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A client once said to me, “Life is like a video game: you master the challenges on the level where you are, and then you level up, and everything gets turned upside down. There’s a whole new set of challenges you need to figure out and master.” I thought that was a really good analogy. First you learn to live as an adult, then you need to figure out how to live together with another adult. Then there’s one child, and then maybe another (and another), and you have to figure out how to keep afloat with more people in the boat, and often competing needs.
For most people, divorce doesn’t feel like a “level up,” and it certainly isn’t a game. But, like a new video game level, it brings new opportunities as well as new challenges, like co-parenting from different households. And sometimes, just when you think you’ve got that (mostly) figured out, your ex throws a banana peel in your path (to continue the video game metaphor). They are getting married. Or they are having a baby with a new spouse or partner. And suddenly you need to figure out what that means for you, your children, and the co-parenting relationship.
Change doesn’t mean you are going to spin out and crash. But you may need some boosters to help you master this new level.
When your marriage or relationship ended, you knew it was over. But there may have been some part of you that harbored a faint hope that someday, you and your ex would work things out and get back together. A new marriage, or a baby with someone else, slams the door on that possibility, dashing hopes you might not have realized you had.
Even if you didn’t want to get back together with your ex, you may have hoped that you would be the first one to find a new partner, and your ex’s new status might make you feel insecure. Another scenario that often leads to feelings of insecurity is when an ex decides to marry or start a new family with someone they had been cheating with.
Sometimes, we express our own feelings about an ex’s new status as worry about our kids. What if the new stepparent is neglectful or cruel? What if the child you had with your ex feels replaced by their new baby or stepkids? It is important to make a distinction between our own feelings and those of our kids. Without realizing it, we can convey to our children the idea that the new situation will be bad for them, making it harder for them to adjust.
Take some time to unpack your own feelings about your ex’s new situation. Be honest with yourself. Do you feel jealous? Abandoned? Wondering what the new partner has that you lacked? Worried that your child will like a new stepparent better than you? All of these feelings are natural. But what you don’t want is for them to get in the way of your child’s happiness, or your own ability to move forward. Working with a counselor can help you identify, express, and process your feelings so you don’t get tripped up by them.
Once you’ve separated your feelings about the change from your child’s, you can help your child adjust. Your child might be excited about the change, apprehensive, or more likely, both. It’s important to allow your child to express themselves to you and to teach them to manage whatever they are feeling—that their feelings are not something to be afraid of, and especially not something that they need to hide from you.
Your child, for example, might enjoy sharing a hobby with a new stepparent, or be excited about becoming a new sibling. But they may sense your negative feelings about the situation. We think of parents as being the ones who care for children, but often, especially in divorce, our children try to care for us. Sometimes that means denying their own feelings about something, even to themselves, to avoid upsetting us. So be sure to give them permission to be happy about the changes that are coming to their lives. Often, a new stepparent or sibling simply means someone new to love and to be loved by.
Of course, you want them to be free to share their concerns as well. It’s possible that the other parent is pressuring your child to feel happiness or excitement they don’t feel, or to deny their understandable worries. You get to be the safe place where they can talk about what’s going on for them without judgment, and to learn what to do with those feelings. Having an adult who can listen without shaming them, shushing them, or freaking out will help them to trust and regulate their own emotions, to problem-solve, and to get along with others, including new family members.
Of course, there are times when a new family situation or structure is genuinely harmful for your child, and you may need to revisit your parenting plan or custody arrangement. In those situations, consult with an experienced Minnesota family law attorney to explore your options and do what is best for your child. In any case, your love and affection for your children will assist you weathering these changes.