Have you ever been in a relationship (or known someone who has) where your partner has children from a previous relationship, and the ex — the children’s other parent — becomes a constant negative presence in your relationship?
Being in a relationship with the custodial parent of a broken family can present its set of challenges (whether or not you bring your own children to the relationship). When there’s an adversarial relationship between your partner and his or her ex, it’s not uncommon for the parental issues, legal issues, and emotions to spill into and impact your relationship.
Indeed, these types of frustrations and conflicts have caused relationships to break up. That being said, this result doesn’t always have to be the case.
While it would be nice to have a peaceful relationship where everybody gets along, it’s an unfortunate reality that this kind of relationship can take some mindful navigation, especially if you are living with the custodial parent (and therefore, with the children, too).
Here are some suggestions for handling a relationship where the conflict between your partner and his or her ex is spilling into your relationship:
1) Remove Yourself. Your partner’s issues with his or her ex are best left between them. If the ex sees that you are moving into a parental role with his or her children, which can include simply joining in the parenting conversations between them, the situation may turn adversarial and create strain in your relationship.
Your partner is the one who needs to navigate a relationship with the ex, but you don’t need to be involved in their process, unless it is asked and agreed that it would be beneficial to have you playing a sort of parental role (e.g. if you are committed long term, or involved as a step-parent).
2) Support Your Partner. It’s not an easy situation for your partner to have to raise children, work, and struggle emotionally and possibly legally with his or her ex, while attempting to have a healthy relationship with you at the same time . Being a positive support to your partner — listening, helping with the kids, etc. – can help your partner cope while strengthening your relationship.
3) Plan togetherness time. If your partner is overwhelmed with issues involving his or her ex, and you’re seeing your relationship sliding down the priority list, take the initiative to plan some meaningful time together — dates, dinners out, fun activities with your partner and maybe the children as well.
4) Don’t Parent the Children (if not the step-parent, or long-term domestic partner). It can be very tempting for some people to want to act as a pseudo-parent, especially if living with the children. Unless this has been agreed to all around (between you, your partner, partner’s ex, and the children), it’s generally best to refrain from playing a parental role. Otherwise, it opens the door for possible resentment from the children, a battle with the ex, and possibly even conflict with your partner.
Having your own unique relationship with the children will help establish boundaries and avoid confusion. It’s important for the children to know that you’re a safe and supportive person, but that they have their parents already in place. If the children turn to you as a parental figure, don’t be afraid to reinforce the boundaries of your role with them so the children understand.
5) Don’t Overlook Yourself. Being in a relationship with a parent has expected challenges. While it is necessary to understand that these challenges are part of the deal, it’s also still important that you’re fulfilled in your relationship. It’s good to be supportive, but you’re not signing up to be a caretaker to your partner’s frustrations with his or her ex. If you’re doing all the work, or if you’re not being fulfilled, this is an issue that needs to be addressed, even if the partner is having issues with the ex. Communicate with your partner about your relationship. Couples therapy may be helpful for this, as could separate individual therapy for each of you.
The high-conflict ex will do what they will do. You can only control how you handle your part of the relationship. While you can’t solve your partner’s issues with his or her ex, the more you understand your boundaries in the relationship, the better chance you have of successfully side-stepping any lasting impact of the high-conflict ex.