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.
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.
moe January 9, 2018, 9:25 am
I have less sympathy for Marie than you do. She DOES have no control over the fact she is bipolar, but she is not stayin on her meds and has no right to hold the whole family hostage to her whims for fear of a breakdown. What incentive does she HAVE for staying on them when she knows her ex won’t date as long as she is unstable? I think what needs to happen is for her to have limited contact with her son as long as she refuses her meds. It is what is best for everyone, including the son.
MMR January 9, 2018, 10:40 am
I agree with this. It’s obviously not easy for her, but she needs prioritize her son. The current visitation agreement isn’t clear, but it sounds like the courts are aware that Marie needs supervision when she’s with her son. If Marie does try to get custody of her son WHILE she’s having a melt down, it seems unlikely she will win, so that fear seems unrealistic.
However, this is John’s choice. The LW can suggest all these things, but as long as she’s focused on things she can’t control, she’s going to drive herself crazy. She needs to set a timeline for herself for how long she’s willing to wait. I like the idea of giving it six months – a year of dating isn’t really that long – and see where things are at that point. Maybe Marie is in the midst of a really bad attack (which could be why John is so fearful right now?), and by then things will be settled? At that point, the LW have a better idea of whether or not this is a hurdle to be gotten over, or a the permanent status of the relationship.
JD January 11, 2018, 1:35 pm
Right? This is making me not get why John is worried she will petition for, and possibly get full custody if she already barely has supervised visits. I get him being careful but something doesn’t smell right with that explanation. So let her try to get custody. She won’t, he dates, life goes on. I wonder if this is a way to avoid committing? Perhaps not but perhaps.
Smalls January 9, 2018, 9:28 am
I agree, I don’t think this is a deal breaker at the very moment, but obviously it’s concerning going forward. I’m Wendy – I think John is being overly cautious, and I can understand why. But I just can’t imagine a reality where a woman with diagnosed and un-managed bipolar disorder could file for custody of her son when she can’t even visit with him unsupervised, and when the father’s only “crime” is to be dating someone who poses no threat to the child, 3 years after the marriage ended. I do get that a custody battle wouldn’t be good for his son, or anyone, regardless of the outcome. But WWS regarding ideas for ways to approach it with John, including getting an outside opinion other than Marie’s therapist.
Smalls January 9, 2018, 9:30 am
*I’m WITH Wendy. For the record, I am not, in fact, Wendy.
dinoceros January 9, 2018, 10:51 am
The custody battle might not be the worst thing, honestly. If it means that they have a definitive ruling where the boyfriend isn’t so terrified his kid is getting taken away.
dinoceros January 9, 2018, 3:46 pm
Figured I might as well add a disclaimer that I”m being a little tongue in cheek here. Obviously I know that custody battles are bad. But it’s just unfortunate that this guy has to live in fear constantly. Eventually the fear of the battle will be transferred to the kid when it’s old enough to understand and that’s just a lot of weight for them to live under.
Juliecatharine January 9, 2018, 9:33 am
I think consulting a lawyer would make sense for John at this point. Is a judge really going to change a custody arrangement in favor of someone with an ongoing and recent history of institutionalizations?
LisforLeslie January 9, 2018, 12:12 pm
Agreed, The therapist may be trying to help stabilize Marie but there should not be a risk that she would gain custody if the triggering Event is a psychiatric episode.
000 January 9, 2018, 9:40 am
As a licensed therapist myself, I’d advise against the LW being introduced to the son under some false pretense. Either she’s known as a romantic partner to Dad, or not introduced at all. Reasoning: if Mom hears that Son met some new lady while he was with Dad, and Mom is really this volatile about the situation already, then she’s going to have lots of questions. Suddenly Dad is in a position to either lie to his ex, which sets up all kinds of mess for later, or else admit the truth, which could produce exactly the result he’s fearing–only worse, because now Mom will say he’s been hiding things from her, and wonder what else she doesn’t know.
dinoceros January 9, 2018, 10:49 am
YES. I also feel like they would be under this false sense of security, and the mother could do something very unstable without anyone expecting it if she found out.
Bcamber January 9, 2018, 9:42 am
Something about this doesn’t seem right. Why is Marie’s therapist discussing her case with her ex husband?
I could understand if this was a brand new relationship, but two years in? I wonder how honest the boyfriend is being about his intentions for this relationship.
Moe January 9, 2018, 9:46 am
I agree. I was thinking this too.
000 January 9, 2018, 9:51 am
I assumed the therapist had a release to talk to Dad. He may even still be Mom’s emergency contact or primary decision-maker on these hospitalizations. Yes, it would be healthier if he were less involved, but given how unstable she is, and their young kid, he may still be almost as responsible as when they were still a couple.
