Dear Dr V,
I’ve been dating the same guy for about a year now. He’s great, and our relationship is wonderful. The problem is his kids, particularly one of them. He’s got two kids, a girl, six years old, and a son, who’s 14, both by his ex-wife. Their divorce was awful (two years ago) and it seems like his ex has turned his son against him, I think the six-year-old is really just to little to know what’s going on. It’s really hard for me to see this because I’ve grown to care about this man deeply and to see his son be so hurtful towards him is painful for me. The son is also openly hostile and downright nasty toward me. I’m not sure how to handle this. I don’t want to stir the pot, but aren’t I kind of involved in this whole situation now that I’m involved with the dad? Last weekend I snapped at the son when he was mouthing off to me, and his dad told me not to talk to his son like that. I guess I was wrong to snap at a kid, but I refuse to be a doormat. I don’t want to just walk away from this situation, but I find myself dreading when his kids will visit and don’t know what to do.
I can certainly empathize with the pickle you find yourself in. I’ve had several friends wind up in a similar situation, so I understand it’s not easy. I think you can find a way to move through it in a healthy way, but really only for yourself. You will have to tread very lightly while the issues and turmoil between these separated parents and their children resolve. I think the recurring theme in all this for you will be the idea of boundaries; recognizing where there might be some flexibility in where you set yours, while knowing when to be firm and reinforce where they have been set.
If you are not yourself a child of divorce (and I really hope you aren’t), you need to know that your partner’s children are undergoing a severe trauma, and are most likely struggling with the most powerful and upsetting emotions they’ve ever experienced thus far in their lives. I think divorces are analogous to car accidents. They happen way too often, and when we’re not personally involved, we can acknowledge in passing something like “Ouch, that doesn’t look like any fun,” but then move on. For those actually caught in the grinding emotional gears of a divorce, it can be one of the most excruciating, and especially for children, frightening ordeals they ever have to go through. I think this is doubly true in cases such as your boyfriend and his ex, as it seems to have been a particularly acrimonious parting. I would also say that the six-year-old daughter might be more hip than you realize. Little kids may not have yet developed the vocabulary or mental dexterity to fully express and understand their emotions (in fact many adults could be described this way too), but that doesn’t mean they’re ignorant. Trust me when I tell you that little girl knows full well what’s going on, and may end up dealing with her own issues independently somewhere later down the line.
Regardless of how and why the marriage ended, using the kids as pawns is incredibly self-centered and heartless. It shows a complete lack of empathy for what the children are enduring. To me it simply speaks of a desperate wartime mentality, the idea of “winning at all costs.” But if one must traumatize his or her children to win (and trust me, this kind of thing will come back to haunt everyone), can anyone really “win?”
I realize your question is about you, but I wanted to put that out there first and foremost because, despite our culture having a kind of “post pop-psychology” mindset, I still don’t think enough thought is really given to just how rotten it is to be a kid who’s parents are divorcing. That being said, unless you’re being done grievous physical or emotional harm, I think you should cut the kids some slack. This is what I mean by considering where there might be some flexibility in your boundaries. Maybe you can tolerate a little bit of sass from the older kid, if you can bear in mind that in all likelihood it’s not directed at you personally at all. Like it or not, as the New Woman in his father’s life, you are a flesh and blood symbol of all that is wrong with his world. You are proof that things have changed irrevocably. You may also be highlighting another side of his father he has never experienced. So it’s not really you he’s so angry at, but what you represent. I suggest you mull over what would and wouldn’t be tolerable for you. Obviously you shouldn’t put up with any kind of abusive behavior, and hopefully this will not be an ongoing situation.
I also understand why your boyfriend would tell you not to reprimand his children. I realize you may have a wonderful relationship with this man, but you must realize that you cannot expect him to side with you against his kids, especially at this delicate time. This is not to say you shouldn’t stick up for yourself, but you need to be diplomatic about it. When the kids aren’t around, explain how you feel to your boyfriend. You could even bring up the points I made above in the context of understanding his son’s hostility towards you. Explain to him that while you comprehend what’s going on, you don’t want or deserve to be used as a punching bag. Perhaps one option could be for you two to agree on a “safe word,” where if you find yourself slipping into some kind of confrontation with his son, you could say the word and then hopefully Dad will spring into action. Of course, if it’s just you and the son and things start going south, the best thing to do would just be to leave the room. If you’re not there physically, nothing can happen.
It may be some time before your partner’s children resolve their issues, if at all. It will most likely not be an easy road for anyone involved, yourself included (though to be honest, we know the lion’s share of the misery goes to the kids). Of course you should be a sounding board for your boyfriend and support him emotionally and however else you feel appropriate, but it is imperative that you do not involve yourself in any way in the tangle of hurt and confusion between him, his ex-wife and their kids. In that respect, the best you can do is lead by example and carry yourself in the most empathic yet neutral way possible. From the sounds of it, the situation could use some calm, neutral stability to balance things out, or at least, not make them any worse.
With Empathy, Dr. V
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