This time of year is rife with significant family celebrations — those bittersweet graduation ceremonies (from kindergarten!), those gorgeous June weddings, that nephew’s bar mitzvah.
For some of us, gearing up for these festivities goes way beyond dusting off the peach sling-backs; it can mean bracing for awkward or painful public interactions with a difficult ex-spouse. Anger, hurt feelings or power struggles can cast a long shadow over even the sweetest summer rite of passage.
“It’s a really difficult situation to be in,” says Shannon Kolakowski, a Bellevue psychologist who regularly blogs about family issues for The Huffington Post. “On one hand, so many old emotions and wounds could resurface. On the other hand, you’re in a very different place now than when the two of you were together. You’ve put distance between yourself and your ex’s life.”
Still, for divorcees, there’s something especially painful about these major family events: “Your dream of being a family forever is over, and at these events, that fact is thrown in your face,” says Julie Ross, the author of Joint Custody with a Jerk, and executive director of the New York City–based parent resource Parenting Horizons. “When you’re dreaming of how your family life is going to be, there are all kinds of fantasy images — how Thanksgiving is going to look, how graduation is going to look,” she says. These events can be bittersweet reminders of that loss.
Still, you know you have to rise above it all, at least for appearance’s sake (let’s face it, everyone probably is watching you!). So how best to do this — and maybe even enjoy the event?
Focus on a goal
“I think the goal of getting through the night without any blowups is a great place to start,” says Kolakowski, whose forthcoming book is titled When Depression Hurts Your Relationship. This can be challenging if, say, your ex brings a new partner — perhaps one you have a nasty history with — while you fly solo. “If you’re not in a great place right now personally, it can be hard to go it alone while your ex brings a date, but remind yourself that this won’t always be the case — this is the beginning of a new life for you, and you will find someone special when you’re ready.”
Laura (who requested that her last name be omitted to help keep a tenuous peace), the Issaquah mother of a 17-year-old boy, recently faced the flip side of this problem at a family wedding. “Unfortunately, my ex attended the event without a female friend and was overly attentive to me,” she says. “I found it very uncomfortable and challenging.”
Embarrassing behavior on the part of idiot exes is worry number one for some. But Kolakowski suggests that when it comes to inappropriate behavior (currying favor with neutral friends, bringing a floozy, oversharing, spreading rumors and lies), it’s important to remind yourself that you are no longer married to this person. “Your ex’s actions may be hurtful to you … but it’s also good to recognize that one of the benefits of not being with that person anymore is that they have less power to hurt you. These actions will reflect upon them, not you.”
And Kolakowski offers another guiding principle that’s worth repeating, like a mantra: “I know who I am, and I want my actions to reflect who I am.” Laura’s mantra is “This is about my child, and not about me.”
It is about your child
Keep in mind that you may not be the only one dreading the event; your child is probably apprehensive, too. Consider talking in advance, Kolakowski says. “Let her know that no matter what, you and her dad [or mom] both love her very much. Let her know that it’s not her job to ease any tension.”
“Children are acutely aware of discord between parents,” says Ross. “The most beneficial stance — if the adults can manage it — is to agree in advance to a ceasefire. Say, ‘We have to play nice. Let’s treat one another as if we were business associates.’”
If that’s not possible, Ross suggests you at least try to agree to ignore each other for the kids’ sake. Then tell the kids, “I hope someday your mother and I will find a way to get along, but right now that’s not the case, so we’re going to do what’s best and sit apart.”
Here are some other things to keep in mind on event day, courtesy of Kolakowski:
1. You have come a long way. “It’s helpful to remind yourself of all the ways you’ve grown (many for the better!) since the split.”
2. You have wonderful friends. “It can be nice to find ways to focus on helping others, such as lending a hand to your friend who’s hosting the event, or helping to corral the kids.”
3. … and maybe even a new partner. Consider bringing a date along for moral support, Kolakowski says, but only if you both have the same goals in mind: getting through the evening with a civil, pleasant demeanor. Don’t let your new partner egg you on — and don’t bring him at all if his discomfort will compound your own.
4. You can be strong. “Address the elephant in the room [your ex!]. It’s up to you how you do this: A smile and a wave hello would be sufficient, or you can make an effort to go and say a quick hello before moving on.” Either way, get it done early, so you don’t dread it for the whole event.
5. You probably shouldn’t drink — much. “There’s nothing worse than too much alcohol, lowered inhibitions and regret the next day.”
6. Rein in revenge fantasies. “It’s OK to briefly fantasize about all the ways you could exact your revenge ... but then you have to remember the reality of the situation: You are coparents together, and shunning or humiliating your ex is only going to make things more difficult for you and your kids in the long run.” Indeed, the best revenge might be showing the world that you can rise above it all, with dignity.
7. You deserve a reward. “Remember, the goal is to be able to look back at the event and congratulate yourself on representing yourself with composure and grace,” says Kolakowski. “You’re an example to your kids, and it feels good to be a strong role model.”
8. It also feels good to reward yourself with a nice massage or an evening out with friends. Laura’s favorite reward for enduring ex togetherness is a long hike with a girlfriend. “You need to celebrate getting through the event without losing your sanity!”
Kristen Russell is a Seattle-area reporter and the co-author, with Laura Kastner, Ph.D., of the new book Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essentials for Raising Successful Tweens + Teens.