My boyfriend's ex-wife takes advantage of him. He lets her. It is making me unhappy. Halp!
November 10, 2012 2:25 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend won't/can't stand up to his ex-wife and it's crazy-making. Help me to put this in perspective!

I've been dating my boyfriend for a year and a half. He has so many great qualities I've always looked for in a partner (generous, kind, dependable, smart, etc.), but there is a huge thorn in my side about the way he chooses to deal with his ex-wife.

The background:

He and his ex have been separated for 3 1/2 years and the divorce was final last month. It was not a contentious divorce at all, it was just that his ex always had an excuse as to why she didn't yet hire an attorney/get her paperwork together. He wanted to file for divorce jointly but after waiting nearly 2 years for her to get her act together he decided to file.

Meanwhile I enter the picture and slowly have started to realize that the way the two of them handle their negotiations drives me bananas. They have two children, ages 9 and 12, and they share custody of the kids alternating every other week. He's a great father and really the primary caretaker for his children. She's a teacher and has to be at school early so on the weeks that my boyfriend doesn't have the kids they still get dropped off at his place in the mornings so he can get them to school. I don't consider this unreasonable at all, I mention it only because she often asks for extra help and expects that he will do it. And often he does do it because he'd rather avoid confronting her about boundaries.

Recent examples:

-His son has an autism spectrum disorder (recent diagnosis) for which he attends a group once a week for an hour and a half. She balked at this because the group would require that she travel 20 minutes by car to a location she's never been to before. There have been 6 sessions so far, and out of the three that she was responsible for transporting their son she has managed to take him to 1 session. Today she said he had walked home from school and felt too cold and sniffly to go. The previous week she had an emergency where she had to take her kitten to the vet so she called my bf and asked him to take their son, which he did.

These types of situations occur over and over. She forgets that she has a professional development day at school and calls my bf at the last minute asking if he can take the day off to care for the kids. He used to say yes but has finally started saying no to this.

When the kids had swim lessons on Saturday mornings she would miss the sessions about half the time because either the kids said they didn't want to go and she gave in, or she was just too tired to drive there herself.

When their son had therapy sessions she failed to take him there about 1/3rd of the time, usually because their son didn't want to go and she caved instead of dealing with her child's emotional outburst.

She teaches in a different school district than the one the kids attend, and if she has a day off she will still drop the kids at the bf's house in the morning instead of taking them to school herself.

She took forever to get her remaining belongings out of what was once their shared home. It was supposed to be out by September 1st and finally she set a date to move it out, conveniently forgot, set a 2nd date and still didn't get all of her stuff, and now her remaining boxes have been sitting on the porch waiting for her to come get them.

When there's something she wants to do she'll move mountains to do it. Example - she loves singing and music and recently signed their daughter up for guitar lessons. Since this is important to her (his ex), she has agreed to transport the daughter to and from the lessons each week. It has been 4 months and she hasn't missed a lesson yet.

My problem with all of this is that my bf does not stand up to her or set clear boundaries. He's overly accommodating and allows her to take advantage of him. I have expressed my frustration with this situation over and over to him and I'll concede that he has gotten better but it is still going on far too much for my liking.

Every time I ask him why he didn't confront her he'll say that he didn't want an argument in front of the kids, or "she just shuts down if I confront her." To date they have never had an argument in front of the kids. They get along fine, and maybe this is what he's trying so hard to maintain? But I feel like this has taken such a toll on our relationship. I am tired of her relying on him. He is always her back up plan and I feel like he's going to continue to be her back up plan if he doesn't speak up. I understand that they are raising two children together, but her behavior goes beyond this.

I am in no way jealous of her. Not at all. But I can't fully comprehend what my bf is so afraid of. And I feel hurt and angry that I keep telling him how all of this makes me feel and he just keeps on giving in to her. It has driven a wedge between us and I fear that I can't get our relationship back to a better place.

Can someone help me put this in perspective? Am I being unrealistic in expecting that he refuses to accommodate her so much? Am I misinterpreting something here? I don't have children of my own so I wonder if I would be doing the same thing if I were in his situation.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
They are coparents, and have been doing it got 12 years, probably the same way. Back off.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:30 PM on November 10, 2012 [28 favorites]

Your boyfriend had children with this woman. She will be part of his life until the youngest is 18, and possibly even after that. Of course he's her backup plan: they are raising children together. Frankly, his relationship with her is none of your business. So what if she lets her son skip therapy sessions? It's none of your business.

It seems like you really despise your boyfriend's ex. But she's not going anywhere. Can you live with that or not?
posted by baby beluga at 2:33 PM on November 10, 2012 [16 favorites]

A child with autism can be incredibly difficult to deal with, sometimes over issues like an odd change in routine (such as not getting dropped at dad's house one morning just because mom has the day off). Your description sounds to me like part of this may be about accommodating the son's autism.

Also, the single parent thing tends to be tough, even without a child with autism. You might find that rocking the boat on this issue results in far worse things. I would let them continue to not fight in front of their kids.
posted by Michele in California at 2:40 PM on November 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

You really don't have any standing in these affairs. This is who he is, and he isn't here asking for help, he's comfortable with the situation.

