Dear Therapist: I Don’t Think I Can Accept My Boyfriend’s Past

Seeing photos with his ex-wife and kids pushed me over the edge.

Illustration of a hand pushing a bride's figurine into a wedding cake
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I have been dating a divorced man with two kids for four years. This year, on his son’s birthday, we went to drop him off at his mother’s house, and I was invited in to look at the presents he got from his mom and grandmother. My heart sank when I noticed that, on the wall down the hallway, there were pictures of my boyfriend and his ex-wife taken on their wedding day, as well as family and baby pictures.

My boyfriend told me he’d hung up the pictures from a box his ex-wife gave him as he was helping her prepare her house for the kids to move in. He’d thought she would take out the photos and use the frames. I was angry, because I felt that helping his ex-wife hang pictures had nothing to do with the kids moving into the house.

I feel betrayed and have since moved out, because we were fighting and I can’t get over it. I think the years of events built up, and seeing the pictures pushed me over the edge.

Over the years, I have been scolded for trying to be there for their kids. Their youngest daughter’s skin had bad acne and the mother didn’t do anything, so I took the girl with me to an appointment I already had. Her mom was angry, as she is the mother—and I understand, but what was I to do? Their daughter came to me crying, saying that she gets bullied at school and that her mother is too busy to make an appointment. The ex-wife then took her to another dermatologist even after I said that the daughter and mom could take the follow-up appointment. This is just one example.

I am at the end of my rope, and I don’t know if I want to be with someone with an ex-wife and kids, especially if he has been reckless when it comes to doing favors for her and neglecting me. He even moved their old dining table into our house, and she helped him move it. It was like I didn’t exist. I feel like she feels I am inferior to her because she is the mother of his kids. I will never come first in his life. I love him a lot, but I hate him and her for letting me see their wedding pictures and family pictures. I was willing to accept the past until I saw the reality portraying it. I am mentally exhausted and not sure I can do this anymore.

Is it time to move on?

South Africa

Dear Christél,

I hear how hurt you feel and how long this sense of not being treated the way you want has persisted. Step-families can be tricky: Most people bring into them their own ideas about how this new configuration of people will function, and many underestimate how complicated the dynamics can be.

Sometimes, a person in your position—the new member entering the family system—assumes that because you and your partner are a couple, you’ll have similar views on how things should unfold. The reality, though, is that integrating new people into a family develops over time and requires ongoing, open communication about the various roles each person will play and the kind of involvement they will have with one another. So far, it sounds like those conversations between you and your boyfriend haven’t happened in a productive way. Instead, any differences around expectations of how things will go have been fraught with conflict, and although only you can decide whether to leave or stay, I want to suggest another way to approach this that will help you more clearly assess your situation.

Let’s start with the events you describe, and what a different kind of conversation with your boyfriend might sound like. Recently, you were upset when you learned that your boyfriend had helped his ex-wife hang pictures in the home that she and their children were moving into, perhaps because your expectation is that once people are divorced, they should live very separate lives. You also say that you can’t see how helping her hang pictures has anything to do with the kids moving into the house.

I imagine, though, that if I asked your boyfriend why he helped his ex-wife with this task, he would say that hanging pictures is part of creating a warm, homey, and familiar environment for his children as they adjust to their new living situation, and that having a cordial, supportive relationship with his co-parent is in everyone’s best interest—not just his and his kids’, but also yours and whomever his ex-wife ends up dating.

As for these particular photos, it seems that you might be giving them meaning not intended by your boyfriend and his ex-wife. In divorced families, kids feel safe when they don’t have to pretend that because they’re staying at one parent’s house, the other parent doesn’t exist. They might miss that other parent, and feel comforted by having family and baby photos up in their home. They also don’t want to feel, if all pre-divorce photos of their family life are conspicuously missing, that their history has been erased. And although the wedding photo might seem like an odd choice, maybe the kids like the photo because it reminds them of a happier time, or perhaps it provides consistency because it hung in the hallway of their old house along with the other family photos. In other words, the photo might be there for a reason—and you can ask instead of accuse.

