Ex-Etiquette for Weddings
The Blended Families' Guide to Tying the Knot
By Jann Blackstone-Ford, Sharyl Jupe
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2007 Jann Blackstone-Ford, M.A.
All rights reserved.
Laying the Groundwork
Divorce complicates just about everything, but above all — weddings. Whether it's your divorce, your parents', your sister's, or your friend's, divorce can turn the simplest wedding decision into a possible catastrophe. Why? Because the proper groundwork has not been laid for a divorced person to communicate with someone with whom he or she shares a stressful history. For many divorced people, the memories are so emotionally charged, and there is so much buried anger, that it's impossible to communicate with their exes without a flare-up.
At some point all of us have to interact with someone who conjures up unhappy, angry, or even bittersweet memories. Many times, divorce is at the root of those memories. This chapter prepares you for those interactions so you can approach them with an open mind and heart. "Laying the Groundwork" has little to do with preparing for the actual wedding. Instead, this chapter provides strategies to help you check your attitude so you can comfortably interact with an ex, an ex's family, bonus children, or divorced parents. These strategies are not just for the bride and groom. They're for anyone who must communicate with someone in the context of a breakup and remarriage, and who dreads the thought of it. As you read through these pages, you will see that "dreading the thought of it" may be the root of the problem.
I often hear:
"How can I plan my wedding? My parents are making what should be a wonderful time into a nightmare. My dad says he won't go if my mother and stepfather are there. My mother says she won't go if my dad is there."
"My fiancé has three children. His ex will not let them come to our wedding on the day I have chosen. He wants me to change the date! Who comes first? Me or his ex and the kids?"
"I would like my niece — my divorced brother's daughter — to be my flower girl, but her mother says absolutely not! What do I do?"
Each message is a plea for help from someone whose family has been touched by divorce. All three people feel that the situation is out of their control and that they are at the mercy of someone who doesn't respect them.
My advice to all of these people is to rely on what I call "good exetiquette" — good behavior after a divorce or separation.
What Is Ex-Etiquette?
"Etiquette" is simply a code of behavior based on politeness, kindness, and unselfishness. It's being gracious to those around us. Ex-etiquette applies those same rules of good behavior to an "ex" or past partner, or anyone affiliated with a past partner. And that means anyone's past partner — yours, your parent's, your child's, your sister's, your friend's — anyone who is trying to navigate rocky social waters after a breakup.
Using good ex-etiquette will enable you to interact productively with people with whom you share a painful or worrisome past. It will allow you to remain cordial and make the logical decisions that need to be made when planning a wedding. Ex-etiquette will not solve the issues or emotions that originally caused the animosity. In other words, using good ex-etiquette may help you politely discuss the jealousy you feel, but it won't cure the jealousy. That is something the person who feels the jealousy must work through on his or her own.
This is when many people cringe. Few feel obliged to be kind or polite to a past partner or the relative of a past partner, especially if the breakup was nasty. That's when I hear:
"Be serious. I got a divorce years ago. I never have to talk to my ex or my ex's relatives."
This comment is typical of a divorced person. In my work as a mediator, I hear it every day: "I'm divorced. It's over. Don't bother me." For some people, particularly those without kids, this may be true. One of the partners picks up and leaves, and you never hear from that person again. However, if you have kids it's probably a different story. Joint custody has become the most common form of child custody awarded to parents after divorce or separation. Some divorced parents take it one step further and share physical custody, which means the kids go back and forth between the parents' homes on a regular basis. If divorced parents co-parent their children, they can no longer walk away from each other after a breakup. Much to many a divorced parent's dismay, that means it's never over. Not if you want to do it right. You will always share children, grandchildren, and if you are very lucky, great-grandchildren.
Nevertheless, I typically hear:
"But my child is an adult — over eighteen. I no longer have to deal with my ex."
"I'm over eighteen, finally an adult. Thank goodness all this will finally end."
It's a common misconception. Some people feel that once a child turns eighteen, she is no longer the responsibility of her parent or stepparent. If there was trouble coping with divorce or blending families as the child was growing, at eighteen you can consider the trouble over. Few consider the future after the child of divorce becomes an adult — not even the child herself. But very likely, when this adult child chooses to marry, there will be a wedding that both parents and extended families must attend.
