Your child hears (and feels) all of those subtle pot-shots you take at your ex.
Everyone knows the basics of co parenting: Stay kid-focused, don't use your kids as messengers, never use your kids as scapegoats, show up on time, and don't talk negatively about your ex in front of them. It all seems pretty straight-forward and doable — at least it does on the surface.
But real-life isn't lived "on the surface" and sometimes, in all of that "being nice," you're actually just being passive-aggressive. Perhaps, doing more harm than good. Most of the time it's pretty obvious, whether or not you're taking care of the basics.
You know if you're staying kid-focused or breaking any of the co parenting "golden rules," but what isn't as obvious is whether you're putting out more toxic and negative energy pertaining to your ex, in front of your children, than you realize.
Communicating positively about your ex, in front of your children, is probably the hardest part of co parenting after divorce. Especially because, "being nice" is often our culture's weird way of excusing passive-aggressive behavior.
So, how do you know if you're being a "co parenting" angel or a passive-aggressive ex-hole?
Well, ask yourself if any of these situations sound familiar.
Scenario #1: You just received a phone call from your ex, letting you know that he's running 15 minutes late. You can't resist letting out a sigh before turning around, smiling at your son and saying, "Looks like your father is picking you up 15 minutes late, again."
What's wrong with this scenario? You were only being nice and let your son know his father is late, right? It's not your fault that your ex is so inconsiderate and doesn't put his son first, like a real dad would.
The problem: It's not so much what you said, as that you said it while sighing and putting special emphasis on the word "again."
Yes, your words were factually accurate and polite enough, but your sigh and slight dig at dad (with a smile on your face) communicates disrespect for your son's father. The brutal truth is that people run late sometimes, so you're just being an ex-hole.
Here's another scenario that'll put things into perspective.
Scenario #2: A divorced dad picks his daughter up from school and asks how her day was. She tells him it was great because Julie, her best friend, shared her lunch with her. Dad asks his daughter if she shared her lunch with Julie, too. She replies, "No. I didn't have a lunch."
Dad's blood pressure instantly starts to rise as he steams about how selfish, cruel, and stupid his ex-wife is to forget to pack his daughter's lunch, or give her lunch money. He takes a couple of deep breaths before saying, "Are you starving? Let's stop by McDonald's and get you something to eat since your mom forgot you need to eat lunch. Then we'll head home so you can start in on your homework."
The problem: Although this dad did great in asking about his daughter's day, he lost it when he jumped to conclusions about what happened and how his ex was at fault. What he really did was tell his daughter that he thinks her mother is a bad, neglectful parent.
What he didn't remember is that kids sometimes only tell part of the story. He was entirely unaware that his daughter had no lunch because she left it in the backseat of her mom's car that morning. When you jump to conclusions (eager to find the other parent at fault) before understanding the whole story — you aren't being nice — you're being an ex-hole!
Do your kids a favor and skip the passive-aggressive behavior!
Co-parenting isn't easy but there is no valid excuse for passive-aggressive behavior, disguised as compassion. When your words say one thing, but your tone, body language and overall energy say something else, your child picks that up loud and clear.
They read and remember every message you send about your opinion of their other parent. Smile all you want, your bitter attitude still shines through. Your job as a parent is to have integrity in every interaction with your child. (It's not always easy, but the job is the job.)
This doesn't mean that you and your ex are perfect parents. What it does mean is that you are responsible for checking in with yourself, to see where you might be behaving like a passive-aggressive ex-hole versus truly being a positive, cooperative co-parent.
Here are 10 questions to ask yourself to help you check your co-parenting integrity:
1. What did my tone of voice just communicate to my child?
2. What is my body language really saying?
3. Did I get the full story from my child before reacting or drawing conclusions about my ex?
4. Am I sharing facts with my child about my ex or am I layering my own story and feeling on top of those facts?
5. Am I judging my ex more harshly than I would judge myself (e.g. finding fault in them for mistakes you make, too)?
6. Am I taking my frustration and resentment with my ex out on my kid (e.g. snapping at your child when the topic of your ex comes up)?
7. Am I allowing my children their own thoughts and feelings or imposing my own (e.g. "You must feel so disappointed that your mother did that.")
8. Is it really helpful for me to express this thought/opinion in front of my kid right now (or ever)?
9. Is what I'm sharing age-appropriate information for my child?
10. Are my words and actions allowing my children the opportunity to love their other parent openly and unapologetically when they are with me?
If you know your answers to these questions are wrong, then it's time to stop the "well-disguised" passive-aggression.
How do you turn the tide on this behavior?
Own up to it. Perhaps, apologize to your child (or even to your ex) and admitting that you've been behaving this way — realize it isn't helpful. Also, seek support. You aren't wrong for having lingering resentment or unresolved anger about your ex, but you are wrong for letting it seep into your interactions with your child.
Love yourself enough to put some support in place for yourself and move past that resentment, so that you can respond to your children with a smile on your face that's real!
Dr. Karen Finn is a divorce coach and advisor helping people who are considering divorce make a smart decision about staying or leaving their marriage. You can join her anonymous newsletter group for free advice or email her at Karen@functionaldivorce.com for a free consultation. Don’t let the worry about divorce ruin your life, help is available as soon as you’re ready.