What do you wish you knew before you committed to a relationship with a divorced person who has a child?
January 12, 2012 5:24 AM   Subscribe

What do you wish you knew before you committed to a relationship with a divorced person who has a child?

Self-explanatory :) I want to keep the personal details to a minimum since I am interested in getting as wide a range of responses as possible.

But the short version is that his divorce occurred when the child was very young and so there are no preconceptions or emotional issues with the child to deal with; the ex-wife has been polite (to me, at any rate) but is somewhat spendy and money-obsessed; our potential joint budget balances just fine for now even taking into account his in-progress lawyer bills and an unusually high---but temporary---spousal support order in addition to the child support; and that I am a child of divorce myself with two step-parents, so I feel like I am prepared for the emotional issues. I could be wrong, of course, but that's how I feel :)

Been going out for about eight months, by the time the cohabit happens it will be more like a year. We do see marriage as our ultimate goal and have a very solid relationship. I *think* we are prepared for anything. I just want to hear from people who have been down this road.
posted by JoannaC to Human Relations (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The child is likely to go through very predictable stages, depending in part on age & time since the divorce. I'd advise getting a couple books on the subject, for reference.

For instance, a post-toddler may try to charm every new beau/belle of their parent, in a sort of quasi-competition with the parent (or simply to establish favored position with the new "nest-sitter").

A child more "jaded" from seeing girlfriends come & go (and remember that 2 dates, while hardly worth remembering over the years to an adult looking for love, is a looong time to a 7yo!) may treat the newcomer as a true "temp", unworthy of commitment.

These are general, first-meet kinds of things, but they demonstrate my point.


My greatest success in my relationship with a divorced gfrd's kids was through deriving all authority from her. I moved myself from "you need to obey because I'm an adult" to "Mommy told you not to do that - do you want me to tell Mommy you disobeyed her?". They dropped their "you aren't my parent!!!" stubbornness, since it didn't threaten their established understandings of power relationships.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:33 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I'm considering getting involved with someone divorced, a major area of concern is whether the guy is fair-minded about what happened in his past relationship. It's always bad news when he blames everything on his ex and trash talks her. Failed marriages are hardly ever all one person's fault, and if he doesn't take any responsibility for the mistakes he made that led to the divorce, he isn't someone who learns from mistakes.

A lot of divorced people with children do get through the fallout within a few years and learn to be at least civil with each other, and work together fairly peaceably and productively to raise their children. If your guy hasn't been able to do this, it may be a red flag as to his character.
posted by orange swan at 5:34 AM on January 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

What do you wish you knew before you committed to a relationship with a divorced person who has a child?

It's sounds simple, but the realization that you you'll be having a different relationship with your SO than with the child, which may be different from when ya'll are all hanging out together.

Find some similarity with the child, something you both like or something you can at least tolerate doing for the next 10-20 years. Then do that activity with the child, whatever it is. That's how you build bonds.

Realize you'll make mistakes. That's ok, just learn from them and apologize if need be. I felt internal pressure to be a perfect parent or some such at first, but that's impossible. Things were better once I admitted to myself and the kid that I was still learning how to parent.

Never badmouth the biological parent you don't live with it. The kid gets to determine that relationship, as does that parent. Encourage them to spend time together.

Have fun. Those fun times will make the difficult times more manageable.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:45 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

What do I wish I knew? Yoga, and meditation, and the name of a good family counselor.

Learn patience, if you don't know it -- the ability to wait them out will be your greatest asset, and steadiness. They'll likely love you, though they'll be loathe to admit it for a while.

Definitely don't rush into disciplining. Ease into that, with copious help form your partner, and make sure the kid understands that you are now a united front -- don't let an angry kid try to split you on disciplinary issues, and be sure to defer to the birth parent for probably the first year unless they're unavailable.

Lastly, never badmouth the parent you're filling in for. Although you may be right, this will only cause a kid that might resent you to dig their heels in.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:01 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Something that I didn't expect when I married a divorced man with kids was how much money issues bothered me. Because we joined finances when we married, we ended up getting in a situation where MY money was going to pay HIS support costs. I didn't expect to but resented that - a lot.

