Sweetheart Attending Child-Related Activities with Her Ex

Reader’s Question

Hello and thank you for your assistance. I am divorced with 3 beautiful children, and my girlfriend is also divorced with 2 beautiful children. We have been seeing each other for over 10 months. I have know her for over 20 years and we have had several relationships in the past, however we were both too young. I have been living with her and her children when I do not have my kids for over 4 months. We have continually talked about marriage and taken everything slowly for the sake of all the children. All the children love both of us, they are very friendly with each other and we have gone on a couple vacations together with no incidents. Everything was going forward and looking up until Halloween.

My girlfriend was offered a chance to go Trick-or-Treating with her ex and her kids; it was her ex’s day to have them. I did not think it was a good idea for her to do this and set a precedent with the kids that she will always be able to go places with them and their dad (for example to movies, plays, etc.). I know I will not be their dad, but when I marry her I will treat them as they are my children, so as not to show favoritism or a lapse of love for them. They are all great kids and I love them so.

Now my girlfriend is having a hard time since she missed being with them on Halloween and feels guilty that she is being pulled away from the opportunity of being with her children. My ex and I, despite its being my day to have them, chose for the kids’ sake to share the evening; I took them T-or-T for a couple hours and then let my ex take them for a couple hours, but we did not do this together, for fear of hurting my girlfriend’s feelings.

Can you give me some advice on whether it is a good idea for my girlfriend to spend “extracurricular” time with her ex and her kids? What I mean by “extracurricular” is fun time, not school parent teacher meetings, doctor appointments, etc., but fun things like a trip to the movies, a play, etc. I am afraid that when we do get married and these extracurricular meetings with the ex continue, the kids will always ask that their mom and dad take them to things, rather than include me in on them — therefore leaving the step-dad feeling like an outsider and not bringing the new family together.

Psychologist’s Reply

Your relationship is encountering a common post-divorce transition. For many adults, a few years after a divorce a semi-normal relationship is often formed between ex-spouses, typically a working relationship to handle those situations you mentioned such as school meetings, physician/dental appointments, etc. At the same time those situations are becoming less stressful, the ex-spouses are forming new romantic relationships. The combination of events creates the situation you describe. As you correctly discuss, the new partner or step-parent is often placed in the outsider position while everyone else involved seems pleased with the situation — the ex’s are getting along and the kids enjoy the brief return of the “original family”.

Is there a problem with activities with the ex spouses? Yes and No! These “original family” activities can create and maintain reunification fantasies in the children, often prompting them to change their feelings and behavior toward the new partners. At the same time, however, such activities can be available in a very healthy manner. The key is a team approach involving you and your sweetheart. If you’re living together, in love, talking about marriage, and the kids love both of you — then approach all family activities as a team sport. It’s great to go Trick or Treating with her ex — as long as you come along and bring your children as well. You can even bring your new partner and her children to an activity with your ex. The key is operating with your new partner as a team — not individual adults who have separate relationships with each ex-spouse. In this manner, you represent your relationship as a “couple” that has five beautiful children. This seven-person newly formed family can go anywhere, with anyone, and do anything as a team.

This is a very common passage in the post-divorce reality. With the good relationship you describe, I’m sure she will be able to understand the need to operate as a couple/team. When we do this, it dramatically reduces insecurity, jealousy, feeling of rejection, etc. It also sends a clear message to the adults and the children that you and your sweetheart are a strong couple. When this approach works, it’s not uncommon for two complete families or couples to attend school events or other activities when they have one child in common.

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