Divorce Dilemmas

It's not a piece of cake, but our advice can make splitting up less stressful.

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If you're going through a divorce, you know that even under the very best of circumstances, thorny issues inevitably arise. "When we're married, we work hard to minimize our differences -- we're more willing to negotiate and compromise on questions of family and child rearing," says M. Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way. Divorce, on the other hand, tends to magnify those differences. Factor in dramatic changes in lifestyle and routine -- not to mention the hurt and anger than can linger long after the divorce is final -- and you have the potential for any number of difficult situations that you never thought you'd have to face. The good news, says Neuman, is that careful communication and a commitment to your child's welfare can go a long way toward solving these divorce dilemmas.

Q. My ex-husband asked me not to go to my daughter's soccer game on his weekends because his new wife says it makes her feel "uncomfortable." I think I should be there for my daughter's sake. Who's right?

A. In this situation, the adults' wishes are less important than those of your daughter; this is, after all, her game. Ideally, all the grown-ups should put their personal feelings aside. "Your daughter should come first, and her feelings should guide your decisions," says Jann Blackstone-Ford, a divorce and stepfamily mediator and coauthor of Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation. Ask yourself honestly: Would she be happier if all of her parents were there? Or would she rather have you and her dad take turns? (But don't ask your daughter; that could put her in an extremely uncomfortable position.) The problem may not be your presence per se, but the way your daughter responds to it, says Neuman. "If you're the one she automatically runs to between quarters, her stepmother may feel slighted. Talk to your ex-husband and see whether you can find some middle ground that's acceptable to everyone." You can, for instance, explain to your kid that you'll be there to watch her game, but on Dad's weekends she should spend most of her time with her father and stepmother. Whatever the solution, make sure it leaves your child feeling loved -- on the field and off.

Q. My children don't like my new boyfriend, and frankly, they're often rude to him. How can I get them to treat him with respect?

A. You really need to look at this from your kids' perspective. "They're thinking, 'My mom is supposed to be with my dad, and that guy is not my dad,'" says Jeannette Lofas, PhD, a family mediator and founder of stepfamily.org. Not only that, but almost all children, no matter how long you've been divorced or how old they are, harbor fantasies of their parents someday reuniting. In addition, they may be feeling somewhat displaced. Having a new person in your life can make a kid who's used to getting all of your attention fear that someone else may be taking his place in the spotlight. This isn't a bad thing, but you'll need to have a lot of patience: Your children need time to get to know and accept your new partner and to get used to another shift in the family's dynamics. Until that happens, don't make a big show of physical affection and don't let your boyfriend discipline or lecture your kids or in any way try to "stand in" for their father. If the relationship is serious, sit down with your children and explain that "Mommy needs to have friends her own age too."

Insist that they at least treat him with respect as they would all guests in the household. Let them warm up on their own timetable. Meanwhile, keep your expectations realistic. You might consider taking the whole family to see a counselor -- the children may have feelings that they find too difficult to express to you directly, and a counselor can also help you and your boyfriend through this stressful adjustment period.

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