Another issue is that you should not assume that your relationship with his kids will be a certain way. Maybe you'll be close to his kids, maybe you won't. One of my stepsons gives me a Mother's Day card every year and we are close. The other stepson has held me at arm's length and that has continued now for 27 years. You will sort out those relationships over several years but don't assume that because you live with them/both love their dad/etc., that it means your relationship with the kids will be a certain way.
posted by eleslie at 6:13 AM on January 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

You are not another parent. The child has two active parents. You are a caring adult in their life, a role model, a mentor. Keep your relationship with his ex positive, regardless of any disagreements between your guy and her. Their issues are theirs to deal with - don't be an active participant in their conflicts. As stated above - very important that when dealing with the child, speak positively of the mom.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:16 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Take the long view in all things. I would try to build a meaningful friendship with the kids that is quite distinct from your relationship with their dad. I would stay in the background on parenting issues, side with no one loudly or even publicly, be very diplomatic but reasoned with your mate behind the scenes, if and when your opinion is solicited. Don't let your mate invoke you as a surrogate opinionator because he doesn't want to be the bad guy. I would -- as with any new friends -- define clear boundaries that are appropriate to the time spent together and level of intimacy achieved, and respect theirs. Keep cool.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:32 AM on January 12, 2012

Also, tactically-speaking for your relationship with the child ... Play cards. Take an interest in kid's pets/television show/gadget of choice. Bring home unsanctioned treats every now and then (milkshakes for all is a TREMENDOUS leveler). Throw a secret eye-roll when Dad is being dad-ish or cute or goofy. Demonstrate comfortable body language in the presence of mother. Cooking is also a wonderful, easy platform to relationship-build ... teeing up the new-family meals you can become famous for!
posted by thinkpiece at 6:45 AM on January 12, 2012

the ex-wife has been polite (to me, at any rate) but is somewhat spendy and money-obsessed;

Well at only 8 months in it appears there are already some negative feelings toward the child's mother, which you need to deal with sooner rather than later. And that's how you should think of her --- she's the child's mother. Doesn't matter if she's his ex. Along with your boyfriend she is the most important person in the world to a child. If you've got resentments about her already, then I strongly advise you do not move in with the child's father because those resentments will increase, and you will not be able to hide them from the child. And that is not fair to the child.

It is none of your business whatsoever how the child's mother spends her money.

The most important thing that you (and both parents) need to know and abide by is the child's needs come first.
posted by headnsouth at 6:47 AM on January 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

You are not another parent. The child has two active parents.

Strongly disagree. As someone who will be living with the child on the day to day basis, the OP most definitely will be parenting. Any sign that her SO or the biological mom doesn't consider her an active parent in the child's life should be taken as warning of difficult times ahead.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:53 AM on January 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

Does the kid live primarily with mom? How much time does kid spend with dad? Whether the child is only there a couple of weekends a month or is there half-time be sure you give kid and dad time alone without you. This may sound obvious, but make sure the child's bedroom doesn't get used for other purposes when child is not there.

You will, gradually, become another parent. Take it slow.
posted by mareli at 7:15 AM on January 12, 2012

the big lesson i learned from my last relationship which was a man who had two younger children was learning how he prioritizes his relationships. my last boyfriend (whom i had been friends with in h.s. and reconnected with at our 20th h.s. reunion) told me from almost the beginning i was the love of his life and he wanted to marry me. things were amazing with us except the one thing we fought about was his inability to prioritize our relationship. we were long distance so phone dates were important to me. yet he would routinely break those phone dates for ridiculous things like: a friend would ask him if he could help hang pictures or that same friend would ask if he would fix his washer or dryer or set up his computer. during christmas that year, he was spending a week with his kids and his parents and brother and brother's family. he promised to call for a phone date. he didn't. when i did, we spoke for five minutes before he had to get off the phone to be with "his family". my bf was unemployed at the time so it would seem logical that he would just make arrangements at another time to do those things rather than breaking out dates. he had plenty of time bc he and his ex also had a nanny for the kids. but he didn't. he would also constantly state how "his family" came first but then, despite the fact that i was going to be his wife (we were even looking at engagement rings), i somehow wasn't included in that "family."

the last straw came when i flew down to visit him for a week. we spent nearly the entire week with his kids and he had promised me the last day i would be there as a day just for ourselves. but that morning, the instant his ex-wife texted him that his son's baseball game got moved to that afternoon, his first statement was, "well, i guess we won't be hanging out by ourselves today." when i reminded him of his promise, he texted his wife to say he wasn't coming. but then his son called to say he lost his retainer in a trashcan at the park—and despite the fact that it was his wife's day with the kids, my bf felt the need to go look for the retainer with his son because his wife wouldn't do it. he told me he'd be right back after they found it. instead, he disappeared, ignored my calls, and left me in the house all day. when he finally returned in the evening, he told me he brought his son to the game and couldn't leave. and didn't apologize. i wasn't going to be seeing him for another five weeks—five weeks in which he could have gone to every one of his son's baseball games. we got into a big fight that ended in him actually locking me out of the house in a town 1000 miles from my house. i suddenly saw a future in which i would come dead last behind every little thing with his kids, with his friend, and with his family" (i.e. his mom, dad, and brother)—and i would get to fill in the time he had left over. i left the next morning and he still doesn't understand why i would be "so angry."

