I met John two years ago through mutual friends, and we have been dating for almost a year now. This relationship is honestly the best I’ve had in terms of our connection and compatibility. We have shared hobbies, we can talk for hours about anything, and our physical connection is unlike any I’ve had before. John has met my family, and we have spent holidays together. If this were the whole picture, I’d be over the moon happy.
The issue comes from John’s family situation – he has an ex, “Marie,” and an 8-year-old son. He and Marie haven’t been together for three years, and I’m the first woman John has dated since their relationship ended. John is the primary caretaker of their son, with Marie having regular visitation. Other than discussing their child, John and Marie have no relationship. She lives nearby with her parents, and unfortunately Marie has bipolar disorder which is not well managed. She has a history of going off her medications, and she’s been hospitalized many times, most recently about six months ago. When she is with their son, she is supervised by her parents.
After a few “where is this going” conversations, John told me last week he won’t be telling Marie or his son about me for the foreseeable future. He consulted with Marie’s therapist who indicated that Marie may not be able to handle his relationship with me, as her stability is delicate and hearing of the relationship may trigger a psychiatric episode. John is terrified that this could cause Marie to petition for partial or full custody. He doesn’t want to put his son through a nasty custody battle, especially since their son is very happy right now and the custody situation is working well as it is. He fears their son could be put in an unsafe living situation when Marie has a psychiatric episode if she is awarded partial or full custody.
I never wanted to be in this position. When we started dating, John was hopeful that he could tell Marie about me and, at some point, introduce me to his son. It hurts me to the core to not be able to get to know the person most important to John – his son. Plus, this means we’re limited in terms of thinking about our future together, i.e. moving in together.
It’s hard to just walk away when there’s so much great stuff here, but not being able to meet his son and having our future limited is difficult for me. The decision is mine – can I continue in this relationship when I may not meet John’s son for a very long time? What are the questions to ask myself in coming to this decision? I feel like I’m stuck and can’t decide whether I can accept this or not. How do you know when something is a deal breaker? — In a Broken Deal?
This is a hard situation and I really feel for you, and for John, and by extension for Marie and their son. It isn’t Marie’s fault that she’s mentally ill; it’s certainly not John’s fault or their son’s fault. And it sounds like John only wants what is best for his child, and who could really fault him for that? He feels he has to be “extra stable” because the other parent in the picture isn’t. And it sounds like John is doing the very best he can, consulting with Marie’s therapist and negotiating her instability in whatever ways will best support their child. I’m sorry that the way he thinks — or has been told — will best support their child seems at odds with moving your relationship forward. It’s unfair. Life is unfair. So, what should you do?
What you should do depends a lot on what you want. Of course, what you want is a future with John. Or, at least, the potential for a future with John. But what does that look like for you? How important is living together? How important is marriage? Do you want children? Does John? How old are you and how many healthy childbearing years do you (and your doctor) think you have left? (Generally speaking, age 40 is about when childbearing years begin to wane, although many women still have biological babies well into their 40s.) You sound very happy in your relationship right now. Can that level of happiness sustain you for a while? Could you find long-term satisfaction in this limbo you say you’re in, or do you see an expiration date?
It sounds like you see an expiration date in the current level of integration in John’s life, and that’s fair. Would it be possible to meet John’s son without being introduced as a girlfriend? Could meeting his son — being introduced as a friend or friend of the family — give you a bigger sense of integration and would that sustain you a little longer? Is it possible that Marie’s therapist has a bias that is affecting major life decisions and that John would do well to consult with another professional who may have insight into the situation in general and could provide a broader outlook? Is he open to that? What is John’s relationship like with Marie’s parents? How do they feel about Marie potentially fighting for full or partial custody? If this is something they are against and would be willing to say as much in a court of law, that would go a long way in dissuading a judge from granting her any kind of custody (as would, you know, unmanaged bipolar disorder and multiple psychiatric breakdowns and hospital stays), and that might be enough insurance for John to introduce you to his son.
Personally, I think John is being overly cautious, but I can certainly understand the urge to be overly cautious when it comes to one’s child’s well-being; I can appreciate the desire to protect one’s child from a mentally unstable parent. Up to this point, John has had no reason to be anything BUT overly cautious. His ex remains unstable, her therapist warns against rocking the boat, and he’s never had a partner push him to consider any other way of navigating his life and making room for someone else. What if you are that partner? What if you begin nudging him to integrate you? Why does he get to make unilateral decisions about the future of your relationship without your saying, “Hold up, that doesn’t really work for me”? He doesn’t. Tell him that doesn’t really work for you. What’s his response going to be? Will he say, “Oh, that’s too bad, I really liked you”? Or is he going to think about it: think about different decisions he can make going forward, different support he can get in place, different people he can consult for said support?
One word of warning: tread lightly. You should push, but not push too hard too quickly. Think about what it is you want and when you might want it. If there’s no need to rush, there’s no need to rush. It’s only been a year that you’ve been dating, yours is his first relationship since his relationship with Marie ended — things could look a lot different six months or a year from now. If you’re enjoying your time with John and can hold out a while longer, do so.
TL;DR: I would not consider this a deal breaker just yet unless you have a pressing need to move the relationship forward RIGHT NOW. If things are exactly the same in six months, with your being no more integrated in John’s life then than you are now, and if you feel ready to move forward, then the move forward may need to be stepping away from John. But I don’t think you need to or should make that decision right now.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.