Complications When There are an Ex-Wife and Children

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Reader’s Question

I’m 21 and my boyfriend is 12 years older. The age difference isn’t the problem; he’s a great guy in lots of ways. He does, however, have two children from a previous marriage who live with him. His ex-wife is in the military and stationed overseas, but she’ll be moving back to this city in several months. Even now, she and my boyfriend Skype every few days. Before she left the country she had a month off, and naturally wanted to spend it with her kids. My boyfriend let her live in his house while she visited.

I’ve asked him several times how he feels about his ex-wife. He admits that he still loves her, explaining that “that’s what happens when you have kids with someone.” He also admits that she will always be a part of his life because of the kids, and that if he wouldn’t have met me, he’d probably be back with her. When I ask him why he doesn’t go back to her, if that’s what he wants and what is best for the kids, he gets angry and says that I don’t need to worry — he won’t leave me.

My question is whether I’m worried for no good reason. I haven’t been married and I don’t have children, so I don’t know whether my boyfriend’s feelings are normal.

Psychologist’s Reply

Statistically, there are many former partners who share parenting even though they no longer share a romantic relationship. Of course there is no one description that fits how most of those former couples get along, or feel about each other now. Still, it seems unusual to say that he would be back with his ex-wife had the two of you not met. Your description of the situation seems to imply that he was not the one to initiate the divorce. If that was the case, he may never have ‘gotten over’ his spouse, and may even idealize what they had or could have again. What may be stopping him from reuniting is simply the fact that his ex-wife is uninterested.

It is true that parents typically have to have some degree of relationship because of their shared parenting and interest in their children. Still, many former partners manage to do so while staying focused entirely on the children, keeping each other’s personal lives entirely private. Other former partners actively hate each other, despite needing to have contact for the sake of the children. So, there is no automatically warm feelings adults share entirely based on having children together. One important question is just how much your boyfriend shares with his ex-wife, and whether he looks to her for fulfillment of any of his emotional needs.

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Answers to these questions might help clarify what you’re worried about. If the worry is entirely over whether your boyfriend might break off his relationship with you in favor of resuming a relationship with his ex-wife, that may not be a possibility if she is not interested in doing so. However, if your concerns have to do with how invested your boyfriend is in your relationship, there seem to be signs that you might be second choice. So, perhaps your questions to him should focus on gaining clarification about his feelings for the two most important women in his life. Then it will be up to you as to whether you’re satisfied with where you fit into his romantic life.

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