Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Christmas Relationships

The following article was first published on December 21, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a divorced father of two young children. The separation occurred two years ago. We are doing a very good job of co-parenting. My ex-wife, “Sue,” and I had agreed from early on that we would NOT be introducing people we are dating into the lives of our daughters unless it was well into the relationship (e.g., six months with the possibility of remarriage). This is to protect the children from the revolving door of people coming and going in their lives.

That lasted for about a year. The last two Christmases, my daughters have woken up to two different men in Sue’s house. It’s almost Christmas, and I am afraid it will be yet another man on Christmas morning, creating more confusion for the children.

While I can’t control what Sue does, I would like her to know that this could be harmful to our children as well as their future values or opinions of their mother. But by confronting her on this, I feel like I would come across as way too judgmental, and would open myself up to her criticism of my parenting, just like I am being of hers in this regard.


Dear Perplexed,

Let me start by acknowledging you for the spirit of your question. I’m sure that everyone who reads it will be inspired by the pure desire it shows to put your children first. I’m grateful for adults like you—and your ex-wife—who are willing to suck it up when their own emotions are raw and do what’s best for the most vulnerable people involved—the children. Bless you.

With that said, let me re-frame the problem. This isn’t about what “may or may not happen.” This is about what has already happened. You had an agreement. She appears to have broken it. That’s the conversation you need to have.

You are rightly sensitive that if you appear to be throwing rocks at her she might defensively throw some back at you. In other words, if you come across as moralistic, judgmental, or accusatory, you will be incapable of focusing on the real issue: the agreement the two of you made in the best interests of the children.

So be sure to be hyper-attentive as you begin and as you proceed in the conversation to creating safety for her. She needs to be affirmed, respected, and appreciated enough that she understands this is not about you judging her, but about you wanting to have a strong relationship with her while you attempt to do what’s best for the kids.

Remember, people feel safe when they know that a) you care about their interests and problems, and b) you care about and respect them. So you might begin like this:

“Sue, I want to discuss a concern I’ve got when it works for you to do so. I want you to know I have no other agenda than to keep the air clear between us so we can continue working well together for the children. First and foremost, I want you to understand how much I appreciate your efforts to work with me over the past two years. I know it hasn’t been easy. But you’ve been wonderful to work with. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Next, move into “Describing the Gap” between what you expected and what you got. Again, do so in a way that ensures she feels safe—that she interprets your intent correctly. Also, focus on the facts—not your interpretations or judgments of the facts:

“The issue is this: two years ago I think we agreed that we would not introduce new people to the children until we had a relationship that looked close to marriage. Is that right? I think we both felt at the time that this would help them appreciate the importance of commitment and would minimize instability in their lives. The past two Christmases the children have said that when they woke up in your house on Christmas there was a man who had slept over, greeting them in the morning.”

Now that you’ve laid out your concern—it’s time to encourage dialogue and reassure safety:

“Now, I realize that I might have some facts wrong. I realize also that even if this is what happened, your feelings and needs are an important consideration. I don’t want to be judgmental at all—or to keep you from something that’s important to you. But I want to be clear on our agreements with each other and continue to put the children first. So am I seeing this wrong? Is there something I’m missing here?”

At this point you follow the dialogue where it needs to go. Remember though, to keep the conversation focused on what you really want—what’s best for the kids. Not on your need to punish Sue for her behavior, or jealousy, etc. This is a conversation about a broken commitment, not a moral code.

Thanks again for your splendid example to me and others. I wish you the best in this accountability conversation and have every confidence your good heart will lead you right. And I wish you a Merry Christmas as well.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

10 thoughts on “Christmas Relationships”

  1. Manager9

    It is rare that I comment on these posts but today I feel very compelled to applaud both the question and the response. I am in a very similar situation myself being separated for 3 years now. I like how you narrowed in on the fact at hand and how you offer the suggestion to set the stage for the conversation to be safe and comfortable to ensure intent and motive are clearly defined. Thank you for this post. It made me smile knowing I am not alone in some of the choices I make to protect the “little minds”.

  2. GreggJ

    I would also add that to speak of a “broken commitment” may lead to other far-gone relationship contentions. Rather – state the issue as maybe a “change of heart” in the decision. Your parameters were based on 6-months duration and intent to marry. Perhaps that’s where’s she has been in these relationships, only for them to falter after the holiday/winter season. So – be sure that ALL your parameters of the agreement are in place.

    Good luck with the encounter.

  3. Ken

    I think you missed an important aspect of this. Once the ex is approached about this issue, however nice you may be the first reaction is for her ensure that the children do not “rat” on her any more. That places the children in a very difficult position.

    The other approach would be to ask her generally whether she’s sticking to her verbal commitment and not bring the children into the discussion at all.

  4. Mk

    I always start with the “why would a reasonable, rational person do this?” kind of approach. Ask yourself that first, and find the best guess and lead with that. “the last few xmas mornings our kids have been faced with a situation that we had hoped could be simple when we agreed to our terms (common pool of interest). my best guess is that you thought your relationships were going to turn out different (building safety). so, this year, I am feeling a bit worried that if you have another overnight guest, it’s going to start getting complicated if it isn’t already that way for them (identifying the gap). What is important to me in bringing this up, is that we are both doing the best we can, with room for life to be imperfect, while making room to improve as well (start with heart). Can you tell me where you are at? have things changed, or is there something we can adjust to prevent the kids from having any confusion over our choices in our romantic relationships?(encouraging dialog and reassuring safety) (asking for what you really want the outcome to posses)

  5. DB

    You told yourself a story – about a different man in ther bed for the past two Christmases. You mentioned nothing about your kids – and if they have any negative comments or feelings about their monther’s boyfriends. Is this about YOUR issue with her dating? I think you need to look at your feelings about this issue BEFORE you have this discussion. Your perception of this is based on your view, and not all the facts.

    1. Jim M

      I agree. My first impression was he hasn’t moved on & is looking for an excuse to reinsert himself into her life. I think the conversation needs to be with the kids. Comfort them and explain to them how you love them instead of worrying about mom dating again. You’re divorced, she’s moved on. Get over it.

  6. Sue Gloier

    Yes, I agree with “DB’s comments”. This issue is not an issue for the children, this is an issue for the ex-husband. People who are breaking up often make agreements/promises that seem realistic at the time (and often make the agreements just to keep the peace). The wife has moved on and times have changed. Sorry Joseph but I disagree with your take on this and your advice to the ex-husband. Unless the children are being harmed or complaining I think the ex-husband needs to move on and stay out of her business! SG

    1. Vivian

      Joseph, what a wonderful piece of advise from you . The very fact that one of the parents feels this way, ie keeping the well being of the children first,makes gives me strong feeling that full reconciliation will happen sooner or later. I’d urge the perplexed to take it fwd your way. After all isn’t it our children who bind us together…

  7. William Whipple

    Although the conversation sounds very idealistic, it would be best to wait till February to have it. Emotions are volatile around the holidays. If she did respond defensively, it could bring conflict into the holiday. Then that would be what the kids remember.

  8. Andy

    The sentence that starts, “the issue is this”, I would leave out, “I think” and the entire second sentence. In the third sentence, I’d also leave out the “I think” statement. The welfare of your children is at stake, this has already been agreed to, be firm, but fair.

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