Q: The woman I’m considering marrying has never had children. I have two, ages 6 and 7. They were scheduled to spend the holiday with me this year, but my girlfriend wanted me to trade the holiday with their mother and go skiing with her. I refused, and it started a huge fight. She says our relationship is not my priority and doesn’t understand how I look forward to spending time with my kids. She thinks “we” should come first. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: The approach to a relationship when one or both partners has kids is different than when it’s a first-time relationship with only responsibility to each other. Those who don’t have children may not understand this and that’s when you butt heads (and hearts). Based on the couples I have worked with in the past, your girlfriend probably feels as if she is playing second fiddle. Because she’s operating from a first-time relationship point of view and needs reassurance, she’s creating scenarios where you have to choose.
People in your position often feel as if they are stuck between past and present — guilt ridden because of the previous break-up while having to carve out one-on-one time for both the kids and a new partner. They spread themselves too thin, both emotionally and physically, until something snaps — and it’s usually the new relationship “because they aren’t going to put their children through it again.” If the new partner is chosen, the chance of successfully blending the family is often lost — two completely separate families are created, and the children tell me they feel like visitors.
If you don’t want to create that sort of life, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your girlfriend. This is when I suggest couples take the Before Exercise that can be found on the Bonusfamilies website. It starts an honest dialogue between the new partners by asking them to consider how they will create the relationship they want to have with each member of the family they are creating by moving in together. You may even want to go to counseling to better prepare for combining your families.
If your relationship is going to survive, your girlfriend is going to have to understand that there may be times your responsibility to your kids will take precedent. It doesn’t mean you love her less. She shouldn’t be comparing in the first place. It’s simply is what it is. You’re a man with children and that was set in stone prior to meeting her. A new partner can either enhance that relationship and join the club or fight it — but if they fight it, they will lose. When a new partner approaches your position with empathy and compassion, and at times stands back to enable you to do your job as a parent, he or she will endear themselves to each member of the family — including your ex who is fighting the same allegiance issues you fight if she has met someone new.
The new partner’s attitude can make or break everything—but I’m not going to let you off the hook, either. Initiate counseling both separately and together if you feel overwhelmed. The hurdles you both face can be best met with educating yourselves — and leading with empathy and love. That’s good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. ©2020 Jann Blackstone Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.