My Boyfriend, His Kids, and His Ex - Part 3
“Why does my boyfriend let his ex boss him around?”
In the first two parts of this series on co-parenting and dating, we considered the implications and challenges inherent in the questions, “Why hasn’t my boyfriend introduced me to his kids yet?” and “Why is my boyfriend friendly with his ex?” These are among the most popular queries we receive on CoParenting101.org. Though the questions are gender-specific, our responses (here [link] and here [ink]) are not. In this next installment of the series, we consider another frequently-asked reader question:
“Why does my boyfriend let his ex boss him around?”
Usually when a new partner wants her boyfriend to assert himself in his co-parenting arrangement, it’s because she feels that he’s being a doormat where his ex is concerned. This can take the form of her dictating when and under what circumstances he may spend time with the children (“You can take my children around her” is a common refrain.); making last-minute, disruptive or unnecessary changes to the parenting time schedule; or long, frequent, or non-child-related phone calls or texts that the co-parenting dad says he respond to or else his ex will be angry.
Below, we breakdown what’s behind this very loaded question, from the perspective of the dating co-parent, the other co-parent, and the new partner:
What we say to the dating co-parent: If your ex is controlling and difficult, it’s understandable that you might not want to rock the boat. You may even fear losing access to your kids or having your ex turn them against you. But co-parents who want healthy, lasting, committed romantic relationships can’t be ruled by fear. Anyone you date is going to expect you to be in charge of your personal life, to keep the plans you make, and to maintain boundaries with your ex. They should understand that because you’re a parent, they won’t be your top priority, but they will rightfully want to be a priority.
Maintaining boundaries with your ex isn’t just necessary in order to have a successful romantic relationship; it’s also a requisite for you to fully embrace this post-divorce chapter of your life. If you fear your ex’s reprisals against you or your children, or if you aren’t sure how to manage the inevitable conflict when you begin to assert yourself, you may need to pursue therapeutic counseling and/or legal options. Find resources that will empower you to create and maintain healthy boundaries in your co-parenting arrangement, to establish a detailed shared parenting agreement with the court, or to enforce an existing agreement.
With boundaries in place, you won’t routinely cancel or change your plans to placate your ex, and you’ll limit your ex’s interruptions to urgent or emergency matters related to your children.
If you’re unwilling or unable to maintain boundaries and to meet the expectations of the person you’re dating, say so. It’s easier to blame your “controlling” or “angry” ex than to admit you’re not ready for or interested in the level of commitment this new person seeks, or to admit that you’re not prepared to stand up to your ex. Easier… but not fair. Everyone involved deserves your honesty.
If your new partner is constantly complaining about your bossy ex and doesn’t agree with how you’re handling the situation, bite the bullet and ask her outright if this is a relationship deal-breaker for her. Save yourself and your children the future heartache.
What we say to the other co-parent: You might be a Bossy Ex if…
You feel entitled to make changes to the parenting time schedule at the last-minute or on a whim.
You believe you have the right to make demands on your ex’s time.
You expect your ex to respond to your calls and texts right away, regardless of the subject matter.
You want to control your children’s interactions with the person your ex is dating, even though this person presents no threat or harm.
You feel that your ex is trying to replace you in your children’s lives and you have to fight back.
You believe that you are your child’s primary or “real” parent.
You believe that your ex’s involvement in your child’s life is unnecessary or a nuisance.
You believe your ex has wronged you (or the children) and now owes you.
If your ex doesn’t do what you want, you feel justified in blocking access to the children or badmouthing your ex to them.
The above behaviors reflect a serious failure to respect the other parent’s boundaries and to respect his parenting rights as equal to yours. Consider what’s driving you and commit to working through it instead of trying to control your ex. Unresolved fear, insecurity, anger, disappointment, and grief related to the divorce may be preventing you from having the kind of respectful co-parenting partnership that would benefit your children.
What we say to the new partner: “Bossing around” is in the eye of the beholder. While this behavior is understandably annoying and upsetting to you, it might not be as bothersome to the co-parent you’re dating. She may feel that she’s making good compromises and choosing her battles wisely where her ex is concerned. Or she may in fact feel a bit bossed around, but has resigned herself to this dynamic.
Whatever the rationale, this co-parenting dynamic has worked for her B. Y. (Before You), and she may not see the need to make waves now. If this is the case and your partner doesn’t agree that there’s a co-parenting problem, you’ll have to consider whether this is a relationship problem. Is her “bossy ex” a deal-breaker for you? It may be painful to accept that it is a deal-breaker, because you love your partner and want to build a life with her. But your honesty in the short-run can save lots of people (including the children who may get attached to you) heartache in the long-run.
If, however, your partner is also frustrated by his ex’s behavior, you may wonder why he doesn’t just stand up to her, or “Take her to court!” Well, it’s not always that simple. Your partner may be the type of person to avoid conflict, or has never stood up to his ex. Some self-care, counseling, and introspection may be required to empower him to stand up to his ex, insist on boundaries, and insist on adherence to the shared parenting agreement.
Perhaps your partner is hesitant to draft a shared parenting agreement to put on file with the court—or to enforce an existing agreement. Again, therapeutic counseling and/or a legal consultation may help in this regard. But this process is potentially lengthy, expensive, and draining for the adults and children involved, with no guarantee of the outcome your partner seeks. Or perhaps he’s already gone this route before, to no avail.
Sadly, we’ve also heard from people dating co-parents who do not pay child support or who are in child support arrears. These co-parents have spoken or unspoken agreements allowing their exes to control access to their kids in exchange for not taking legal action against them.
Fear may also keep your partner from acting. Some co-parents, often fathers, have a very real fear of losing access to their children. They also worry about their ex badmouthing them and undermining the relationship they have with their children. Sometimes a co-parent is afraid that their children will bear the negative repercussions if he begins to tell his ex “no.” Because of this fear and their love for their kids, these parents essentially agree to play by their exes’ rules. Certainly, this is no way to live, with a spoken or unspoken threat hanging over your head where your children are concerned.
As a partner, try to empathize with your mate’s circumstances, whatever they are, and when possible, make suggestions—not demands—about how the co-parenting dynamic might be improved. Ultimately, however, it’s up to your partner to decide whether to make changes in his co-parenting situation. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you can live with how his co-parenting situation impacts your relationship.
In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at another common co-parenting and dating query: “Why does my boyfriend put his child before me?”