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Can This Marriage Be Saved? Q&A: Joint-Custody Parenting

The same counselors who help the couples you read about in "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" are ready to answer your questions about making your relationship the best it can be. This month, our Contributing Editor, Sondra Forsyth, talks to Betsy Sansby, MS, LMFT, about a reader's question.

Q. I’ve been married for three years to a man who has joint custody of his two daughters from his former marriage. They are 8 and 10, and they spend alternating weeks with us and with their mother. We live about five miles apart. I think this situation is very bad for the girls. They are not getting consistent discipline and they have learned to play us against their mother, as in “My mother lets me do such and such.” The situation gets even worse during the holidays when their mother gives them gifts that I feel are way too expensive and lets them “sample the wine,” which I think is inappropriate. Is there anything I can do?

A. You are absolutely correct that children need consistency. However, in a situation such as the one you describe, the ideal of a united parenting front is probably not possible. The solution is to establish the fact that your stepchildren live in two worlds, each with its own consistent set of rules and expectations. Let them know that although what goes on at Mom’s house is not always the same as what happens at Dad’s house, neither parent is the “bad guy” or the “good guy.” Your goal is to get across the fact that all of the adults love the children and have their best interests at heart even if the grown-ups show this in different ways. For example, if the girls ask to “sample the wine” at a holiday dinner because they get to do that at their mother’s house, simply say, “That’s fine at your mother’s house but not here.” Be pleasant but firm on this and any other issues such as bedtime, TV privileges, and getting homework done. Eventually, the children will accept the “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” aspect of their lives, and they’ll stop pitting you and your husband against their mother.

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