Ex-etiquette: Him … and his kids

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Relationships in the pandemic. - Dreamstime/TNS

Q. I have recently moved in with a man who has three children. We plan to marry but have not set a date. Although I am 26, this is my first really serious relationship. I always want to feel like my partner’s first priority, but I question his loyalty to me. He’s constantly talking to his ex and will even cancel dates if his children call on him. This is frustrating to me. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. It’s funny, I get questions on the same subjects in waves, possibly because regular readers of this column read a question that reminds them of their own situation and then they choose to write me. Most recently I am getting questions like yours, which is basically a fear that the past relationship and the remnants of it — the children and ex — will take priority over you and your relationship.

To begin, we’re all brought up with a particular concept of what a good relationship looks like — and the concept of leaving home and “cleaving” to a spouse is one that is inbred in many of us even if we do not have a religious upbringing. This is easier to do when it is the first relationship. There is no history to manage, but when you’re in a relationship with someone with children all of a sudden the priorities are different, allegiances are in question, and the concept of putting your new spouse first all the time may be more difficult than first imagined.

But, is it not true that your wife, husband, or partner should come first?

It’s not that simple. Even though this is a first-time relationship for you, it’s not for him. You come to this from two diametrically different points of view. For you, everything is him and all you have is the future together. For him, he’s always weighing the priorities of past and present. When you’re in a serious relationship with someone with children, you must recognize that he or she will be constantly juggling allegiances. It’s better to acknowledge the struggle and work with your partner to deal with it than to place yourself in competition with the other people he or she loves.

In your case, he has an obligation that was put in motion before he met you. That is simply the way it is. If you love him, you get it all—his kids and if he’s co-parenting, an ex, are all part of the deal. It’s important that each of those relationships are clearly defined from the beginning, especially the primary relationship in the home, you two, so you both know where you stand, but also so the kids can see a positive relationship model. Up until now their only reference is chaos, and you have the opportunity to set the stage for a loving caring relationship structure or one of insecurity and competition.

He also must be careful. If the kids like how close their mom and dad remain, but then dad openly pulls back because you’re around, even if it’s the right thing to do from a relationship perspective, the kids will resent you, which will have a negative effect on your relationship with him. Much of “setting the stage” must be done behind the scenes. It’s a well-orchestrated dance and not an easy one at that.

Bottom line, help and you WILL be on equal footing. Demand or sulk and you will not. That’s good ex-etiquette.

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(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com

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©2020 Jann Blackstone