Planning a wedding should be one of the most exciting times in a person's life, but for children of divorce it's often filled with anxiety — not necessarily about tying the knot, although some children of divorce do harbor a fear of getting married themselves — but about once again being put right in the middle of their parents' bickering and attempts to either alienate or control. The child of divorce is always jockeying for position — aligning with Dad when with Dad, aligning with Mom when with Mom. Although this is painful, most people in this position understand how to navigate those waters. But there is one factor that typically makes that balancing act possible: the fact that the parents are not in each other's presence for any length of time. Planning a wedding in which both parents will take an active role — parents who haven't gotten along for years and may have even remarried, but who will now be forced to appear together in public and cooperate — sends chills down the back of many a first-time bride or groom. As a child of divorce said:
"Will you please tell my parents that they are supposed to be polite to each other when I am around? They have put me in the middle of their battles for years. It's exhausting to be around either of them."
If you are divorced, or if your parents are divorced, and you want to continue to share the major milestones of your lives, you must realize that when a child turns eighteen it's just another chapter, not the end of the book. Understanding this changes everything. As a result, a whole new type of communication must be developed. That's where ex-etiquette comes in.
The Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Weddings
We are often asked if there are any formal rules for good ex-etiquette — something to refer to, like the Ten Commandments when you have questions about the proper attitude toward or response to a situation. As a result, in our first book, Ex-Etiquette for Parents: GoodBehavior After a Divorce or Separation, we offer ten rules of good ex-etiquette to help guide parents toward better co-parenting after divorce. In this book we offer a similar list for those who are facing a wedding when there has been a divorce in the family:
1. Remember whose wedding it is.
2. Ask for help if you need it.
3. Never badmouth the bride, groom, extended family members, or guests.
4. Offer advice only if you are asked. Even then, remember "tact and timing."
5. Don't be spiteful.
6. Don't hold grudges.
7. Use empathy when problem solving. Put yourself in the other person's place.
8. Be honest and straightforward.
9. Respect each other's family traditions, histories, and allegiances.
10. Compromise whenever possible. Look for solutions outside of the box.
How to Communicate Effectively with Your Ex
Why would you need to communicate effectively with your ex when there is a wedding in the works? There are a couple of scenarios. As I discussed earlier, maybe you have children together. If you are remarrying, or your ex is remarrying, that remarriage will certainly affect the children. Whatever affects your children is the business of both you and your ex, and you will need to communicate productively with one another about the issues that affect them. Or maybe your adult child is getting married. Then you and your ex will need to get along to make your child's wedding day the best it can possibly be.
There are five actions or behaviors that will help you and your ex interact successfully:
1. Stop assigning blame and decide to cooperate.
2. Break the old patterns of communication.
3. Let go of negative emotions.
4. Realize that holding on to the past prevents positive present interaction.
5. Acknowledge your mutual interests.
Stop Assigning Blame and Decide to Cooperate
I often hear people object, "But I do cooperate! It's not me. It's him!" It's rarely only the other person. It may be true that you are not contributing to the immediate communication problem, but there was probably a time in the past when you did. Believe it or not, your ex hasn't forgotten. During an interaction you might be thinking, "I was just very polite, and his response was really rude!" Meanwhile he's thinking, "Yeah, she was nice just now, but five years ago when I asked for ___________ [you fill in the blank], she was really miserable to me. I'm justified in being rude now. It's her fault."
Assigning blame is really just an excuse for bad behavior. You get stuck feeling justified in your anger and feeling like a wounded individual — and then you seek revenge, which really prevents positive communication. Revenge doesn't have to be the type of revenge you see in the movies, where people plot with guns or poison. It can be in the form of being uncooperative with your ex. That hurts the other person more than physical revenge — and lasts far longer. You win. Or do you?
It's time to stop using rights, sides, fault, and blame as reasons for bad behavior and to take responsibility for your own actions. That's why I say that deciding to cooperate, despite whose "fault" you think something is, is the first step to positive interaction.
Break the Old Patterns of Communication
Breaking an old pattern of communication is not easy. So much of it is mental preparation. When you prepare for a meeting with your ex by stewing about how he has made you angry, or worrying that something you might say will make him angry, the thoughts that you run over and over in your mind will have an effect when you finally interact. Negative thought can lead to negative behavior. In the psychological community this is referred to as a "conditioned response based on past experiences." If your thoughts about someone conjure up feelings of anger and resentment or worry and anxiety, you are not likely to want to cooperate. If you can change your thinking process, you can change your behavior.
