CoParenting Community

My Boyfriend, His Kids, and His Ex - Part 2

“Why is my boyfriend friendly with his ex?”

 
In the first part of this series on co-parenting and dating, we considered the implications and challenges inherent in the question, “Why hasn’t my boyfriend introduced me to his kids yet?” This is one of several popular queries we receive on CoParenting101.org.  Though the question is gender-specific, our response is not.  In this next installment of the series, we consider another frequently asked pair of reader questions.
 
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“Why is my boyfriend friendly with his ex?”
 
“Why does my boyfriend still talk to his ex?”
 
When a new significant other asks questions like these, they are typically working from the perspective that the ex-couple isn’t acting “normal,” meaning they aren’t at each other’s throats the way our culture says exes are supposed to be… if they are truly over each other.  Beneath these questions may lie other questions, like - Does my partner’s ex still have feelings for him? Or, even more problematic - Does my partner still have feelings for his ex?
 
Of course, there are times when an ex-couple is still emotionally entangled and one or more parties has unresolved romantic feelings, but most co-parents who are friendly or in regular communication with each other do so strictly or primarily because they are raising kids together.  Again, our cultural presumption is that exes aren’t supposed to get along; at the very least, they’re expected to maintain a Cold War-level of tension.  So it’s hard for some people to imagine that two parents might actually make the effort to minimize conflict for no other reason than it’s what’s best for their kids.  One frustrated woman emailed us to say that she didn’t like the civility between her boyfriend and his children’s mother because, “My parents were divorced and hated each other, and I turned out just fine. That’s the way it’s supposed to be!”
 
Sure, a clean break from the ex would be nice and reassuring to the new partner.  But a co-parent doesn’t usually come with that option.  She comes with kids and an ex in proximity, on the phone, and at the kids’ soccer games, and that can be terribly threatening to a new partner. The threat level intensifies if:
  1. the new partner is insecure or otherwise unsure of the co-parent’s interest in and commitment to the new relationship, or
  2. if the ex makes no secret of still having lingering feelings.  It helps if a co-parent can reassure the new partner of her commitment, but when that reassurance isn’t forthcoming or isn’t enough to calm fears, the co-parenting partnership becomes The Bad Guy.   
It’s easier to focus on the co-parenting partnership as a threat than to confront personal fears and uncertainties about the new relationship.  Easier, yes… but that doesn’t bode well for the adults and kids involved if the new partner remains suspicious of or hostile toward the co-parenting situation.  Worst-case scenario, the Ex becomes The Enemy and the dating co-parent finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war.  In some instances, a once-friendly co-parenting partnership becomes strained because the new partner demands proof of severed ties, or because the dating co-parent becomes weary of trying to meet everyone’s expectations.
 
Unfortunately, we hear at least once a month from a co-parenting mom at her wits’ end because her ex has turned all the co-parenting communication over to his wife.  This is a classic case of failing to do what’s best for your kids because it’s unpleasant or uncomfortable for you or your new partner—or because you want to thumb your nose at your ex.  Some shared parenting agreements and some court orders mandate that co-parenting communication and decision-making take place between the co-parents only, not third parties, to avoid this dynamic.  If the co-parents are struggling to communicate, forcing communication with a new partner is like throwing a lit match on gas-soaked logs. No one wins, least of all the children.
 
At the other end of the spectrum, there are times when a co-parent risks alienating a new partner as a result of his friendly co-parenting rapport. We call co-parents who are exceptionally friendly The Super Friends, and these folks walk a fine line between maintaining a congenial, platonic co-parenting arrangement and leaving little or no space in their personal lives for a new intimate relationship.  And when they do attempt to introduce a new partner into this cramped space, the new partner fears he’ll always be on the sidelines of the co-parent’s life.  
 
A common complaint we hear is about a co-parenting dad who stops whatever he’s doing to answer all of his ex’s phone calls and texts, even if there’s no emergency, and even if the contact is unrelated to the kids.  This dad is also prone to changing or canceling plans with his new partner to accommodate his kids’ or his ex’s schedule, and while flexibility is generally a positive in co-parenting, this can be understandably frustrating for a new partner.  
 
Being friends with your co-parent is optional.  Striking the right balance between being a flexible, cooperative co-parent and being a considerate, engaged partner is key.
 
In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at the question “Why does my boyfriend let his ex boss him around?” from the perspective of the new partner, the dating co-parent, and the ex-spouse.

Deesha Philyaw and Michael Thomas are the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based founders of CoParenting101.org and co-authors of the forthcoming book Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce (New Harbinger, 2013).