Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’ve been dating Adam for two and a half years. I’m 33 and childless, and he’s 48, divorced, and the father of three kids. We seem to keep having the same fights about his needy ex-wife and the negative impact she has on our relationship.

Despite my wish to appear mature and chill, I have a strong distaste for the ex-wife. She doesn’t work, and she collects disability from the government and spousal support and child support from Adam. She attaches herself to every ailment for which she can find a symptom, and is on all kinds of medication. The kids’ main residence is with her, and Adam has the kids a few days a week. The ex constantly sends Adam texts about the kids, from mundane details to complaints about their behavior. Quite often she calls Adam hoping that he can “set them straight.” I’m certain that she’s the cause of all that chaos, because the kids never go out of control with Adam, and I’ve only seen them be pleasant.

Every time Adam’s ringtone goes off, my stomach churns because I feel so violated and intruded on by her. Adam knows how I feel and tries to handle these situations without hurting my feelings, but it’s really difficult to care for the kids while keeping the ex out because she has completely tied herself to the kids. Adam and I love each other deeply and cherish being in each other’s lives, but a shadow of the ex-wife seems to loom over and create tension between us. I try hard not to feel like a victim in all of this because I understand that it’s my choice to be with him, but I can’t help feeling robbed of something that should be mine. I’m open to any suggestions and perspectives.

Ginger
Rochester, New York


Dear Ginger,

Although Adam’s ex-wife doesn’t seem to be handling things well—and I can imagine how disruptive her texts are—this is also an issue between you and Adam, and there are several ways to make this situation work better. Some of them are practical, which I’ll get to in a minute. But others will require you both to talk about your expectations in this relationship.

While you want to be with Adam, you must understand that the person you’re in love with is somebody who has a family. He comes with his children, and his children come with their mother. There’s no such thing as Adam without them—that version of Adam simply doesn’t exist. And when a person who doesn’t have firsthand experience as a parent becomes romantically involved with a divorced parent, he or she can struggle to understand the parent’s experience and the directions he or she is pulled in, both emotionally and logistically.

It sounds like Adam is trying to please everyone and ends up feeling trapped. If he doesn’t respond to his ex’s calls for help with the kids, he might worry that they aren’t okay and that he’s neglecting their needs. But if he does respond, he might worry that he’s making you feel angry or unimportant. Ultimately, he responds not because he doesn’t care about your relationship, but because, like it or not, his kids are his priority.

If you can begin to really accept and ultimately embrace the reality that his kids come first without taking it personally, then you and Adam can sit down and figure out what can be done to improve the situation with their mother. One option might be for Adam and his ex to see a therapist who can help them navigate their co-parenting arrangement, creating parameters and offering tools for handling the kids when his ex is alone with them. If it turns out that even with these parameters and tools, she’s unable to care for the kids without calling for help, he can try to change the custody arrangement until she works out her own issues and feels capable of caring for them solo. But this would take time, involve conflict, and also mean that the kids would be more of a presence in your life—which brings me back to the package deal I mentioned earlier.

I think you should consider how you feel about Adam’s kids two and a half years into this relationship, because they aren’t going anywhere. How well do you know them? How much time have you spent with them? On the days that Adam has the kids, are you there, too, or does Adam spend that time alone with them? If you and Adam get married, these three kids will be your stepchildren, and my guess is that you don’t know them very well, because kids—like people of all ages—aren’t always “pleasant” and sometimes—again, like adults—“go out of control.” I imagine that they’re going through their own struggles related to the divorce—adjusting to two homes, to their mother’s less-than-stable situation, and also, don’t forget, to a woman in their dad’s life. They may be “on” when they’re around you, the way kids tend to be around people they don’t know well, but if you knew them on a deeper level, you might see more of a range of their internal experience, which probably has its ups and downs. Of course they’ll be different around their mom; naturally, they’ll find it easier to self-regulate in Adam’s calmer, more stable household. But they aren’t completely different people. After two and a half years, you’d have seen some less-than-pleasant behavior if you were making a concerted effort to integrate them into your life.

At the same time, I understand that in an ideal world, the kids would have a more stable and self-sufficient mother who wouldn’t intrude on your time with Adam. You say that you feel “robbed of something that should be” yours, and while you absolutely should have some uninterrupted time with Adam and parameters set in place, it will be important for you and Adam to talk about his needs as well. For instance, he may miss his kids when they’re with their mom and enjoy some of the “mundane” details his ex sends, even if he’s bothered by her other calls and texts. He may welcome a goodnight call or text every single night from his kids, even if you’re cuddled up watching Netflix together or in the middle of a candlelit dinner. Parenting requires a lot of selflessness but also has many rewards. Similarly, stepparenting requires a lot of selflessness and has the potential to come with rewards, but it also comes with a stipulation—one you have to decide whether you can live with. And that’s this: If you and his kids were drowning in the ocean, I can assure you that Adam would rescue his kids before you. You’re going to have to embrace the fact that your boyfriend is a father and was before he met you, and if you want to be with him, you’ll have to make peace with what it is you’re signing up for.

Hopefully, Adam will be willing to get some professional help in navigating his co-parenting situation, even if his ex-wife declines to participate with him. Just remember that you two have some navigating to do, too, in figuring out what your life together will look like in this blended family. Now’s the time to be honest with each other about how he envisions you fitting into his life in its entirety—kids and ex-wife included—and how you envision that happening as well. If you aren’t interested in working through the complications and many inconveniences that will surely arise, even once this particular issue gets sorted out, you may want to think about dating someone without young kids.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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