And, yes, because you don't have children it is difficult for you to understand his willingness to support both his children and, in some manners, the mother of his children.
posted by HuronBob at 2:41 PM on November 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Before this thread goes to the realm of accusing me of hating his ex, I want to clarify something:

I care about this because my boyfriend complains about her taking advantage of him or failing to follow through with their agreements regarding the kids. And then he doesn't confront her and the behavior repeats itself. I am frustrated with HIS inability to either 1. Have a productive conversation with her and 2. Stop caving in to her requests.

I accept that he is her back-up plan, but she uses him to bail her out whenever she doesn't/can't deal with the kids' behavior.

I want to know how to deal with this in our relationship. I care that she doesn't take the kid to his important appointments because they are important and because I care about their kid.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 2:51 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In that case, a better question would be how to deal with your frustration. Do you otherwise get easily irritated with people and situations, or is this an exception?
posted by halogen at 2:53 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering how he responds when you bring up the matter. It sounds like he agrees with you that he is being taken advantage of, but yet he still goes along with her requests? That would be a problem for me, too, just because I want to date someone who can stand up for themselves, or who can at least be honest that the situation is not a problem for them and they don't feel the need to change it. I guess maybe he needs to get some assertiveness therapy or something. I don't think you can force him to stand up for himself. You can gently encourage him when you see it happening, if that's your deal.

You're in a rough spot, because you're in a position where you are close to the kids and the family but you're expected to be pretty much "hands off."
posted by amodelcitizen at 2:54 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

She's wrong, you're right, and there's nothing you can do about it.

He divorced her for a reason, maybe this is it. Maybe she's taking out her issues on the kids.

But if you try to force the issue it's going to make it a lot worse, either by escalating the conflict up between your boyfriend and his ex wife or by making her even worse at performing her obligations. If you try to force him to step up to his ex-wife she's going to correctly see your machinations behind this, because she's been walking all over him since day one and you're back to square one.

Bottom line, people are shitty, and there's not always a lot we can do about it.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:55 PM on November 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

It sounds more like you're more ticked at HER than at him. The thing is--her behavior is unlikely to change, no matter what he does. If she were going to behave differently she would have done so when they were married. His pushing back will likely result in some kind of conflict, which he clearly wants to avoid.

Let's say the childcare is supposed to be 50/50 but is actually more like 80/20. That extra 30% of work is probably WORTH IT to him to avoid conflict. Having a relatively conflict-free relationship with your ex when you have kids is a HUGE accomplishment, one he should be lauded for--even if it means he is giving more than he should, or even if it means he's being walked on. Pushing back on the extra work likely would mean increased conflict, which in his mind is probably just too high a price to pay.

I understand you want to have clear boundaries and for HER to have back-up plans on the days she's responsible for the kids. But, it sounds like they have high-needs kids and this system is working for them, even if it's "unfair"--and the only person this ISN'T working for is you. Which sucks for you, and you obviously have to decide whether this is a family you want to be a part of--but you shouldn't try to alter how they divide responsibilities and raise their kids.
posted by Ollie at 2:57 PM on November 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Or maybe you can say, "I get frustrated talking about this with you, because I feel like it's a constant problem and I get upset to see you so unhappy. But to me, the solution is simple, you just need to sit down and talk with Mary about x, y, and z. So I guess I would rather not hear about these issues until you do something like that."
posted by amodelcitizen at 2:57 PM on November 10, 2012 [20 favorites]

It sounds like the kids are pretty busy, which keeps Mom and Dad pretty busy. Autism appointments, therapy sessions, swimming lessons- is that it or is there more? Are there any non-necessary stuff the kids do that could be taken off the schedule? Obviously healthcare is must-do, but could swim lessons and stuff like that be postponed until the kids are older?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:57 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I accept that he is her back-up plan, but she uses him to bail her out whenever she doesn't/can't deal with the kids' behavior.

So your boyfriend is agreeing to remove his children from an environment where their primary caretaker can't care for them. Nobody has to take a test to be a parent. There's no certification.Nothing prevents people who oughtn't have kids from having kids. He knows her better than you do, and standing up to her and saying "no you're staying with the kids" just leaves the kids with a shitty caretaker.

He will never pick your relationship over his kids' wellbeing and you know that. He also can't control what his ex does, and she is the root of this problem. You are so far removed from being able to do anything about it, that the only thing you can do is control your reaction to this dynamic which comes part and parcel with this relationship.
posted by griphus at 2:57 PM on November 10, 2012 [19 favorites]

They are co-parents. You are dating a father. He's not going too far for his children, because that isn't really possible. If their mother can't manage something, it is *his job* to fill in, he's not being a back-up plan.

This is the difficulty in dating a single parent, unfortunately. The children will, or at least should, always come first. Your boyfriend is actually maintaining an active, engaged role in his kids' lives, unlike many who act like taking their kids on the odd weekend earns them a cookie.

If he does feel he's being taken advantage of, then yes, he needs to work it out with her, but there's nothing you can do really to help him with that, he has to figure it out on his own. In fact, I think involving yourself in this could be worse for you, because then you become the convenient scapegoat when he does begin to push back on her requests.

