Q: My husband and I have a yours, mine family with kids ranging from 20 years old to 4 months old. Some are out of the house, plus we have two little ones at home. My husband's daughter is 12 and lives with her mom nearly 2,000 miles away.
Things have always been a little rough when his daughter spends the summers with us. Her dad and I have been together for 5 years now, married for almost 2, but it seems like she really doesn't accept this. My husband is the kind of person that just wants to get along and will not say anything when there's a problem. If my husband doesn't do what his ex wants, he gets phone calls and texts bashing me or threatening to go to court.
I am at my wits end. I've read other articles you've written that say a step or "bonus parent" can't ask or set the boundaries. Shouldn't I be a respected party that has a say? I can't figure out my place in this. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: I believe to what you're referring is Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 4, "Parents make the rules, bonus parents uphold them." That rule is talking about a stepparent interfering with the rules concerning the kids when there is already an existing parenting plan in place. Unfortunately, at times new stepparents try to change the status quo when it isn't to their liking, and if things have been moving along just fine before they were in the picture, the other family members reject and resent the interference – particularly the other parent. That's why the rule was included.
You're talking about something else. Of course, you and your husband should have established boundaries about how you will navigate your own relationship, especially in regard to your approach to co-parenting with an ex. Truth be told, you should have had that discussion before you even moved in together years ago. That's the reason "you can't figure out your place in this." One has never been established.
It sounds as if your husband shies away from confrontation. Plus, as you have pointed out, he hasn't established boundaries with his ex, either. As a result, she runs the show and he runs for cover. If he stands back and looks at the situation he will realize his lack of boundaries cause far more problems than any confrontation he might have.
It's not too late to fix this. Years ago, I put together something I refer to as "The Before Exercise." You can find it in the book, "Ex-etiquette for Parents" and on the Bonus Families website, key word: before. It asks the new couple to seriously consider all the relationships that are created when combining families and what kind of relationship you want with each family member. Then sit down together and lay out a plan for what must be done to achieve that relationship.
Finally, for the record, going back to court does not have to be the dreaded threat it appears. Judges don't' arbitrarily change a parenting plan that has been working for years just because one parent is angry. The real answer here is for the parents to change their approach to co-parenting, not the parenting plan. 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. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.)