation. Yes, you may have been together for years, and yes, he may have reacted that way every other time this situation has come up, but people can and do change. Give her a chance. And if she does react the way you thought she would, at least you won't be surprised.
- Force yourself to make reasonable compromises. Granted, now that you're a single parent, you've lost one of the biggest natural incentives to cooperate with your ex: the desire to keep your relationship together. But learning when to compromise may be more important now than it was then.
- Try to keep from getting defensive. One of the most painful things your ex can do to you is to question whether you have what it takes to care for your children. If she ever makes this kind of accusation, before blowing up, take a second and honestly ask yourself whether there's even a glimmer of truth to what she's saying. If there are areas you really need help in, you might want to sign yourself up for a parenting class at your local community college.
- Stop relying on her for approval. You're a big boy now and it's up to you to do what you think is right.
- Learn to work around her anger. Do not get dragged into a shouting match, no matter how tempting. There's absolutely nothing good that can come from it. Instead of responding to her unreasonable demands, ignore them. And remember, you can always take a walk. You do not have to stick around and be abused-verbally or otherwise.
Ultimately, no matter what you do, your ex is still her own person and there's nothing you can do to force her to behave the way your want her to. But hopefully, if she sees you taking the high road for long enough, she'll eventually decide to join you there.
– Armin Brott
A great dad himself, Armin speaks not only as a specialist in parenting, but as a parent himself. He has written several books including The Expectant Father and Fathering Your Toddler.