Sue January 9, 2018, 1:14 pm
It doesn’t sound like the ex would have signed medical releases for him, that would be extremely rare in a disso situation. It seems highly unlikely to me that the therapist would discuss a patient like this. She lives with her parents, they are much more likely to be her contacts.
And even more remote is the chance of a change in custody. LW says he has primary care, changing that is VERY difficult. The bar is set high to provide for stability and with her current medical situation, she would have zero chance of prevailing in a custody fight.
I think he has other things going on here and LW isn’t getting the truth
Juliecatharine January 9, 2018, 9:57 am
That is an excellent point.
Fyodor January 9, 2018, 10:20 am
If the condition developed while they were married it is possible that there was some kind of waiver/allowance for John to receive information about her status. Particularly, if he was involved in managing her care. There may be some kind of court intervention too, whereby she has to consent to some kind of general reporting to him (as the custodial parent) or the court in order for her to visit her son. It doesn’t strike me as so unusual that I would be suspicious of it.
Northern Star January 9, 2018, 10:38 am
If Marie has been ordered by the court to keep her ex apprised of her mental health as a condition of even seeing her son—there is no way in HELL she would ever get custody of him.
dinoceros January 9, 2018, 10:48 am
Northern Star, agreed. If that’s really the situation, then I’m skeptical that the boyfriend actually thinks she could get custody.
Fyodor January 9, 2018, 11:03 am
Family court is very…unpredictable. What he’s worried about isn’t unheard of and even if he’s ultimately successful it could still involve an ugly custody fight.
MissDre January 9, 2018, 11:38 am
Yes, I agree with Fyodor in that he probably isn’t so much worried about losing custody (although that’s scary) but the big ugly custody battle. I went through that as a child and it’s absolutely horrible.
Monkey's mommy January 9, 2018, 11:58 am
I agree with this. It could be that John is using his son and ex as an excuse not to commit to the relationship fully. I mean, it’s hard to dispute a child’s safety with a mentally ill ex.
Guy Friday January 9, 2018, 11:59 am
Fyodor hit this on the head, but to be clear: I myself HAVE written clauses into proposed court orders signed off on by judges that give limited consent to talk to the opposing party’s mental health professionals about matters regarding the best interests of the child. I know it may seem like a blatant HIPAA violation, but it’s not if it’s court-ordered, and a lot of judges would argue that it’s best to just go straight to the treatment provider.
brise January 9, 2018, 9:54 am
I find also illogical to say at the same time that the mother is unstable, unable to handle the reality, and that she could get partial or full custody, this is a contradiction. But I understand the cautious boyfriend, up to a certain point, especially if their split was conflictual. I find it strange though that he is in contact with the therapist. Anyway, LW, Marie is going nowhere: if you stay in this relationship, you will have to deal with this situation for ever, I mean with an unstable ex and mother of his son. And he has made his priority very clear. If you want to stay in the relationship, for a while, don’t focus on meeting his son. Try to remove that aspect of your relationship, don’t talk of it and let the relationship get deeper or end by itself. It will evolve at some point. He will reconsider the situation, talk with a lawyer, or not. If you want yourself a family, and it is your right, you will see, as Wendy said, in some time where it goes.
csp January 9, 2018, 11:59 am
I got the impression that the boyfriend wasn’t afraid of losing but what the fight in general would do to the son. regardless of outcome.
Northern Star January 9, 2018, 10:36 am
As long as John believes Marie will somehow get custody of their son if she finds out about the LW, he will not change. This is how it will be for the foreseeable future.
It hurts to feel like someone’s dirty little secret, and it’s already been a year. You start resenting your partner, big-time. This may be a deal-breaker. Don’t stay in a relationship that makes you feel bad about yourself.
dinoceros January 9, 2018, 10:47 am
I would say that this is a dealbreaker. If you met John AFTER he had figured out how to handle this situation, it would be different. But at this point there’s no indication this will EVER work out for him. It’s not unreasonable after a year to want a tiny bit of assurance that the person you are with will ever be able to integrate you into their life. I mean, sure, give it six months, but John does not sound like someone who is going to figure this out in six months. He sounds like someone who is just trying to stay above water in regard to handling his ex and their situation. I have empathy for him because he’s sort of a hostage, and that is unfortunate, but I just can’t see him (or anyone, really, it has nothing to do with who he is as a person) getting this resolved quickly enough to avoid you potentially wasting years with someone who you will eventually have to break up with (unless you want to be a secret forever).
That said, I don’t know if he’s just sort of thinking irrationally because he’s under so much stress, but I don’t see how she would ever get custody. Even if they gave her the time of day, I don’t think “my ex is dating” is really enough to convince a judge or social workers or whoever to give a kid over to someone this mentally unstable. (Cue the comments that judges do crazy things — but since we can’t guard against every implausible outcome in life, I’d say you have to draw a line somewhere).