Have they considered joint therapy or family therapy to figure out how to navigate this? If I were you, suggesting that would be as far as I'd probably go. Other than that, you have to figure out if you can continue to be romantic partner to someone who has two pre-adolescent children to care for, because there are many more years of this to come.

Good luck.
posted by OompaLoompa at 2:57 PM on November 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

The thing is, if he doesn't bail her out, it' not (only) her who will have to deal with the consequences, it's his kids who will. They'll be missing out on lessOns etc.

That's what would make it hard for me to take a stand.

He can't change her. Flaky people remain flaky, no matter how you adress them. What can he do?

I do get why it's utterly frustrating for you to have a partner you can't depend on because he's constantly dropping everything to bail out his kids. But that's the situation he's in and I can't see much changing. It may be a deal breaker for you.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:00 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

All this aside about him being the father and the kids coming first, which I assume you understand, I really think you DO have a right not to hear about these dynamics that you can do nothing to control. If he's complaining to you constantly about a situation he can change by just having a conversation, then just tell him you don't want to be involved because it's making you crazy. I really think that's a good solution.
posted by amodelcitizen at 3:02 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just saw your update. Yes, if he's complaining to you and it's driving you crazy, it's totally reasonable to say, "look, either have a difficult conversation with her and try to change the dynamic, or don't complain to me any more." That said--no matter what, there are going to be days when you and your bf have plans, and the ex can't take care of of the kids for whatever reason, and your plans are going to be canceled because of her. That will indeed suck, it's part and parcel of dating someone with kids.
posted by Ollie at 3:07 PM on November 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

--Ask him not to complain to you anymore as it obviously stresses you.

--Realize that he's not doing her a favor, he's parenting his children and that it is a BLESSING to get to spend time with his children so frequently and know where they are when they're not with their other parent. If my partner didn't think he could care for our children, felt like he was losing it, or felt like he couldn't deal, I would WANT him to give me our child, at 4am, at 9am, at midnight. Would it suck, as a situation? Yes, don't get me wrong, it sucks to have surprise childcare or to have to pick up slack with appointments, but the fact that he's involved enough to do that is AWESOME and trying to limit it...not so awesome.

--This is likely a dynamic that wrecked their marriage. Not sure how you are going to fix it if they couldn't fix it. Manage your expectations.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:10 PM on November 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

What you're seeing here is probably the dynamic which led to the end of their marriage. She is maybe a little less than self-sufficient and he is willing to bend over backwards. Couples who have a child with autism have a higher risk of divorce than couples without. The reason: kids are high needs without special needs. Those with special needs can really take it out on the parents. When other kids are becoming more self-sufficient with age, in some ways these kids become even more needy.

They've also been apart for less time than they were together. Single parenting is tough under the best of circumstances. If she needs him to help with the kids then the kids need him. I don't doubt that after wrangling a classroom full of children that the wife coming home to deal with her own children (and one with higher needs) is having a hard time. It probably would have been best for those kids if these parents had made it work, but they didn't. So, they need to make this other thing work.

You have a very unenviable position. But, don't let yourself become the emotional dumping ground for their rough relationship. That's not fair to you.
posted by amanda at 3:12 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It might be that your boyfriend knows that this very frustrating situation is actually the best for the kids and/or that changing the way things are is just more trouble than it's worth.

Perhaps he's just venting his frustrations when he talks to you and simply needs to hear that you understand—nothing more.

I know that this isn't a good solution for you, but it might be best for him and the kids.
posted by she's not there at 3:13 PM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, it seems like you want her to hire a babysitter instead of having the kids' father watch them when she cannot because she has to work. I am not sure that this is "standing up to her" so much as it is "making her life difficult (and the kids' life harder) to prove that he doesn't have to do as she says" which just seems a bit like a petty power play when kids are involved.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:23 PM on November 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

Agree with above commenters -- that it's up to your BF to deal with his ex. The only thing you can do is manage/limit the amount of complaining he does with you. It's super frustrating to hear complaining from someone, particularly if nothing ever changes, I get it. But you can only manage your own relationship. I would try putting time limits on the complaining/venting. If it's still too much, then the rule should be no complaining/venting about the ex -- your BF should take it to his individual therapist, to his ex, or to a family counselor.

Also -- it sounds as though your BF's ex is frequently overwhelmed. And from the description, with good reason. Classroom teacher -- overwhelming! Single parent -- overwhelming! Child with disabilities -- overwhelming! The sins listed -- missing lessons, taking a long time to move stuff, making the time to do something fun -- are just so ... minor in the scheme of things. The one thing that sounds bad is missing the son's therapy sessions, as those are medically necessary. Maybe your BF should focus on that one.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 3:25 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"This sounds really tough for you. Let me know if you need my help" and if you're cool with hearing him vent, "You can always vent to me about this."

I really want to encourage you, in general, not to try to solve the problems he has with other people. It is so important to be able to separate this stuff.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:43 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of good stuff here, so let me just say that having done a seven year stint in the same position as your BF it is tough to get out. Part of the power dynamic in their failed marriage was leveraging his good intentions and habits toward the children to get him to take additional responsibility and make a bigger commitment than just half. It is tough to break out of that, especially since guilt plays in when not stepping up is somehow made to contribute to the kids suffering.

