Q: My ex-wife and I struggle to find a peaceful new dynamic as co-parents. I have a new partner and my ex has expressed adamant resistance to including her in any of our kids’ events. “She’s not their mom” is the biggest declaration my ex-wife uses to justify her not wanting my partner to experience these moments — be they school-related, camp-related, church-related or, really, any other extracurricular event — and just last week, she declared that she would “never get over the divorce.”

I have found a new person with whom I want to build and share a life. She is kind, caring, generous, warm, stable, and loving to my kids and she is supportive, encouraging, and not at all threatened by or jealous of the kids’ relationship with their mother. I would think she is exactly the sort of positive adult influence any parent would want for their kids.

I’m really struggling to understand my ex-wife’s perspective and behavior. I find it unreasonable, unhealthy and, frankly, even threatening. I don’t know how to address it, how to improve the dynamic, or how to protect my kids and my new partner from it.

Can you please help?

A: Unfortunately, this dynamic is not that uncommon. That said, ex-spouses no longer have the right to control or judge how each parent now conducts their respective lives, unless of course there is potential harm to their children. Strong boundaries need to be established, if they’re not already in place. That requires keeping all communication focused on your children, only issues related to your co-parenting. Your new relationships are not part of those discussions, nor do you need to answer to your ex-spouse about a new relationship. Being divorced, you both now have the right to be with another partner. There is significant disparity in how long it takes some to fully heal from a divorce. Deep wounds of rejection, abandonment, betrayal, bitterness and anger sometimes create a protracted grieving period. From what you said, it sounds as though your ex-wife is very hurt, possibly feeling she has been replaced by your new partner. There are many co-parents in this position feeling jealousy and resentment. The critical piece is what each parent does with those emotions — whether the children’s best interests are genuinely considered or whether jealousy “rules” the parents’ attitude and behavior.

I have worked with many divorced parents who have expressed similar feelings, as they try to navigate through a painful period of healing from the demise of their marriage. Some, rather than addressing what part he or she played in the marital breakdown, instead direct their hostility and resentment on their ex-spouse, holding him/her responsible for the divorce. It’s easier for some to assume the role of victim than to assume responsibility for the marital problems. As it seems in your case, when a new partner emerges, that signals to the other parent that her ex-spouse has moved on, is not feeling the same pain or rejection, but instead has found someone “better” — perhaps more stable, more attractive, more fun, more generous, kind, etc. That can be like pouring salt in those deep wounds!

So how does trying to exclude this new partner from participating and/or attending their activities affect the children? What’s in the best interest of your children should always be at the forefront of these decisions — if including your partner could create an emotional and/or contentious confrontation that your children might witness, then by all means choose to not expose them to the conflict. Moving forward with healthy, assertive communication and establishing firm boundaries can take time. The issue is about expanding your children’s circle of loving, supportive adults, without them having to experience guilt or shame in returning the adults’ love and accepting their support. If a parent chooses to make it about the end of the marriage and her feelings rather than how much the children enjoy and care about a parent’s new partner, that “work” needs to be done outside the children’s experience, beyond their environment. Otherwise, they are left feeling a need to choose loyalties, to care for the wounded parent by ensuring they don’t cause any sad or angry feelings. This is “parentifying” the children, interfering with their childhood, their sense of security, safety, self-esteem.

The parents with whom I’ve worked who’ve successfully welcomed new partners into their family, accepting their children’s positive feelings about the new partner/stepparent, discover that their children thrive. They don’t experience stress transitioning between the two homes. The children whose parents continue with hostility, control, and bitter behavior are compromising their children’s innocence and their emotional and mental stability. This often is a result of a parent’s wounds being exacerbated by their own childhood trauma, sometimes reactivated by the loss of the marriage. While being compassionate and respectful, you can still communicate your needs and set limits with your ex-wife.

If there’s resistance in making room for a new partner in your children’s activities, it helps to understand this isn’t always about inflexibility or strong defiance, but sometimes is a common defense against feeling pressured, or harshly criticized. Rather than reacting, try to show some interest in her approach, by saying something like, “Tell me more about how you see this impacting our children” or “Help me understand how this affects them.” Try to learn what you might be missing behind the posturing. You and your ex-wife will always be your children’s parents. No one will replace your role as a parent, yet any others entering your circle are gifts for your family. Any new partner will also likely assume a place in your children’s hearts. When children speak affectionately about a parent’s new partner to the other parent, that’s completely healthy and okay. Parents must not discourage those comments, saying or doing anything to make the children feel bad or guilty. As long as any new partners are focused on your children’s best interests, your children should be allowed to have affection for them. It’s quite likely your children express the same affection about their parents to the new partners. The real bonus is how wonderful for there to be other healthy adult influences in your children’s lives. Establishing a positive support system for your children at all times is only a good thing, particularly at times when you might not be available to them.

Your ex’s comment that she will never get over the divorce strongly suggests she sees the new relationship through the filter of marital intimacy loss rather than transitioning to a healthy co-parenting relationship. As painful and hard as that may be, grieving the marriage is work to be done elsewhere, outside the parenting relationship. In a best-case scenario, co-parenting should be more like a partnership, not an ongoing battle. Keep your children’s best interests at heart, trusting that your co-parent and a new partner are doing the same. Even if your new partner isn’t your ex’s favorite person, expect both to speak respectfully about the other around your children. It can be very confusing and unsettling for children to hear either parent criticize their other parent’s partner, making them feel like they should choose sides. Do your best to be polite and kind when it comes to both your co-parent and any new partner. If you do have concerns about either, try speaking with a family mental health professional or a co-parenting mediator. Co-parenting with a new partner can have its challenges; however, the possibility of it being very rewarding for your entire family outweighs the obstacles. These bonus adults in your children’s lives, if willingly dedicating their time and energy to caring for them, clearly only want what’s best for your children. If they’ve already demonstrated this to you, ask your ex to remain confident that they’ll continue to do so into the future.