Q: My parents got divorced 16 years ago, and my mother is still hurt and angry about it. Their marriage was already falling apart, and about three months after my parents separated, my father started dating another woman. My mother believes that if this woman hadn't been in the picture, maybe my father would have tried to work things out. I wish that my father had not started dating this woman until after my parents were officially divorced, but he did, and it has become the thing that my mother has held onto all these years.
This has all come to head in the last four months as my sister recently got married and it was the first time my mother has ever been in the same space as my dad's girlfriend. And I just had to let my mother know that they're finally getting married in a few weeks.
Is there anything I can do to further support her without continuing to be the sounding board for her emotions? What's good Ex-Etiquette?
Answer: Good Ex-Etiquette on your mother's part is to not burden her child, no matter your age, with her hurt and pain over her divorce. Although it's not uncommon to look at adult children as friends as well as children, you are both your mother and your father's child, and telling you her side puts you right in the middle. Of course you empathize with her pain, but you certainly can't fix it, and although she may feel justified in her take on the whole thing, it's probably not the way your dad sees it - and it is probably very difficult for you to discern the right and wrong of the situation. If Mom wants to vent, she should be venting to her friends or her therapist, which, by the way, she needs very badly if she's still concerned about your dad moving on 16 years after their divorce is final. A therapist can help her learn to follow two very important Ex-Etiquette rules: No. 5, don't be spiteful, and No. 6, don't hold grudges.
Good Ex-Etiquette for you is to consider rule No. 8, "Be honest and straightforward." This does not mean to be so blunt that your mom does not feel comfortable confiding in you about other things. But you could say something like, "Mom, you know I love you, but this particular issue is between you and Dad," and further explain that you do not want to be in the middle.
As a postscript to this situation, it's not uncommon for people who break up to try it one more time before they call it quits forever. If one of them gets involved with someone very quickly, the "wounded" party often feels he or she was robbed of an attempt to put things back together. Instead of owning a part in the break-up, many blame the other person for stealing away their spouse. After 16 years, the most healthy thing to do is move on - for all concerned - but most of all for your mom.
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. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.