His kids are little, I have a bunch of teens and while they were little I did not pull out, and to be honest it did impact my ability to move forward in relationships because of the continuous entanglement. I hate to say it, but it is likely to be your problem as long as you stay in the relationship. When my kids got old enough to know that I might say no and leave their mother "in a lurch" it was more about her disorganization and not my love. It might be a while for him to get to that point, you might just be caught in a tragedy of timing.
posted by cgk at 3:49 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

You are getting the ex-wife's story/excuses/failures/successes filtered through the prism of your boyfriend's history and relationship with her. Examples just from your first few sentences:

- his ex always had an excuse as to why she didn't yet hire an attorney/get her paperwork together. (he blames her for his inaction)
- she often asks for extra help and expects that he will do it. (not unreasonable as he does do it)
- And often he does do it because he'd rather avoid confronting her about boundaries. (not her fault that he's avoidant)

You describe a relationship where your boyfriend takes action only on his ex's request/prodding/leadership, not on his own initiative. Whether that relationship started out that way or developed over time, it's a hardwired dynamic between them at this point, and it appears to result in some stability and benefit for their children.

In addition, you describe a relationship where your boyfriend is not taking any action on his own initiative to change what he says bothers him ... and you're taking on the role of requesting/prodding/leading in order to get him to do what you want him to do. Recognize anything? Is that the relationship you want? Because this guy is *always* going to let someone else (his ex, now you) do the heavy lifting, and things that cause conflict or are difficult are *always* going to be somebody else's (there will come a time when it's yours) fault.
posted by headnsouth at 4:03 PM on November 10, 2012 [19 favorites]

I thought of a third option -- get involved. Only do this if you want to marry this guy and help co-parent his children. So, maybe the courts have decided that he is a 50-50 parent but the reality is 80-20. Help him pick up the slack. Go all in. Just a thought. If this sounds distasteful to you, then you might have to think about where you see you two going. It may be a "tragedy of timing" as elegantly stated above.
posted by amanda at 4:09 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I feel for you, OP. i would have trouble dealing with a flakey ex-wife with my partner if young kids were involved. But just to give you perspective, your partner's behaviour is a feature, not a bug.

I was married to a man who flaked on his kids and left almost all of the primary care to his ex. After a while i lost respect for him because, hey! kids need to know their father loves and cares for them. It was when i realised that i didn't want to have kids with my husband that we separated.

Like others have said above, your frustration is the only thing you have control over. It's a tough position but a) if you have kids with him you'll be confident that he will be a good father, and b) both of you being there for his kids will prove a great benefit in the future.

If you can find a way to let go of the angst (by asking not to hear about his complaints, by developing a mantra, or whatever works for you), then your relationships with him, the ex and the kids will be the better for it.

Good luck. You have my sympathies.
posted by the fish at 4:13 PM on November 10, 2012

You said: He was separated 3.5 years and didn't file for divorce until two years had gone by. And you have been dating him 1.5 years. If those figures are accurate, it looks to me like you may be the reason he finally filed the paperwork. Before that, he was content to wait.

So I am kind of wondering if his complaints to you about her are really an attempt to convey the fact that he doesn't have unilateral control here and can't just willy nilly do as he pleases. Even if he finally got off his duff and filed the paperwork because of you, he can't just do whatever he wants on all counts. He may be trying to nicely tell you to back off.

Childless adults seem to have trouble really understanding the realities involved once you are a parent. My own sister just did not Get It until she had a child of her own. And while going through my own divorce, I found that childless men simply didn't understand. I eventually concluded they weren't worth the hassle. No amount of explaining really got through to them. And my kids were not going to stop being a priority. I stopped spending time with men who just didn't get it.

This may get better with time, even if neither he nor his ex does anything different. As kids get older, they tend to become more independent. But with a child with a disability, that sometimes takes additional time.

You might want to read some of the AskMes where folks have recently had a baby and are pondering divorce, infidelity, etc because their relationship is suddenly so strained. Children are a big responsibility. They are a bigger commitment than most jobs, college, friends, hobbies, etc.

I get the impression you want to be his priority and you feel the problem is the ex wife. But it's not. It's that he has family obligations.

My experience: You can compete with a man's wife. You cannot compete with his kids (unless he is the kind of disloyal dirtbag I wouldn't want to sleep with). If you really want to keep him, it is probably not a good idea to try.
posted by Michele in California at 4:15 PM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think you're trying to take the practical, results-oriented approach while he is just venting.

For example, to take it out of an emotionally-charged situation and put it into something more minor: I will complain that my stomach is going to hurt right before tucking into a big bowl of tasty, spicy salsa. You say, "Well, don't eat salsa." And I just laugh because what is life without delicious salsa? I'm not looking for a solution, I'm just looking to go "Oh god this is going to suck."