Also, what sort of therapist provides that sort of information to a patient’s ex…
Hannanas January 9, 2018, 11:05 am
I was thinking the same thing. Also, maybe a custody battle wouldn’t be so bad? He could get full custody and the ex wouldn’t have as much power over him, their son, and the LW anymore.
MissDre January 9, 2018, 11:39 am
Custody battles can go on for months or years. They can be absolutely horrifying.
Hannanas January 9, 2018, 4:26 pm
I reread the part about how the son is happy right now. I based my comment on the people I know, who as kids would have benefited from sole custody. So scratch that and thanks for your insight.
Barleystonks January 9, 2018, 11:37 am
So, being bipolar from a family full of people with bipolar. I think the fear is likely less that the judge will do something crazy than the mom will suddenly decide to pull something like trying to convince the judge that either the dad or the lw is abusing the kid. (And, yknow, if she does go into a full blown psychotic episode, she may very well decide that the dad is making the kid abuse HER or something equally bizarre which isn’t going to be fun for the kid either, even if it’s more likely to get her put back in a hospital rather than result in a custody change) I’m not sure that the dad’s fears here are unfounded. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t need to push ahead anyway, but I can absolutely understand the feeling of paralysis he’s got to be dealing with.
Essie January 9, 2018, 11:46 am
I agree that it’s unlikely Marie would get primary custody in her condition, but I completely understand why John would fear her even attempting to get it. My boyfriend had tried to get primary custody of the kids after his wife left him, and gave up and took a 50/50 split instead because the process was so traumatic for the kids. I fully get why he wouldn’t want to subject his son to that.
I think on some level you’re taking this personally, as an exclusion. While that’s kind of understandable, it’s not the right way to look at the situation. Time is your friend here. In time, your boyfriend will get more comfortable with the situation, his son may figure it out on his own, his wife’s condition may even improve.
I’d give yourself six more months to see where things go.
SweetT January 9, 2018, 12:01 pm
I understand his fear of a custody case. My ex had serious charges pressed against him so I moved to terminate his parental rights. While the court would grant that he would have no contact with the kids, it took me 2.5 yrs to get the termination. Legal cases are expensive and draining on everyone. Judges can make rulings that don’t make any sense.
Guy Friday January 9, 2018, 12:15 pm
Some people have hit upon this, but I want to emphasize that I think the LW is completely misreading John’s comments about the battle. He may have said these “what if she gets partial or full placement” (which is what’s meant here, because custody is legal decision-making), but I can guarantee you that what he’s far more worried about is what she’ll do while the case is going on.
Suppose she does file for a modification of placement. A GAL needs to be appointed, and custody studies need to be done. He’s employed, and she’s not, so a court may well order that he pay the costs that come up during the case like the GAL bill (because more often than not they care about getting paid and not “You file it, you pay for it”). This would constitute a substantial change in circumstances, so they would have to do a deep dive on not only the LW but any of her family that the son might be around. Maybe 20 years ago her dad got a ticket for disorderly conduct, and that raises a red flag that needs to be addressed on the record (which would annoy anyone, really). Maybe, for the stability of the child, it forces the LW and the dad to answer some really tough questions ahead of schedule, like “When are you moving in together?”, “When are you getting engaged or married?”, etc. And, most importantly, there’s no legitimate legal reason during the motion process to prevent Mom from having visits, so imagine the fear the father must face knowing he’s handing the child over to Mom and worrying if he’ll get the kid back in one piece now that she may be triggered. Who’s to say she won’t make a run for it? Or refuse to give him back? Or start a process of alienation by saying things like “Your dad just wants you to think I’m not good enough for you?” I mean, that stuff MAJORLY messes with a kid.
It sounds like this just came up recently, honestly, so I’d ask him what he means by “the foreseeable future”. Tell him you’re not asking him to make a choice, that you understand how protective he is about his son and how you love that about him. And, most importantly, give him the space to process this information and how to move forward. It’s entirely possible he’s already considering a lot of the stuff you mentioned in the letter, and he’s trying to formulate a plan to move forward with you and his son together while minimizing the disruption the inevitable eruption will cause him. You can break up with him down the road if you want, but don’t assume someone who cares about you is really going to stick with the whole “separate worlds” theory.
Northern Star January 9, 2018, 12:39 pm
So, this will be the LW’s life for 10 more years (until the child is an adult). I would NEVER recommend signing up for 10 years of being a secret girlfriend.
csp January 10, 2018, 9:27 am
great, thoughtful answer.
