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Play nice with your ex to get stepkids onside

The question

I recently separated from my wife of 12 years. We have two children from her first marriage, age 20 and 18, and one child of our own, age 10. My problem is with my stepchildren. My ex never endeared me to them. Whenever I tried to discipline, give advice or help with homework, my wife was always hovering in the background. Our youngest has autism, so I have focused the majority of my attention on him. But I guess I've alienated the other two to the point that they do not listen to anything I say. The constant bickering and fighting in our house took its toll, too. All three children will be living with my ex.

Moving forward, I would like to be a part of their lives and have them know how sorry I am for how things have turned out. Right now, they are angry and do not treat me with respect. How do I mend my relationship with them to the point that we can be respectful of one another?

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The answer

I hear you, dude - especially the "hovering" part.

My wife is always "hovering" when I'm trying to give the kids advice, help with homework or discipline them. And she'll let me have it, too, right between the eyes, if she doesn't like how I'm going about it.

It's all part of the package - the matrimonial package. Once you say "I do," let the hovering begin. Me, I like it. Being married is an excellent aid, I've always found, on one's journey to self-awareness and humility.

But I can understand how in some strange, farfetched bizarro universe, all this hovering and unsolicited commentary could get to be … a little annoying.

Obviously, it all got to be too much in your case.

And now I'm going to say something that may not be what you want to hear, and may make you hate me for saying it: In order to "mend" your relationship with your children, you have to start by smoothing things over with your ex.

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I know it's easy to say. These situations can become so suffused with toxicity and bitterness that you want to have as little to do with your ex as possible.

One divorced dad I know is so angry that when he drops his toddler off at his ex's house, he just throws the car seat onto her lawn and peels off.

But it's pure fantasy to think you can somehow do an end-run around your ex and have a relationship only with your child and stepchildren.

She will always be "hovering," running interference.

Getting married isn't the real act of commitment these days. Having kids is. Once you have kids with someone, you have to find a way to deal with that person, for better or worse, for as long as you both shall live.

Try to remember and recapture some of the things you liked about her at the beginning. The charming way she'd wrinkle her nose at you before giving you holy hell about forgetting to put juice boxes in the kids' lunches.

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Or at least try to be civil. The better you treat her, the better PR she'll do for you with the kids.

When it comes to the kids - well, it's never too late, no matter how angry they may be with you.

You're their dad/stepdad. Deep down, they probably want to forgive you and let go of their toxic, long-term anger, which, as we all know, is a terrible psychic/spiritual burden for those who carry it around.

Help them get over it. When you spend time with them, they may want to vent a bit, even shoot a couple of zingers in your direction.

Example: "You were always a bad dad."

Bad answer: "Well, to be fair and in my defence, you were always an annoying kid."

Good answer: "Son/daughter, I understand you're angry with me. But I always tried to do my best under difficult circumstances. I'm only human and [obviously]a flawed human at that," etc.

Just roll with it. Don't retaliate. Remember, you're supposed to be the mature one.

Keep your eyes on the prize: a happy relationship with your grown kids. Sitting on a dock somewhere, say, savouring a margarita and a sunset, smoking cigars, kibitzing, swapping stories, having a laugh, tousling the hair of their children, your grandchildren.

Sounds good, right? Don't let bitterness, anger and hurt feelings prevent you from enjoying the end game - and what could be the best years of your life.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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