I suspect he is doing what works and yes, she is kind of annoying, but he's got kids with special needs and they have to come first. Try listening and letting him vent rather than making it about you. Because I'm guessing he's not going to suddenly change these long-established habits and is likely to become more annoyed at you if you keep getting angry and resentful about them.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:23 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are in a relationship with what sounds to be a great dad. If they are not fighting in front of the children then that is wonderful. Don't mess with that. If he is spending time with you complaining about her then you need to ask him to stop it. Time with you is time with you. He should talk about his kids, he is a father, but not his ex, not ever, not to you. You need to set that boundary. You also need to back really far off. This isn't your fight. It isn't a fight at all. It sounds like they are both doing the best that they can. The benefit of co-parenting is that it is a partnership. She will stand strong where he is weak and he will stand strong where she is weak. Don't judge her when she is weak. Support him, be kind to his children, and find something else to talk about when you are with him. You are the one with boundary issues, not him.
posted by myselfasme at 4:37 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I hate to say it, but the situation you are describing is a really, really normal dynamic for divorced exes with children. And nothing you say or do is likely to change the situation for the better, other than incrementally. He has to be the one to recognize the problems, and that they are problems, and work to fix them.

I highly, highly suggest you join a private message board / online community for stepmothers and second wives (and SO's). It is very hard to get nonjudgmental advice when you're the girlfriend - or even the wife - of a man with kids from a prior marriage. The evil stepmother trope is too prevalent, and it's also too easy to miss the real needs of kids who are not your own because you are still viewing the relationship through the lens of a 2-person childless couple. A good community of women in the same boat (and there are some bad ones - feel free to memail me if you want some recommendations of what to look for and what to avoid) can help you see just how lucky or unlucky you have it right now, what worked for them, and how to carve out the space you need within the relationship so you can be more zen about the things you can't control. Because more than anything else, that's what you need right now and for the foreseeable future if you stay with this man. Because there will always be parenting situations you can do literally nothing about, and if you can't find a sane space to deal with them and get back to a good place, all you can do is make things worse - for all of you.
posted by Mchelly at 4:45 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

You need to back off.

Parents and parenting is not something that can be defined in equality. The things that make your boyfriend a good parent may be very different from the things that make his ex a good parent. Without knowing her daily routine when she has the kids, it really isn't fair to pass judgement.

My husband and I have different techniques in dealing with our son who has an ASD. My husband is better at dealing with the tantrums by far. I'm better at following a routine that avoids tantrums. Both of our skills are valid and useful but very different. And they're not equal or even all that comparable. It sucks she doesn't take him to those therapy appointments. If I were your boyfriend, I'd be on her about that like a shot. But that's if I were your boyfriend, not you.

How they parent together is between them. If your boyfriend is complaining to you, then you need to tell him that he needs to take his complaints up with her. And even though they are divorced, family therapy to negotiate some of the more difficult parts of coparenting could still be useful. But they'd both have to agree to it, and that might be a difficult sell.
posted by zizzle at 5:10 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

All I can say, having been in a similar situation (right down to the dropping off before school on her day off) is: taking the approach you suggest would probably backfire -- he's probably already tried it, and you're going to have to follow his lead on it. If he's a good person, and a good father, and you respect him -- swallow your frustration and follow his lead. Getting flak from you and managing conflict with her, when his kids are involved, at the same time can seriously break a man.

As much as people talk about "tough love" or "setting boundaries" it can really seriously become awful very fast.

Taking up the slack for her really is what's best for the kids, and rest assured that she will have exactly the relationships with the kids that she has coming to her, and so will he.

And constantly remind yourself that he's got you for backup. Having another adult in the house is immensely helpful -- and it doesn't sound like she has that. Be happy when she does -- because then it won't be your guy she calls when her car is plowed under the snow because she didn't check the plow schedule when she parked in the narrow back alley in a snow storm last night and she can't get the kid to school on the one morning it's possible for you and your guy to sleep in to the very decadent 7:00am.

I always used to say "my boyfriend is the best ex-husband ever" and now that I've married him, I can say that he makes an even better husband.

I know it doesn't feel like it, but the kids will grow up fast and your current relationship to his ex will end. It's temporary.

Be pleasant, and say nice things about the ex in front of the kids. (rage in your pillow)
posted by vitabellosi at 5:23 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

She's a shitty parent, He's a great parent.

Like many great parents he is sacrificing personal satisfaction (telling the B off) for the sake of his kids. Because seriously... it wouldn't help.

You are now part of that sacrifice. Which sucks.

But this is a 'warts and all' situation, the warts don't go away you just have to decide whether you can live with them.
posted by French Fry at 5:35 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I accept that he is her back-up plan, but she uses him to bail her out whenever she doesn't/can't deal with the kids' behavior.

OP, sorry if I'm piling on, but I think you need to take a step back and look at what you are saying here. When you are a parent, it is 100% of the time, not 50-50, even if that's your custody arrangement. If she were to become sick, or drop dead, your bf would have the kids ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. It's just part of being a parent. If she's flaky, I'm sure that's frustrating, but your husband has to pick up the slack. The other option is a nonoption: leaving the kids in the lurch.

It sounds like your bf is just venting. You have to deal with the fact you are dating a dad or move on.
posted by murfed13 at 5:45 PM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

He is putting his children first. He has the right to bitch about it if he likes. Maybe he should suck up and deal, and yes, he could put up boundaries but the losers would be the KIDS.