there's more back story but the gist of it was that this was the last straw for me. this was a man who placed a baseball game above our relationship. he claims that his "kids come first" but this wasn't about his kids. i loved his kids. they loved me. i made room in my life for them. this wasn't some emergency that he had to attend with his kids. this wasn't me asking him to choose between his son or me. this was me saying, hey we won't see each other for another five weeks; can you please skip this one baseball game so we can finally have some alone time together? but he doesn't get it. he wants to use those kids as an excuse not to work on our relationship so he insists it's about the kids—bc who's going to argue against kids? he doesn't understand that priority is fluid. sometimes your kids will come first (and if it's an emergency, of course they do), sometimes your relationship comes first, sometimes your job comes first. you make one of those the end-all be-all priority and you won't be able to successfully have the others.

so make sure he has priorities with regard to the kids, you, and your relationships worked out in a way that is acceptable to you.
posted by violetk at 10:25 AM on January 12, 2012

So, sorry to be Cassandra here, but I would say the thing to keep in mind is that these relationships often fail even if the match between the partners is great. Any decent parent has their child's interests as their first priority, above their romantic involvements', and those interests often conflict. You will always come second unless your partner is a bad parent. It's very hard.

I just saw a good friend of mine - who had entered her marriage to a guy with a kid with every hope and principle and ideal correctly in place - get a divorce and be hugely relieved to be rid of the burden of dealing with the kid.

They don't always fail, of course; but be aware that the omnipresent challenges of a cohabiting relationship are much, much more complicated than with a partner who isn't already a parent.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:32 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Any decent parent has their child's interests as their first priority, above their romantic involvements'...

I would caution the OP not to be believe that. Yes, children are incredibly important, but so is the parent's life, time and emotional health. You don't want to be partnered with someone who completely lives for their child, it's not a healthy choice. Much as you one wouldn't want to marry someone with no outside life, one wouldn't want to be married to someone who's life revolves around the offspring.

Kids are good and fun and important, but you can not sacrifice your own relationships on that altar.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:37 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

amen, brandon blatcher.
posted by violetk at 10:44 AM on January 12, 2012

That's true. What I meant was that when the child's interests and the romantic partner's conflict, it is a crummy parent who will put his girlfriend's needs over his child's.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:10 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't want to be partnered with someone who completely lives for their child, it's not a healthy choice.

Making your child's well-being your absolute top priority is not the same thing as being a parent who "lives for your child." Those parents are doing it wrong for sure, and far too many children are forced to fulfill their parents' emotional needs because the parent focuses solely on the child.

But parents who don't put their children's interests/well-being/needs* above their own are not good parents.

*Needs are not the same as wants/preferences/desires.
posted by headnsouth at 11:51 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

> You are not another parent. The child has two active parents.

Strongly disagree. As someone who will be living with the child on the day to day basis, the OP most definitely will be parenting. Any sign that her SO or the biological mom doesn't consider her an active parent in the child's life should be taken as warning of difficult times ahead.

Brandon Blatcher, I think "caregiver" or "adult guardian" would perhaps be a better phrase. Many divorced parents would chafe visibly at the suggestion that, just because Sandy is moving in with Bob, Sandy is suddenly and automatically a parent to the little Boblets. Both Bob and his ex-wife (the other parent) might object.

Would an uncle become a father, if he moved in? Nope (although, according to your claim, he would).

Would he share in responsibilities for safeguarding the children? Yes. Big difference.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:58 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Am a step, have been a step)

I'm quite proud of the relationship I have built with my step-kids, even when they are turds now, even as I envision them being complete turds to me in the future. I also have some long term relationships involving a SO's kids and me being responsible for their care and day to day happiness. I felt I was moderately successful in those situations.

What I wish I would have known as I was just starting out:

It's never easy, but it's easier if you don't see it as any kind of competition, whatsoever.

It is a whole 'nother ball of wax. It is a different animal. It is socks and bologna.

