Q&A with Dr. John Townsend: Setting Boundaries with Your Ex-Spouse

Dr. John TownsendQuestion: Dr. Townsend: I am divorced and having difficulty setting boundaries with my ex-husband. Our conversations are awkward around our children. He lavishes them with toys while I feel like the disciplinarian. What do good boundaries look like in this situation?

First, let me say that I'm sorry to hear about your situation. I'm sure it can feel uncomfortable to be at odds with your ex-spouse in front of your children. This issue is always a tough one.

First, appeal to your ex-spouse about the need for your kids to have an integrated set of parents, even though you aren't married to each other. Tell him, "Our children need as close to the same environment of warmth and structure in both homes." Add to that, "I want us to have the kind of relationship that I am open to your feedback on my parenting, and that you do the same." Then say, "I appreciate how generous you are with our kids with the great gifts. But, I would appreciate your being a bit less lavish, and adding more reasonable discipline and structure."

Most ex-spouses will respond well to these types of comments. However, if he does not and refuses to change his behavior, try this approach. Instead of becoming the "Drill Instructor" parent to compensate for his lack of balance, become the "Grace and Truth" parent, who is very balanced and integrated in connection and structure. This way, your kids will internalize at least one healthy home. And, they will be able to model that healthy home, as they grow up.

If you find it difficult to approach your ex-spouse and have a productive conversation, I recommend reading these two resources:


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  • Emilee on

    I have a similar question in terms of boundaries with an ex. I am a widow (35) and my new fiancé is divorced. We each have two children from our marriages and our family has come together with much easy. Truly a blessing. We are both believers and raise our children in church and private Christian schools. Of late his ex wife is recommending “combined” family functions where their children, my children and her extended family (her parents and brothers and their families) come to my fiancé’s home for holidays etc. as to share their time with their children so neither have to “miss out”. It’s not the ex wife I have concern with or even an issue of being around it’s her family. They are not believers and their behavior is not what I want my children to be exposed to. They are also often rude and disrespectful to my future husband. I want to do the “Christian” thing. The “right” thing. But I feel a line is being crossed for my comfort and what I want my kids exposed to. Where is the boundary here? What’s do I do?

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