With this wider perspective in mind, you might try replacing an angry “I can’t believe there’s a picture from your wedding day hanging on the wall in your ex’s house!” with something like “I’m curious about the wedding picture hanging in your ex’s house. Of course, she can decorate her walls however she wants, but I’m just wondering why you think she wants it there.”

If you come at this from a place of curiosity rather than blame, you might find that your assumptions aren’t true, and you will feel less threatened. As a result, even if the pictures stay up, they won’t bother you in the same way. You will also be practicing a style of communication that can help the two of you avoid the kinds of fights you’ve been having, and create closeness rather than destructive disconnection.

Another reason for having these calm, open-hearted conversations is that when you don’t have them, unspoken feelings can be acted out in ways that cause more conflict. One theme in your letter is a sense of being left out and made to feel unimportant, and it sounds like, without your being aware of it, those painful feelings may have contributed to your decision to take his daughter to your dermatologist instead of sharing the situation with her father to figure out the best way to help his daughter. Next time, you might try a more team-oriented approach: “Jane keeps telling me that she’s being bullied at school because of her acne. She’s really upset about this. I’m thinking that her pediatrician might have a referral to a dermatologist. Do you or your ex want to check in with her pediatrician, or is there any way I can help? And what do you think is the best way for me to respond when she comes to me in tears?”

Approaching these situations from a collaborative place often leads to more trust and inclusion, which is what you want. But when you’re perceived as overstepping, you might get pushed out even more.

What strikes me most in all the scenarios you mention is that you seem to feel there’s a competition for your partner’s attention, so you interpret any kindness between him and his ex-wife as taking attention away from you. For instance, what you describe as “reckless” favors might be viewed by someone else as two people who no longer want to be married working together to make a transition in their lives. In fact, for many people in your position, this generosity (which seems to go both ways—he helped hang photos, and she helped move a table) might feel like a bonus: Few people want the stress of dating someone who’s always fighting with an ex, given the drama this would inevitably create for your boyfriend, the kids, and you.

Similarly, instead of seeing the positive ways in which you are included—the sweetness of being invited to see the son’s birthday gifts—you focused on the family pictures in the ex-wife’s hallway. As a result, you missed out on what might have been a warm, fun bonding experience. You’re worried that you’ll never be your boyfriend’s “first priority,” but maybe the problem isn’t how he prioritizes the people in his life, but the contest-like setup you’ve created in which your boyfriend can never win, because his kindness toward others becomes a betrayal of you.

You say that you don’t know if you want to be with someone with an ex-wife and kids, and unless you can get comfortable with the fact that his kids will always be a priority—and that maintaining an amicable co-parenting relationship with his ex-wife is part of that—you might be right that a divorced dad isn’t for you. But here’s something else to consider: Ex or no ex, kids or no kids, these feelings of neglect, of believing you’re perceived as inferior, of not being able to tolerate seeing a photo of someone’s past, might signal some old issues that will come up for you in any relationship until you deal with them. A therapist can help you explore this dynamic and figure out how to free yourself from it.

Meanwhile, if you choose to stay in this relationship while learning more about yourself, try practicing clear, calm communication. For example, you might say about the dining table, “Honey, that table isn’t my style; could we find one we both like?” or “Honey, I’d like to get some new furniture in the home we’re creating together. Can we put aside some money to get a new dining table?” Notice that this has nothing to do with whether his ex-wife helped him move the table—it’s about the positive step of connecting with each other more as you move into the future together. Remember too that even if you make this request, your boyfriend might explain that the table is important to the kids (they’ve done their homework on it for years; it provides consistency when they stay at this house) or that it’s a family heirloom that’s important to him—and you can choose to embrace the table because it matters to your husband or his kids and also get sofas, rugs, chairs, or artwork that embody this new family unit you’re all creating together.

The bottom line you’ll need to accept is that blending lives doesn’t mean erasing the old ones. It means honoring each other’s past as an important part of the story that got you to your partnership. The past will always be part of your boyfriend’s present, because he is a father raising children from an earlier marriage. But no matter what you choose, we all come into new relationships with a past that shapes and lives inside of us—and in the healthiest relationships, instead of trying to bury a person’s past, we compassionately and lovingly embrace it.

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.