Discussing Boundaries with a Partner

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Reader’s Question

I have been in a 14-month relationship with a divorced dad of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. He and his ex-wife separated three years ago. She is still very bitter and angry about the split. She has primary custody, and he can visit and have the 5-year-old overnight on weekends.

Lately, he has admitted feeling guilty and confused about the separation, and it makes him sad that he broke the family unit. It put our relationship on the brink of collapse, but we are pulling through. He says he definitely wants to move on with his new life and put the past behind him, and be a good dad. I respect their ‘relationship’ because they have kids together.

But I am at my wits’ end regarding their interaction. They text each other daily — at least three or four times — to discuss the kids, so I can’t really complain about that. We went on holiday recently and I let him go ahead with his son so they could have a few days together before I joined. I found that the minute he arrived it was her he texted, together with pics, to say they had arrived. I was just left in the dark until I got in touch some hours later. I was further horrified to find a text on his phone in which he had invited her to come up to the holiday home for the day with the 3-year-old. She declined. This was a day before I was supposed to join him on holiday. She texts all the time — “tell our son I love him,” “give him a hug from me,” etc. — and insists on daily phone calls. I can’t bring up his asking her to join him for the day because I wasn’t supposed to see the text.

How do I launch into the boundaries talk without sounding pathetic and jealous? I’m ready to leave, but I want to know I tried first.

Psychologist’s Reply

There is a reason why second marriages have close to a 65% divorce rate: they’re tough! Not only do you have to deal with the usual challenge of adapting to your partner’s quirks (and he to yours), but you also have to incorporate the presence of an ex-partner and, very often, kids. That’s not easy to do, and surely it is worth a conversation or four that isn’t about being jealous or pathetic.

Such conversations are not going to be fun but, when they’re done calmly and with thought, they can be instructive and maybe even help save your relationship. One of the first things that should be asked of your partner is to what extent he sees his ex-wife being present in his life. Does he intend to interact with her daily or only when something important involving the kids needs to be discussed? Are they planning on being friends or just amicable co-parents? By asking these questions (calmly and without judgment), you can get a sense of where he is with the relationship with his ex-wife.

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Once you have a sense of where he is, it’s time to let him know where you are. But before you can do that, I recommend sitting down and really answering that question for yourself. Maybe you can even engage the ear of a good friend or family member to talk it through with you so that you have a solid idea of what you want and whether it is reasonable. Then, when you are talking with your partner, you can calmly tell him what your boundaries actually are. What kind of interaction with his ex-partner seems reasonable and doable to you? What kind of relationship do you want with his children and how would you make that happen? What behaviors from him are you willing to handle and what are your lines in the sand? Once he has heard your thoughts, maybe give him some time to think about them, and then talk again.

As you probably can tell from the many times I used the word ‘calmly’, the key to these conversations is to not allow emotions to lead them astray. Too many people do not take the time to consider whether what they want is being guided by logic, but instead just react in the moment. This tends to lead to arguments, so it’s best to try and stay focused on what you want to accomplish. The conversation may lead toward a breakup but, as you said, at least you will know that you tried. And practicing effective communication and healthy relationship skills is always useful, because if there needs to be a next time, then you will know what to do.

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