Q: I've been living with my girlfriend and her two kids for about six months. Everything is okay between us, however, it really bothers me that she refers to her ex as the "a--hole". She calls him that to friends, family, and in front of her kids. Her phone ID says "a--hole" when he calls. She's also drinking more than she used to and makes comments in front of the kids that are out of line. I want to talk to her about it, but I'm not sure how. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Your girlfriend referring to her child's father in the way you describe is about the worst ex-etiquette possible. I have to say, I do see this all the time and I keep telling myself if parents really understood what they were doing to their kids, they wouldn't do it. But there are the parents who let anger and resentment color their judgment, and it sounds like your girlfriend is one of them.
The cornerstone of the 10 Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents is rule No. 1, "Put the children first." That means parents should make their judgments based on what is best for the kids; badmouthing their other parent certainly is not. (Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 3, "Don't badmouth.") Children of divorce often feel pulled in two directions. It's very confusing for them and undermines their security. The goal should be that your children feel comfortable at both homes with both parents. Parents who act like you describe need to do some serious soul-searching. Their actions are based on spite and anger — and that breaks two more rules — No. 5, "Don't be spiteful" and No. 6, "Don't hold grudges."
Although it's important that you talk to your girlfriend about your own observations, it sounds like she may also need to talk to a professional. People often use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate when they're depressed or angry or to keep anxiety in check. Alcohol and/or drugs lessen your inhibitions and parents under the influence are then more likely to do and say things they shouldn't to the kids. Bottom line: Counseling — and the Ten Rules of Good Ex-Etiquette — should help to get her back on track.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the founder of bonusfamilies.com. Email her at drjannblackstonegmail.com.