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 | By Dr. Cathleen McGreal

The Rules at My Ex-Husband’s House Are Different From Mine

When we were married, my ex-husband left all the child care to me. Now that we're divorced, he has a lot of opinions that are contrary to what we do in my home. How do we negotiate the differing rules?

The Parent Trap movies (1961, 1998) featured identical twins being raised in separate households. After their accidental meeting at a summer camp, the twins plotted to exchange places. A key challenge was learning all the different rules that would need to be followed when switching households. Of course, the movies portrayed exaggerated situations to increase drama. But after divorce, there will be differences in parenting styles that family members find challenging.

Focus on communicating in a positive way. In the time leading up to your divorce, it is likely that anger and pain strained your abilities to communicate effectively. But your paths will be intertwined throughout the future as you share the lives of your children and grandchildren. Keeping the lines of communication open will help your children during this time of transition. In order to do this, try to have conversations about the children when you are calm rather than reacting instantly when you learn of a parenting decision that is contrary to your own priorities. Write down your feelings and reactions in a journal when you discover situations that are contrary to your child-rearing values. Pray and reflect on the journal entries: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Prv 3:5)

Choose your battles. Your husband will make the rules in his home. Many of them will differ from yours. As long as his rules fall within the spectrum of normative parenting choices, it is within his parental rights to make different decisions. Talk to him about major concerns; hearing consistent messages on important issues will help the children adjust. For example, continuing participation in the Eucharist during his custodial time provides important consistency.

Children can distinguish between different contexts. As they develop, children get more and more adept at changing behaviors in different contexts. They learn “code-switching,” and realize that the linguistic codes that are frequently heard out at recess are certainly not OK at the dinner table or in the classroom. Over time, the children need to learn that “appropriate” behavior differs in each household. Be matter of fact if they push for change: “I know that is the rule at your dad’s house but the rule here is … .” If problems arise, such as a drop in grades, then consistent rules regarding homework can be discussed with your ex-husband.

During your marriage, you were used to structuring the rules and discipline for your children. As your ex-husband assumes that role in his household, it will be unsettling for you knowing that your children have experiences that are outside of your control. Adjusting to these new situations may be easier if you talk to a psychologist. Finding a support group within your community also can be an emotional resource for healing. Reflect on verses from scripture to find comfort during this time: "Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands." (Ps 119:66)

Dr. Cathleen McGreal - author of the “Parenting Journey” for 19 years. Cathleen has offered her expertise, pulling from her role as a professor at Hope College and Michigan State University. She’s shared anecdotes and personal family stories with readers, who appreciate her knowledge and frankness while enjoying the gift of her writing.