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Tips | Carolyn Hax: Is it bad for a child in the long run if mom and dad don’t talk?

Hello Caroline: I was in a 15 year relationship that ended about a year and a half ago. It was generally good, but quite complicated during the last five, with things we both did to make it that way. We never married, but we have a 9-year-old son together, and I also helped raise his now-adult son, treating him as if he were my own.

As things got worse to the point of us living as strangers in the same house, I realized that I really wanted to save our family. Her response was lukewarm. I suspected she was having an affair, but she lied to my face and cheated on me. Even after finding out the truth, I told him we could work it out. Finally, I caught her in another lie which was the last straw for her.

Based on legal advice, I planned to stay in the house until a parenting agreement was finalized. She was mean and unpleasant to the point where the situation was unbearable and I was forced to move. The only thing I took with me was some furniture and my car, although I invested in the mortgage, maintenance and improvements, doing much of the work myself. Even then, I wrote him a long letter thanking him for the relationship, expressing what it had meant to me, and apologizing for any harm I had caused him along the way.

What I got in return was a year-long legal battle just to get equal parenting time, custody rights, and medical decision-making. I won in all three areas. Now I’m in a relationship with someone who is loving, open, honest and transparent, and I feel good.

Here is my problem. I don’t want anything to do with my ex unless he is solely related to our son. I don’t want to be a co-parent; instead, I’m practicing parallel parenting. I don’t want to get involved and “be nice” when we are at his events. I totally ignore her. He is a very active kid, so there are a lot of events, practices, etc., sometimes several in a week.

Our son has not asked about the obvious lack of commitment. Do you think this is affecting him negatively? Do you think I should at least exchange greetings for his sake at the very least?

Tell Us: What’s your favorite Carolyn Hax column on becoming an adult?

A dad: This seems like a simple question with a simple answer: “Yes, ‘be nice’ for your son’s sake, because of course ignoring his mother has a negative effect.”

However, given the years of discord your child witnessed, you may be relieved that they are being avoided and prefer these events without fear of your parents fighting.

I’m not saying this is true or that ignoring each other is right. Treating people as if they don’t exist is objectively terrible and a last resort. What I mean is that “for his own good” depends on him, on how he really feels, not on me, you or any other adult who pronounces what is best for him. You are also not behaving in a vacuum; You can decide to say hello to your ex, but she decides how she responds.

Obviously, as a parent of a minor child, you must make decisions without firsthand knowledge of your child’s mental state. But he will be more useful to you if he works from broader goals focused on his mental health, using the reality he has versus what “should” be happening and using his senses to read what he needs. And let his simple daily conversation lead you to topics he is willing to talk about.

For example, it’s tempting to think, “I need to say hello to his mom so our son can see that we’re getting along,” such a simple and unobjectionable cause and effect. But delve deeper into why you’re considering this step: You want his world to be stable and supportive rather than a source of anxiety, so he has room to grow, try new things, and build trust. You want him to trust his parents and himself. Good?

If so, is saying hello to your ex the best way to go about it, given the realities at hand? It may be so. Maybe not, if participating would invite conflict. Maybe you let your anger cool and turn into indifference. Perhaps the answer is more creative programming. You may see which direction your child pulls you when you enter a room.

Surely the answer is not to ignore your mother just because I “don’t want” to deal with her. This is her child, not you, so this is good: she is asking the right questions to get better answers.

Even when you find out what he needs, it won’t be a set amount. At this time, a discreet distance might be most prudent. Over time, you may notice that you need something different or that your reality has shifted toward new options.

What remains constant is your child’s place at the top of your priority list. Be attentive and “listen” for things you don’t yet have the words or maturity to say. Prepare to be who he needs.

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