Q. The holidays are coming up and it’s tradition that we all congregate at my partner’s parents’ home. They always invite his ex-wife. She never stays long, just long enough to say hi to his parents and their kids, but when she walks in, it’s like the prodigal daughter returned. It’s so obvious they prefer her, it makes me feel invisible. I’ve spoken to my partner and he says it’s all in my head. I think it’s because we aren’t married. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Biggest red flag of the day: getting married because you think it will please someone else, especially your partner’s parents. That’s a decision made between the two of you and should be because you feel secure in your relationship, not because you feel insecure.
That said, comparing — which is what you are doing — is the problem, and it’s detrimental to just about any relationship. Comparing is a closed conversation with yourself. You have an idea you hold about yourself and then you compare that idea to another idea you hold about someone or something else. So, basically, comparing is all in your head. It may be true, it may not be, but it begins with your own observation and feelings about yourself. It may be time for some self-exploration and consider why you have chosen to be in this relationship.
Next — and this will come as no surprise to those who read this column regularly — you refer to her as “your partner’s ex-wife.”
A few observations:
One, labels make a difference. Rather than “ex-wife,” try referring to her as “the children’s mother.” That simple change can make a huge difference in your attitude, which sets the stage for the real reason she’s there in the first place.
Two, although your partner’s parents may truly love her — and that is based on all sorts of things, like history, familiarity and loving memories — she is also their grandchildren’s mother. That fact alone may prompt affection and would be there no matter who your partner dated, lived with or married.
Three, it sounds as if she’s not taking advantage. You even said, “She never stays long, just long enough to say hi to his parents and their kids.” Although it may make you uncomfortable, it may be a tradition established before you started dating your partner to make the transition easier on the kids. Sometimes these traditions are adjusted as time goes on; sometimes they are not. It would be another thing if she prompted “remember when”s while you were cringing in the corner, but she’s not. As I said before, your partner’s positive reaction would be the same no matter who would be in the picture. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to cultivate your own relationship with them based on your own special gifts — not compared to hers. You can’t change that. You can change anything you want to about yourself and your relationships.
Finally, the better your partner’s parents get along with their grandchildren’s mother, the more comfortable the children will be. Although the adult personal relationships can be complicated, “Put the children first” is and always will be the essence of good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.