Guy Friday January 9, 2018, 12:20 pm
Also, I’m sorry in advance for the rudeness of this, but everyone who’s saying things like “Well, if she’s mentally ill / off her meds / capable of doing this, there’s just no way this results in the same or more time with the kid” has either never set foot in a family court or is kidding themselves. It ABSOLUTELY could result in more time with the child, because the courts could find that the mother isn’t the one upsetting the status quo; the father is. The statutes for family law in most states are VERY complex and VERY confusing, such that judges don’t always apply them correctly. I’ve seen judges order mediation between abusers and their victims despite the law here clearly saying that that cannot be done. I’ve seen unfit parents get 50/50 unsupervised placement. And, sure, people screw up, but then the courts are being REACTIVE instead of PROACTIVE, and the kid still gets hurt. So, please, stop telling the LW that there’s no way this could backfire, because I’m telling you as a family law practitioner that it both can and very well might.
ktfran January 9, 2018, 12:31 pm
Thank you for this and your other responses! Lots were making it so “black and white.” Not only is this man worrying about his child, he’s dealing with a mentally unstable, unpredictable woman. I appreciate those who have chimed in about mental illness too. This situation seems so much more complicated than people are making it out. I feel for the LW and her boyfriend. It’s a tough situation and I wish them luck.
MissDre January 9, 2018, 12:59 pm
Yes I completely agree. And just going through the battle itself is absolutely traumatizing. You know what else is traumatizing? Having people ASK you who you prefer when you’re just 11 years old, and you can’t answer honestly because saying one parent over the other feels like betrayal. And it’s sickening to be forced to testify in court when you’re only 13 years old. That shit fucks you up for years to come.
Sue January 9, 2018, 1:32 pm
I think the chance of ex’s petition for change in parenting plan based on the Dad having a girlfriend has ZERO chance of success. In my experience, Dad having a (non-sex offender) girlfriend is actually looked upon favorably by the courts. This is not true in the reverse, however. A woman’s new boyfriend is often seen as a potential threat.
A modification does not start as a level playing field and she would have to show a material change of circumstances to even get a hearing, let alone a GAL and the rest. Him dating would absolutely not be considered a material change.
I think he isn’t being honest with LW. She needs to look out for herself here
dinoceros January 9, 2018, 3:42 pm
If this is the case, then I think the LW should cut her losses. I think people were trying to be hopeful so that the LW would have a slightly chance that he could acknowledge her one day. If he’s always going to live under the shadow of the kids being taken away, then he’s realistically never going to be able to outwardly date someone until after his kid turns 18.
carolann January 9, 2018, 5:20 pm
I also have the feeling LW bf isn’t being honest. Is Marie really mentally ill or is this all an elaborate story to cover up the fact that he is still very much with a non mentally ill Marie? If he has primary custody and she can’t see son, when does he see LW? I think maybe she should step back and see if what he says is really what is going on. I have seen guys make up some pretty elaborate stories when cheating and unfortunately the “my ex is a nut” scenario is common. Think about it…this would make cheating too easy.
Can’t she meet his family? Any family members? If his story is true they could collaborate it. I call bullshit on this one.
Skyblossom January 9, 2018, 5:22 pm
I think you need to talk to your boyfriend to see what kind of shared future he sees for the two of you. Does he see a future where the two of you can openly date? Openly live together? Consider marriage? If he can see a future like that what kind of timeline does he think is reasonable.
His son is his prime responsibility. He owes it to his son to provide as secure an environment as possible and that includes an emotionally safe environment.
Skyblossom January 9, 2018, 5:47 pm
That doesn’t mean you need to put your life on hold indefinitely. If his answers don’t work for you then I think this is a dealbreaker. He can do the right thing for his son and the relationship not work for you.
carolann January 9, 2018, 5:40 pm
If he has primary custody there would be paperwork.
csp January 10, 2018, 9:37 am
LW – there is some great legal advice here. The big question is what do you want long term out of a relationship. You didn’t give your age and if you want a traditional marriage and kids. And if you want these things, you need to ask for them. Say to him, “I want to be in a relationship where I have children and am married. Do you think in the future, you can give that to me?”
If those things aren’t what you are looking for, then this situation can be much more ok. It gives you a chance to develop your own life, hobbies and have a good but distant relationship.
I think you should write down on a piece of paper the life that you want in the next few years and then go to him and ask if that future looks good to him or if it is even a possibility. I would say in x amount of time I want to be married and have a baby and I want to go to the beach in the summer and build a home for that family. Or maybe, I want to travel the world with a partner and live in a place that I can walk to dinner or I want a small rural home where I can have chickens. I don’t know, put your dream on paper and If it isn’t his dream, then MOA.
JMM January 10, 2018, 9:39 pm
Get out now, LW. I have a friend who was with a guy whose Ex was… troubled. Two years of hysterical phone calls in the middle of the night, Ex showing up at family parties uninvited, suicide threats, etc.
And he had no kids with the Ex!
He will never be completely free of her. Never.