My ex isn’t good at being alone. So I knew that after we separated he would likely pair up in fairly short order. As expected, within a few months, he had a steady girlfriend, and by the six-month mark, he’d settled into a serious relationship with the woman he’s still with. (So much for taking some time to process your baggage and figure things out. Oh well, to each his own, I suppose.)
His dating didn’t bother me — he is seriously an ass to deal with if he’s not getting laid, so I was glad for all of us that someone was taking care of that — but what I noticed, and what did bother me tremendously, was how he checked out when he got wrapped up in a woman. Getting a response to a text or email or phone call was difficult, and he was chronically trying to unload the children on me or his family during his parenting time, so that he could go play with his friends or his girlfriend. My daughters complained that even when he was around, he was constantly texting or talking on the phone and generally not attentive. Basically, he wasn’t “plugged in” to them and their needs, and at times it was painfully obvious to all of us. You can’t phone it in as a parent and do a good job. You simply can’t.
Part of me understood where he was at. When you first get involved in a new relationship, there’s that heady period in which you become completely absorbed by and infatuated with your new lover. You talk and text all the time, have sex like bunnies, and generally bask in the warm chemical cocktail of all the great hormones that are released when we start to fall in love with someone. Everything else seems to fall away and we steal every moment to grow and nurture our new relationship. So my ex’s behavior wasn’t unusual or wrong, exactly, but it was maddening for me and hurtful for our kids. So one night, after yet another email explaining why the kids needed to see him on a weekend that was his, and that, no, I wouldn’t watch them for him, I wrote “I think the problem here is that you’re more interested in being a single person than being a single parent. Maybe we should revisit our custody agreement.”
He didn’t reply, and indeed, radio silence was the rule for the coming weeks. But I found out later that he’d taken my words to heart and actually broken up with his girlfriend briefly during that time, which I should have deduced from the fact that he almost immediately seemed more present in co-parenting and engaging with the kids. Suddenly, my emails, texts, and phone calls were answered in a timely fashion and with due thought given to the matter at hand. I was grateful. But then they got back together and he disappeared. Again.
I am not unsympathetic to his situation. Really, I’m not. I’ve had my own forays into the serious relationship realm, during which I have struggled to stay plugged in to my kids. I have had to be consciously present for them when they want to tell me about their days or ask my advice or just plain spend time with me. Children are not at all apologetic for their neediness, and mine are very clear when they feel that their needs or feelings are being shunted to the side. Sometimes it’s really, really hard to remain engaged, but I know that it’s important and vital to their well-being. So I try.
And maybe he’s trying, too. It doesn’t look that way from where I’m sitting, but I also don’t know what other demands are being made on him. Maybe his girlfriend resents his being distracted. Maybe she pressures him to spend his time and money with her rather than his kids. Maybe she feels that her own needs aren’t being met.
And here’s another crazy thing: to a certain extent, I’m not even unsympathetic to her situation, either. In the time I’ve been single again, I have known a few men who were just plain too distracted to be good relationship material. The needs of their children or the drama of their exes or the stress of rebuilding their net worth or their own residual anger or depression were too great to allow them to focus on me or our relationship for longer than a day or two at a stretch. I never felt like more than an afterthought — a pleasant afterthought, it was clear — but an afterthought, nonetheless.
Relationships are hard enough, even when you have the time and motivation to devote to them, but when you allow your previous life and the obligations it spawned to consume you, you foreclose opportunities to create a new life. Similarly, if you unplug from your existing obligations and focus nearly all your attention and concern on your new life, your children and other relationships suffer.
Now, I’ve witnessed examples of the extremes in either of these directions. I know a woman who, after she left her husband, deposited her 15-year-old son in an apartment on his own in a medium-sized city while she moved 1000 miles away to take a job that she’d always wanted. Did her decision damage her son? Given that I divorced him, I might not be the one to ask that of… I also know a woman who refuses to date and devotes all her time and energies to her children; her life is much as it was before her divorce. She is an amazing mother, but I always wonder what will happen to her once her children leave the nest. It seems to me that, as with most things, there must be some kind of balance, some middle ground between the all-or-nothing extremes. I find it simply too dismal to consider that perhaps divorced parents cannot have healthy, rich, intimate relationships. But when I look around me, I am worried by exactly that. I see lots of companionship. I see lots of sex. I see lots of relatively short, sporadic relationships. What I don’t see a lot of is soul connections that are built to survive the rest of a lifetime.
Well-meaning friends have offered advice on how to select a partner that might be emotionally and mentally and physically available: Find someone without kids. Okay, but that brings its own set of problems since I DO have kids. Find someone that gets along great with their ex. Okay, but most of the time I get along great with my ex, and we still have periods where we want to rip each other’s throat out. That’s why we’re divorced, remember? Find someone whose ex and/or kids live far away. Okay, but then there’s guilt over the distance and worry over the kids’ well-being. Find someone who has never been married and has no kids. Been there. Done that. ‘Nuff said.
When I was in my “only casual dating” period, none of this bothered me. It all offered multiple buffers from having the relationship get too intense or require more emotionally than my damaged heart could handle. But now it bothers me. It bothers me a lot.
So, while I wish my ex-husband would pay more attention to his kids and show some common courtesy when communicating with me, I can’t vilify him too harshly. Figuring out how to have a relationship with an adult and be present in a relationship with your children isn’t easy, I’m finding. I’ll still be mad at him, because it’s maddening, but I’ll also cut him a little slack and hope that he figures it out soon. Or even better, that I do.