Dear Chump Lady, How do I set boundaries with my kids about my ex?

Dear Chump Lady,

My cheating ex-wife avoids me. We don’t speak on the phone. And she does not go to events with our kids if I am going (she is afraid there will be a scene). I guess she assumes that I can blow up at her. But have you seen guilt-driven behavior with exes that act like this? I am happy with the boundaries. Thinking about it, I bet I make her just as upset as I get when I see her.

I am taking the high road. I am going with my kids to their therapist. And I know they are having a hard time….where (I think) they will say, “Dad we are having a good time with [the Other Man] and he’s nice.” They want the okay from me that’s it’s okay for them to have a good time. And that they are not betraying me. And it’s a big shit sandwich where I know I should say “hey it’s okay” — but I do want to set some boundaries. I am not going to talk a lot what they do there with them.  It blows chunks hearing from neighbors that they saw her and him with my kids at the pool on Labor Day. What do you recommend?



Dear Steve,

Well, I’d take it as a blessing that your ex-wife doesn’t want to be anywhere near you. Better that scenario than her showing up like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl. Enjoy your outings with the kids and don’t try to get inside her head, about whether she has “guilt,” or fears your wrath, or hates the sight of your tartan trousers. You really have no idea what makes her tick or why she behaves like she does. And you know what? It’s NOT YOUR PROBLEM ANY MORE!

Isn’t that good news?

We can play armchair shrink (and let’s face it, I enjoy that game a lot) and surmise that she has a guilty conscience. But I think it’s just probably more likely that she fears exposure and projects that on to you. Her fucking around isn’t embarrassing — YOU are.

But you still have to practice “meh.” Say it with me — MEH. Detach. What she does, with whom, and how often is no longer any of your business. When your kids discuss the other man douchebag, you need to practice a big Meh with them too. Oh really. Huh. <Scratch yourself. Stare absently.> With your neighbors you can be more direct, “I’m really  not interested in getting news updates on my ex-wife. Thanks.”

As for the harder issue of eating the shit sandwich… I don’t know how old your kids are, but yes, don’t force them to choose. I do think it is essential that children know WHY their parents split. I think it is perfectly okay to say mom cheated with Mr. Douchebag. It’s not okay to have a boyfriend when you’re married. You take a vow to not do that. That is why we had to divorce.

So you give the facts, the reason, and you leave the editorializing out of it. (I.e., “She’s a whore.”) There is disagreement about telling, which frankly, I find insane. I think it is far healthier to tell your kids the truth — that some things in life are deal breakers, and if you do these things, the consequences are that families break up — than it is to let them think there is some mysterious, evil force that just descends like a toxic cloud and makes parents fall out of love.

And I also think it’s okay to set boundaries with your kids — age appropriate ones. A three-year old can blather on, they’re three. But you can tell a teenager, hey, son I really don’t need to know what your mom had for dinner, okay?

When all else fails, try this bit of advice someone gave my  husband about raising teenagers after divorce: Every situation can be responded to with “cool,” “wow,” or “bummer.”

“Look at my new scuba diving suit!” — COOL.

“I’m going to pierce my face with a safety pin and drill studs in my tongue!” — WOW.

“Mom lost her job and has to go live with grandma!” — BUMMER.

Notice how these are all variations in the key of Meh. There’s no analysis. No warnings. No lectures. Just a bland reaction of vague sympathy. The conversation moves on.

Children of all ages can read your reactions and find your buttons. In recovery literature they say — “Move your buttons.” In the case of kids, I say — don’t let them see that you possess buttons.

If you have no visible buttons, your kids cannot manipulate you and play one parent off the next. They also don’t have to feel bad when they stumble upon your painful triggers. In time all the angst and the urgency will pass. Your new life will crowd out your old life and your exe really will exist in a land of Meh. For you and for your kids. Your new normal will be theirs too.

Until then — MEH!



Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

In my case, I am quite certain that my XW smear campaign had just one purpose: to shift blame and justify her cheating.
I used a couple tactics to combat it, as I valued my reputation. My continued association with her parents and siblings was well known in our community. I genuinely liked and cared about them and they did me, and i went on golf trips with her dad, brothers and uncles post divorce. I was invited , regularly, to dinner and breakfast. When we attended my kids’ school functions, like plays etc. her parents would sit with me while she remained by herself.
People noticed and wondered why my kids and her family, who would have witnessed my behavior as her husband, were aligned with me.
I also disclosed her infidelity, but , so as to avoid looking crazed and vindictive, would mention it casually, in a manner as if I assumed others already knew. When they expressed bewilderment, I would act surprised myself and mention that I just assumed they knew.
I know this seems contrived, but, I knew what my XW capable of in terms of trying to make me look bad. I had to live in this community and was already feeling somewhat humiliated, as while the affairs were going on, many of her allies knew of it and had heard bad things about me.
Best, when combating the hate and smearing to act fairly calm and indifferent. getting defensive and doing too much self advocacy plays into their hands and seems to lend credence to their allegation in the minds of third parties.
Never react to provocation. Disordered types(and many cheaters are) instinctively or consciously know, through years of practice, how to use a concept known as “fundamental attributuion error” in playing to an audience. This concept goes like this: Betrayed spouse is subjected to some severe provocation(infidelity, taunting, blaming etc) and reacts in anger but out of character. Observers see only the reaction, not the provocation and assume this is the betrayed normal demeanor. Cheater then points to this as justification as to why he or she was driven to cheat. Observers buy it and side with the cheater.
Most folks who have not been through this are very naive re cheater tactics and the extent of trauma cheating causes. They are willing to overlook the fact that a cheater, by definition, is dishonest, lacks integrity, has poor communication skills and poor problem solving skills, not to mention a lack of empathy. If they aprecited these qualities in the cheater, they would be less likely to buy the PR campaign and the portrayal of the betrayed. But, they are not terribly sophisticated in their knowledge of cheaters and their proclivities.

11 years ago

Well said, Arnold. Extremely astute. Thanks for sharing your insights here.

11 years ago

Love this! Care if I share (or, do you like when people share?).

“Proverbial turd in the punch bowl.”


6 years ago

Cool, wow, bummer; cool, wow, bummer…gotta keep practicing this.
It’s perfect. Thank you.