The money thing....BIG SIGH...It is just an exercise in futility (and damaging overall) to focus on how the ex spends the money. Even if you are completely right, it won't matter. In the end of that argument, you will come off looking petty, the ex still won't spend their money differently, kid will be told that you are the cause of the money problems in the ex's household...just not fucking worth it, trust me. That is part of the deal, kind of. You spend the money like this, the ex spends it like this. You think you could do better, they frankly don't give a shit what you think.

It's hard, it's mostly thankless. It's rewarding when YOU the ADULT make it and allow it to be rewarding. You have to drop your ego, and make it about raising a great kid all the way to adulthood, hopefully picking up some of your better traits.

Mind my business! Seriously. When things get annoying (and they will) take that time you need to just go do your own thing, and let the kid have their mom/dad time. The kid wants and needs time with their parent without you around. You don't always have to be there. Go do something you've been neglecting to do, take a bubble bath, go visit your grandma, whatever. The kids will be ready to see the fun, relaxed side of you by then. (This strategy has worked for me more times than I can count. They are sick of Dad by the time I get back, and are ready to have some bonding time with me, win/win)

If you have a polite relationship with the Mom, keep it that way.

Don't get all discipline-y. Enforce the rules you need to already have in place. Even better, to have their actual parent do the correcting, if possible.

It's best to know in your heart, up front, that you will have to eat shit many a time in the step-parent role. Can you handle that?
posted by Grlnxtdr at 1:01 PM on January 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Many divorced parents would chafe visibly at the suggestion that, just because Sandy is moving in with Bob, Sandy is suddenly and automatically a parent to the little Boblets.

The OP said marriage is in the cards. This isn't just moving in, this is a life long commitment. She's going to be parent to his kid, which can work out just fine.

But parents who don't put their children's interests/well-being/needs* above their own are not good parents.

There's a fine line and grey area here. Having a parent work 3 jobs that hate just to send the kid to the most expensive school in the county when there's cheaper school that's good or fine public school can be detrimental to the individual which affects the spouse, which affects the child.

One of the most important lessons that I learned from my wife after her and her child from a previous marriage moved in is that the parent-child relationship is finite in a way. At some point, kids are supposed to 'break your heart' and move away, to begin their own life. However, the relationship between the parents themselves is til death do us part. You cannot neglect that relationship, nor consistently put it on the back burner, because when that child is gone, then what relationship do the parents have left?

It see this less as an either/or and more of a "what solution is best for everyone, not just the child?" A happy individual increases the chances for a happy couple which can make for a great upbringing.

I think that's the main point I'm trying to get across to the OP, that child model their behavior and outlook from their parents, be it the biological ones, adopted ones or those that marry into the family. You want to continue to have some sort of life and interests for yourself, because it teaches the child to also care for themselves. Yes, a lot of time and energy will be devoted to the child. When we only had one car, quite frankly the nine year kid determined our schedule 90% of the time, based on what they needed or even wanted. That's totally ok and normal and as it should be. But sometimes we'd have skip school events to do something mom or I wanted to do, 'cause hey, a life that revolves around a kid is pretty soul draining.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:05 PM on January 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thank you, everyone. To clarify, the child lives in another city and thus far we only see him once a month, but it is expected this will increase as he gets older. And he is still in diapers. He will literally never remember a life where Mom and Dad were together.

From my own POV as an adult child of divorce, the things that did hurt me were not so much the mere fact of the situation so much as how the adults handled it. For instance, my father lived in a different city. That alone was not hurtful to me. What *was* hurtful were his specific actions or lack of, such a saying he would call and not calling, saving he would visit and not visiting etc. I have been able to give my SO some perspective on this that I think has been helpful. But it is not an 'I live for the child' kind of situation because right now, he doesn't see the child all that much :)

I get, too, that my SO will have some financial obligations here. I work too and between my salary and his albeit reduced one, we will be comfortable. But I admit I am a little scared about the lawyer bills. I am just picturing a scenario where the ink is dry and they have an agreement but she keeps taking him back to court for little thing after little thing and we'll never be able to plan for what we're spending or not, and we're racking up legal bills we have no control over. I think that will be hard. But I am hoping that as the situation stops being so new for everyone, emotions will settle down a little and both of them really will try and work together for what's best for the kid. I have been in this kid's exact shoes as a child (and he might relate to me down the road better because of that) and one thing I do know for sure is that the kid never, ever is better off when the grown-ups make it about them instead of about him.
posted by JoannaC at 5:30 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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