This is a good man. Back up and let him continue to be Awesome Dad. The kids are benefitting from him being Awesome Dad, and they won't forget it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:04 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suggest you discuss this in couple's therapy. If you feel this way about the venting and also about his behavior and also about her behavior, and you're having trouble dealing with him about it, bringing in a third party to moderate the conversation seems exactly the right thing.

I doubt it'd take more than four to six sessions.

It might even give him some tools for how to negotiate with her.
posted by SMPA at 6:51 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe reframe this, he isn't letting her taking advantage of him, he is doing the best he can for his kids, despite her. Instead of pulling against him, go with it, help him be the best dad and tell him what a great dad he is. If the kids are already that old, he only has 8-10 years left to deal with her regarding them, which, in a lifetime, isn't that long.
If you love him, maybe just helping him endure the next 10 years is the best you can do.
posted by southeastyetagain at 6:51 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have 2 kids and an ex and my BF has an ex and one kid, we both have issues with the others ex *and* how we deal with our exes. Here's how I handle it- he complains about his ex and how she is raising their daughter, I offer advice on how I would handle it or what I would want based on my ex. He generally doesn't listen, rinse, repeat. I can understand why this is the way it is because I have the exact same situation with my ex. I know exactly what will happen in every contentious situation with my ex before it happens because past behavior indicates future behavior. I over compensate for my ex all the time, and I always hid it from them until recently because that is the healthy right thing to do. Now that my kids are older they know what they can expect from me for and what they can expect from their dad. If he had the power to change his wife they would still be together- this is who she is and who he is and you will most likely not be able to change the situation at all.

My BF's ex is notorious for not preplanning for school vacation coverage for their daughter- even though she lives with the ex and my BF has little say in her schedule- and he is always expected to pick take time off to care for his daughter. After this happened a couple of times I helped my BF find an online service for childcare, and he found a sitter etc. I know this year, after 3 year of being with him, to remind him to have the summer camp convo with his ex early in order to make sure they have the proper coverage. These are the ways I help to have less craziness in our lives, but I leave trying to change her out of it.
posted by momochan at 7:04 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Every time I ask him why he didn't confront her he'll say that he didn't want an argument in front of the kids,

For which he deserves full marks, because this is the correct attitude.

or "she just shuts down if I confront her."

Do you have any reason to believe that this is untrue, or that his relationship with his ex would improve from the kids' point of view if he adopted a more confrontational stance?

To date they have never had an argument in front of the kids. They get along fine, and maybe this is what he's trying so hard to maintain?

No "maybe" about it. He's doing whatever it takes for his kids, and good on him.

But I feel like this has taken such a toll on our relationship.

His kids are his responsibility; as an adult, you are not. So if there is ever a conflict between his kids' needs and yours, the kids win. This is how it is with kids, and how it ought to be.

I am tired of her relying on him.

Your options at this point are learning to deal with it, or leaving. BF, kids and co-parenting ex are a package deal.

He is always her back up plan and I feel like he's going to continue to be her back up plan if he doesn't speak up.

The only productive thing that you can possibly do about this, given the constraints you and BF are both operating within, is to work on improving your relationship with his ex to the extent that the three of you can operate healthily as co-parents.

I understand that they are raising two children together, but her behavior goes beyond this.

Consider carefully the assumptions underlying that belief.

I am in no way jealous of her. Not at all.

You say that, and I have no reason to think you don't believe that. But the whole premise of this question is your desire to see him spend less time attending to her needs and more time attending to his own and to yours, and that is exactly jealousy.

Of course you feel jealous. Who on earth would not, in your position? So the healthy thing to do is acknowledge that, sit with it, examine it, and decide whether or not it's something that's worth putting up with for the sake of everything else that's excellent about this relationship.

But I can't fully comprehend what my bf is so afraid of.

Seems likely to me that he's afraid of the same thing that every decent parent is afraid of, which is that his mistakes have the potential to screw up his children's lives. He's probably afraid that you, wonderful as you are, might be one such mistake. He's probably afraid that your present refusal to accept his ex as she is will poison your relationship with his kids and poison his kids' attitude toward their mother. He's probably afraid that his auty kid is going to end up having a shitty life. He's probably afraid that he's done the wrong thing by his kids in putting his own emotional needs before theirs. Will those guesses do, for starters?

And I feel hurt and angry that I keep telling him how all of this makes me feel and he just keeps on giving in to her. It has driven a wedge between us and I fear that I can't get our relationship back to a better place.

Most people do indeed suck at taking good advice.

Can someone help me put this in perspective?

It's not all about you.
posted by flabdablet at 7:23 PM on November 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

In your shoes, I'd be extremely frustrated and irritated to watch all this going on. And you're wondering if the dynamic is going to continue as it is for years to come. I can appreciate how the difficulties may be affecting the mood in your household.

But really, it sounds like it doesn't affect you directly. You're not expected to be part of the ex-wife's back-up plan; you don't have to interact with her. Your boyfriend's not standing up to her is super irritating, but in itself it's not your problem.

BUT -- if your boyfriend's mood is affected, and that in turn has a bad affect on your relationship with him, that's a problem. The solution might not be for him to say no to his son's mother, though... you and your boyfriend would have to find ways to interact lovingly in spite of what the ex is doing.

