Relationship Connection: How can I be kind to my son’s ex-wife?

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Question

My son is divorced and currently lives with us. He shares a child with his ex-wife, but he has sole custody because she hasn’t wanted the responsibility of motherhood. She has suddenly become interested in spending more time with her child, which is good, but I struggle greatly with having her in our home during her visits.

She owes my son a large sum of money and has not contributed at all towards childcare, medical bills and other expenses because she claims she doesn’t have the money. I struggle welcoming her with open arms and pretending like everything is fine when I witness my son struggling with sleepless nights taking care of their child, the stress of his financial burdens, finding childcare when we are unavailable and suffering from depression because of the single parent situation he is in.

I pray for his ex-wife, pray for the Lord to help me have compassion, but it’s just so very, very difficult for me when she’s here in our home. Any advice would be most greatly appreciated.

Answer

It’s difficult to have a front-row seat as you watch someone you love suffer at the hands of another. Your son is caught in a difficult dilemma of allowing his ex-wife to build a relationship with their child and protecting both himself their child from her poor decisions. You sound like a sincere and genuine person who feels at odds with how you feel and how you believe you’re supposed to respond to her in your home. 

You are hurt by her treatment of your son and their child. Surely, her choices have created additional burdens for you and your husband as you financially support your son and grandchild.

I agree with you that even though compassion is ultimately the answer, the application of it isn’t always obvious, especially when you are dealing with someone who appears to expect everyone to enable her irresponsible behavior. Even though we might trust that compassion is the answer, our conflicting emotions make it challenging to be generous with our hearts, hands and minds. 

Even though it’s important to be kind, it’s just as important to be sincere. You can not only focus on acknowledging the seriousness of her situation but also create ideal conditions where she can have the best chance of changing. 

I believe you are in a unique position to offer your former daughter-in-law these healing conditions. I don’t believe a compassionate response means that you pretend everything is fine. It might still be the right decision to allow her into your home where your grandchild is safe and comfortable.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean that you or your son need to overextend yourselves as she’s starting to rebuild a relationship with her child and demonstrate more responsibility. I appreciate JoAnn Jolley’s clarification on being wise in our compassion:

Being compassionate does not imply spreading ourselves so thin that all of our relationships become weaker. Husbands, wives, parents, immediate families — and some of our own needs — should receive highest priority. Each individual must then determine how far he can effectively extend himself beyond these circles while still maintaining order in his life and [compassion] in his heart.

I don’t know what cost her visits exact on you personally, but if you need to limit how much time you can spend around her right now or how long you can have her in your home, then be wise about these limits while she’s rebuilding trust with your family. If you need to give yourself permission to limit your own interactions with her while you adapt to her newfound interest in being a responsible mother, then this will allow all of your interactions with her to be completely sincere. 

Even though you might wish to be full of compassion for her, like a glass filling with water, our levels of compassion rise slowly by degrees. None of us can instantly be filled with compassion without some struggle. I am confident you will grow in clarity about how to best support her and your son as you patiently allow yourself to practice living clearly and compassionately.  

It can also be helpful to see ourselves and others through a developmental lens. This means that we recognize that we’re all on a personal journey of maturing away from self-centeredness toward caring for others and remembering that we’ve all benefited from the patience of others further down the path. Harry and Bonaro Overstreet observed: 

Tenderness in the human scene cannot be simply an emotion that moves along one line in one direction: from parent to offspring. All through life we have to take turns, as it were, being ‘parents’ to one another – because we all take turns at being children. Tenderness, therefore – a warm acceptance of what is incomplete but capable of growth – must be so extended throughout our human society that it becomes a veritable field of force. It must be extended from each person’s strength and maturity to each other person’s weakness and immaturity.

This doesn’t mean we allow for unchecked selfishness or immaturity but rather tenderly offer our support and maturity to those who have limited abilities or awareness. If she’s open to it, and as you are able, you might find yourself becoming more of an influence in her life. She clearly needs guidance and support to be a better mother.

Building a relationship with her will put you in a position to influence her for good, which not only benefits her but also your son and grandchild. You can acknowledge and welcome any growth and prosocial gestures she makes that show a stronger commitment to being a better mother. 

It’s unlikely your son and grandchild will live in your home long-term, so you’re in a unique position of directly interacting with your former daughter-in-law as she comes to visit her child. Allow your son to figure out how he needs to deal with her obligations to him while you focus on honoring your emotional limits as you expand in compassion toward her.

If she’s showing up and trying to do better, your willingness to create a welcoming and encouraging environment will do more to promote her growth than resentful withholding to reinforce responsibility.

The consequences for her choices are already in place, so you are now free to encourage her growth and involvement as a mother. Even though she may still owe your son money or have other loose ends, you aren’t personally responsible for holding her accountable. If you feel ready and capable, you can focus on more of a support role in her life. 

Perhaps when she comes to visit you can ask her thoughtful questions about her life, tell her things you love about her child, model good listening and interest and look for ways you can support her efforts. Your kindness, tenderness and interest in her isn’t going to diminish your loyalty and support for your son’s sacrifices and struggles. He needs her to show up more now than ever, so any encouragement toward growth benefits everyone. 

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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