I often tell a personal story that's a perfect example of how thought processes affect a person's behavior — and what that person must do to break the cycle. It's about communicating with my husband's ex, not my own, but the relationship was perhaps just as emotionally charged. My husband and I had been married for six months, and during that time Sharyl and I were not the best of friends. Every morning I would sit in front of my makeup mirror, and as I put on my makeup, I'd rehearse what I was going to say to her the next time she did something that made me angry. As I put on my foundation, I was a little miffed. As I progressed to the blusher, I was angrier still. By the time I was adding the finishing touches with my mascara, I was livid — and I hadn't said a thing to anyone!
This went on day after day. I thought I was keeping it all inside and that no one knew how angry I was, until one day my husband timidly tiptoed around the corner of the bathroom.
"What are you doing?" I snapped.
"Well," he relied, "I was checking to see how much makeup you're wearing. It seems the more makeup you have on, the angrier you are with me."
I had no idea my husband was so perceptive, and I was very impressed. His comment made me realize that I was the one making me angry, not Sharyl. As soon as I sat down in front of my mirror each morning, I started with the same vengeful, angry thought process. It was simply learned behavior — I had taught myself to be angry!
Since I had learned to be angry, I decided I could learn not to be angry, too. Rather than rehearse all the bad things in my head each morning, I made myself think about the good things — how happy I was to be married to my husband, that everyone was healthy, and that the kids had accepted me and seemed to be adjusting so well. Every time a bad thought came into my mind about Sharyl, I pushed it out and replaced it with a more positive thought about my life.
Lo and behold, the next time my husband crept around the bathroom corner, I said, "Hi, Honey!" rather than growling at him. But, equally important, the next time I spoke to Sharyl, I didn't have one bad thing to say to her. And oddly enough, she didn't have one bad thing to say to me either. We had changed our pattern of communication.
I had been thoroughly convinced that it was Sharyl's fault that we were at odds. If I had not made the necessary changes in myself to break the negative thought chain and to change those negative expectations into positive affirmations, I would still be furious — sitting in front of my mirror and snapping at everyone who crossed my path.
This is when people tell me, "I can't do this all by myself. Doesn't it take two to communicate?" Like most people, you have probably been taught that communication is a two-way street. If one party does not wish to communicate, then it is unlikely things will change, right? Wrong. Communication doesn't start with two people. It starts with one person: you. Things can change when only one person is committed to change. Rather than try to change your ex's mind, or your parent's mind, or the mind of anyone with whom you have not gotten along in the past, what you really have to do is change your own mind — change your own belief about your "opponent." As a result, you will now have control over your own life.
Remember, positive affirmations are always true statements, but they may not be the first thoughts that come to your mind. They are thoughts you hold onto in order to stop your negative behaviors.
Negative thought: My ex is so difficult!
Positive affirmation: My ex and I both love our child.
Positive affirmations do not necessarily have to be about the problem at hand. Any positive thought works to break the negative thought/negative behavior chain of events. It's the dwelling on the negative that makes you react negatively. Dwell on the positive and you will react positively.
Let Go of Negative Emotions
The emotions that are most troublesome when dealing with an ex are resentment, jealousy, and envy. On some level, all are natural responses to fear. Reason goes right out the window, and what becomes most important is defending one's position. Conquering these emotions is a prerequisite of good ex-etiquette. Controlling negative emotions doesn't mean you don't feel them. Good ex-etiquette provides tools to deal with interacting with an ex when you do feel angry, jealous, or resentful.
This may sound like denial. You are in denial when you don't see or accept something. It's a subconscious coping mechanism for avoiding something painful. I am suggesting that you deal with something by consciously changing your thinking. That's not denial. That's "the wisdom to know the difference."
To combat jealousy, for example, start thinking of your ex solely as your children's father or mother. He or she is a parent, not a past lover. When you speak or think about your ex, refer to him or her as "Bill's [your child's] mother or father," not "my ex-wife or ex-husband."
This works with other relationships too. Refer to "Susan's [your husband's daughter from a previous marriage] mother," rather than "my husband's ex-wife." Or, if you are a child of divorce, rather than looking at your stepparent as a possible replacement for your parent, try thinking of him or her as someone who simply makes your other parent happy — and let it go.
Realize That Holding on to the Past Prevents Present Interaction
"I've tried to reason with my ex. It's a complete waste of time. Now our child is getting married, and I know he won't cooperate." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ex-Etiquette for Weddings by Jann Blackstone-Ford, Sharyl Jupe. Copyright © 2007 Jann Blackstone-Ford, M.A.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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