Or if he wants you to step in a lot when the ex cancels or flakes -- you'd be well within your rights to say no. And I agree with comments above that you can ask him not to complain to you about things that keep happening, things he can't or won't influence.

It's still quite early in the game. I suggest that you and your man sit down and talk about how you can make your home and your relationship a healthy, supportive, and positive thing in both your lives. And after a while, it might work to say, "A therapist can help with ways to deal with a difficult person. I'd be happy to go and do that with you when you're ready."

Meanwhile, what is there about your boyfriend's actions that you admire? He doesn't lose his temper. He's patient in an infuriating situation. He really loves his boy and does everything he can to make things better for him. Tell your boyfriend that. You've got to point out the good things, even when a lot of things suck.

I really wish you well.
posted by wryly at 8:04 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're the adult. Kids come first. Sounds like the one thing the kids can rely on is that their dad will be there for them. That makes him an awesome guy, and you're the lucky gal that gets to date this awesome guy.

If you care for him, realize that it's a package deal, with the kids being the bonus. Unfortunately, they'll never be your kids, except for what you put into them. Your bf loves his kids and wants what's best for them. The more you get on-board with this, they happier all of you will be. Naturally, you don't have to, because they're not 'your' kids. But if you love this guy, then realize they are a part of him. The old saying about love me, love my dog goes a lot deeper when it's love me, love my kids.

The ex can't handle the transport to therapy, group, and swimming? This is important stuff, help your bf to do right by the kids, and know that you're an awesome gal for doing so. Try not to be bitter that his ex focuses on the music lessons. Music is important, too. No doubt his daughter is in a bit of a rough spot with her brother getting more attention because of his ASD. Help his daughter to have a better life by realizing that these music lessons will be good for her developmentally.

If the crap on the front porch bothers you, then have your bf throw a box or two in the car when he's schlepping the kids back and forth. Or do her (and yourself) a favor and haul it all over one afternoon. Then fergedaboudit.

It wouldn't hurt to do a couple counseling sessions with the bf if you think you're into this for the long haul. It might give you, and him both, some ideas on how to cope with this in ways to best help both the kids and the relationship.

Kids are a PITA. I know, I raised four. Two were toddlers from a previous marriage, adopted unconditionally by my second husband (of 30 years.) He's the only dad they've known, and he earned all the 'glory' the hard way.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:18 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came here initially to add the "kids come first" mantra, but it sounds like folks have that covered. So here's the second thought, which I think is actually important.

This guy sounds like someone who does not like conflict. I've encountered these types before. According to the timeline, it sounds like he was okay coasting waiting on the divorce to eventually come, until you came along and either you pushed or the situation pushed at him to get moving. His ex needs help, and it is conflict-free for him to help her - except that then you have a problem. So he complains to you about how she is taking advantage of him, so that you won't give him grief for helping her. Again, I have seen this play out for other people for years. This is a Known Quantity.

The things she's doing aren't that egregious. As a single parent, it is hard to get your kid to fifteen billion appointments. And it's hard to say why the divorce happened - she may be nursing more resentment than she shows. She made no move on the divorce, despite telling him she was going to? That says to me she had some hopes that things would work out. It's the same thing with not picking up her stuff. She may hope, especially if they're friendly, that you are just a phase he is going through and that he will come around. You say you don't hate her and aren't jealous, but it seems clear you dont' have a good relationship with her - it's totally possible she thinks you are what finally broke up their marriage.

I have expressed my frustration with this situation over and over to him and I'll concede that he has gotten better but it is still going on far too much for my liking.

This, to me, is really illuminating. It is not about his problem with her, even if you think it is. It is absolutely about your problem with her continual presence in his life, with his "not setting clear boundaries." It sounds less like he's not setting boundaries, and more like the boundaries he's setting aren't where you think they may be.

In order to come to terms with this, you need to ask yourself very frankly: what do you want? Do you want him to stop taking on more of the parenting burden? Or, perhaps, is it that you want him to stop acting like he's still her husband? I could see where this would be upsetting. If she still calls him up when she needs a hand, it would be reasonable to feel like he shouldn't be her on-call guy but yours. Unfortunately, the kids complicate things a lot - but even without them, I think this would be at least part of the problem.
posted by corb at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I will add that kids with special needs are frequently the product of parents with special needs. It could be that the ex wife simply can't get her act together enough to do things like pick up her boxes of stuff. It could also be that the bf has some mild issues and may not fully realize it or may be in denial. It could be some of both.

I have two ASD sons. My ex could not find things around the house. He was meticulously organized at work and infamous for it (but it was because he couldn't find anything if he wasn't meticulously organized). He could not pull that off both at work and at home. He routinely dumped that in my lap on the homefront and viewed himself in a very positive light, which was backed up by his career success. To this day, he seems to think he does not really have issues. He can't have more kids, so his life probably runs much smoother these days because our sons are with me and he has seen them exactly once since he moved out. He probably genuinely believes I was the problem. (Yes, I have a handicap, which makes it all too easy to blame me entirely and sweep his issues under the rug.)

I really like the suggestion someone else made to just take her stuff to her. If you are spending this much energy on this -- arguing it with the bf, posting long questions online, etc -- just taking care of it for her and then letting it go is probably less of a time sink and energy drain then leaving it there and continuing to stress. If either parent has some organizational issues, just darn well doing some of this for them will be vastly easier and quicker than getting them to do it. Some people just have difficulties. They aren't trying to be difficult. In such cases, arguing about it can be a complete waste of time, about as useful as yelling at a deaf person for not hearing you.
posted by Michele in California at 9:05 PM on November 10, 2012

It sounds like he is making decisions based on what he feels is best for his kids, and not what is best for his relationship with the ex. He may feel that if he were more confrontational, the kids would start to notice that things were not OK between the two of them, which would become an issue (especially as they become teenagers, and learn to use this to their advantage).

Honestly, if he is willing to put up with it, and it allows the kids to go through childhood without struggle between the two parents, it's probably better to be left alone.
posted by markblasco at 10:56 PM on November 10, 2012

I think you are right in theory, but wrong in practice. The practical side is that while he may be unhappy about it, he is willing to sacrifice, to go along to get along in the interests of the kids. When my kids all turn 18, I doubt I will ever talk to my ex again other than for things like my daughter 's wedding one day, but in the interim I will get along with her, I will make sure my kids know how much their mother cares about them, I will cover for her regardless of the reason and I will do whatever for my kids to have a happy stable environment. Besides, she really is a good mother. We all have flaws. I have get taken advantage of, but I pick my spots and occasionally find ways to get back without involving the kids.

But my best "revenge" is knowing that my kids know. Kids are really perceptive. Now that they are all teenagers they ask why I agree to another silly request, why I let her change things we already agreed upon, etc. My kids, and I suspect your bf' s kids, know and appreciate that I have sacrificed for them and would always be there for them. Now that they drive, they spend their free time with me, they stop by for lunch or to watch a game on tv. I have started to develop a life long relationship with my kids while my ex has more of an adversarial type relation.

Take the long view of your bf's relationship not with his ex, but with his kids.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:56 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful responses. Many of them really helped me to reframe it as him taking care of his kids rather than giving in to her. He is a great dad and the kids know it, I don't want to sour that relationship at all.

Some who were particularly helpful we're vitabellosi and Johnnygunn. Both hit it right on the nose. VB, this is her behavior to a T. "I don't have a stepladder, can you change the battery in my fire alarm"?

Headnsouth, you totally missed the mark. He is the one taking action and waiting for her to step up. As far as the divorce filing goes, he had a lawyer for a year and kept pushing her to get one so they could file jointly. It was after waiting for over a year that his lawyer suggested he serve her with papers and then they could change it to a joint filing later. Fwiw, the marriage dissolved after it was revealed she was having an affair for years with a man both my bf and their kids know. The affair still exists (as he is married), but the kids don't know about it. Considering these circumstances, my bf has managed to keep everything calm and cordial with their mom. And many are right, this speaks to his character.

Again, thanks very much for your perspective.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on November 11, 2012

In re. stepladder/fire alarm scenario in your follow-up: the kindest, best-for-the-kids thing to do there is to find a cheap ladder and pass it along to her. If that's a good example of her objectionable behaviour she is an overtaxed single parent, not a manipulative wretch.

If you lived next door to somebody in your partner's ex's shoes -- I bet you would have been pleased to send him around with a ladder, and maybe even pick up the next one you saw going cheap at a yard sale for her. If she is too busy (likely) or too broke (possible) or too stressed (likely) or not functioning at a high enough level (given pause here by the inability to drive 20 min to a new location) to deal with getting a stepladder, the correct response -- especially to the parent of a minor child -- is to offer aid, and if you must feel something, even pity would be preferable to this much disgust and irritation.

All sorts of community, financial, and social supports exist for parents that are not offered to non-parents. It's not always fair, but it is in general a good thing that societies have recognised the need to prop up parents simply for being parents, as letting children suffer is too great a price, no matter what one might think of the parent(s) in question...
posted by kmennie at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

OP- I think you see the situation for what it is and know your place in their parenting relationship (which is, pretty much not in it at all).

It's a hard position to be in because you are loyal to your bf and you want things to be fair for him and you want to make things easier for him.

One thing to remember in situations like this that suck and cannot really be changed is that sometimes it is better to have a cheerleader than a pitbull at your side.

Your bf is doing the best he can, which you recognize, and no amount of going to bat for him and trying to fix things with how the ex behaves is going to be worth it.
So be the cheerleader.
Let him vent to you and reassure him of what an awesome parenting job he is doing and agree with him when he says she sucks, but don't try to fix it or push him to fix it.
Get your mental pompoms on and practice your "GooooooOOO DAD!" cheer.
posted by rmless at 7:23 AM on November 13, 2012

She sounds like a bit of an asshole considering how she treated him. Your protectiveness of a man you love is admirable, but taken too far becomes a counterproductive desire to spite her at the expense of your relationship with him. Don't let her do that. Roll your eyes, be happy, support his parenting. Living well is the best revenge.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:47 AM on November 13, 2012

I feel your pain. Thanks for posting this because the responses helped me put my situation into perspective as well.
posted by p1nkdaisy at 1:46 AM on November 23, 2012

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