In front of his new girlfriend, my ex is Mr. Perfect Dad

He wants to enjoy the kids while I still do all the work

Published August 11, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

First, I'm so glad you are back and feeling better.

So my problem has to do with my feelings about an ex-husband. I was married to him for 15 years and we have two wonderful kids. The qualities of our children, in fact, make me think I did the right thing in marrying him in the first place. But him personally being suited to me? I don't think.

I never could quite get enough support or love or care, and that's why we did divorce. I was happy enough when we divorced, but now that he has a new girlfriend, I find that I am devastated that he could have a "family" with my kids that doesn't include me, the actual mother! Intellectually, I get it, but emotionally, I've been a wreck.

Despite huge passive-aggressive tendencies on his part, he has found someone else. That's partly upsetting me. But what upsets me more is the idea that, now that he has a girlfriend, he is going to take more and more of the kids' time and attention and affection away from me.

When were married, and also before he had this girlfriend, he seemed pretty content to be hands off. But now the kids are older and easier and more interesting for him. And now that he has a girlfriend to do things with, he seems to be upping his interactions. This, of course, is my own thinking; I don't know it for a fact. But I am worried he is going to keep doing that, and I won't have anything.

My ex-husband is very smart, funny, interesting, cultured and adventurous. He is also self-centered, passive-aggressive and prone to avoid taking any responsibility for anything, ever. His girlfriend seems to be equally smart and clever, pretty and well-kept, and very well connected and endowed. What have I got?

Again, intellectually I feel like I have a lot to offer, but emotionally I feel a need to compete and I've got no chance. I don't want to feel competitive (even though I think I always did toward my ex; is it because he rarely said anything supportive or affectionate to me, nor was apologetic when he made a mistake?).

I just want to feel safe and know when and how to react when I feel my boundaries pushed. I think if I knew I would be able to react in a satisfying way to myself nine times out of 10, I could let my guard down.

Our divorce agreement was mediated and I have custodial care. There is not really any visitation schedule, but we more or less have it every other weekend, dinner a few evenings a week, and a few weeks in the summer. I don't know why I am so worried he'll want to take them more ... I can always say no.

I feel like he mostly is getting the benefit of all the good times with the kids, but has none of the day-to-day responsibilities. I wanted the kids in the first place, and I wanted to care for them, and have devoted a lot of time and energy into doing so -- more than just showing them a good time. If he steps up his game now with them, I will feel resentful and threatened because he didn't do it before when they were young and it was harder, and it seems he's more inclined to now because of his girlfriend.

How can I think about this differently and be at peace? Or what can I do so that I can let my guard down?

Emotionally Exhausted

Dear Emotionally Exhausted,

If you want to feel more secure about your boundaries, I suggest you go back to the person who mediated your divorce and say you want a more concrete and formal agreement. Put in writing what is your current informal arrangement so that if your ex-husband decides to change it you can negotiate. Then see if you can add provisions that require him to do more than just have a good time with the kids. Perhaps driving them to school and other appointments could become partly his responsibility.

You are likely to feel of two minds about giving him added responsibilities. The more he helps, the more time he gets with the kids. But if you genuinely want more help with the kids, this is one way to approach it.

As far as the thoughts and worries that are driving you crazy, well, when you are worrying about the future you are not really feeling in the present. You might be holding something at bay. You might be holding at bay your sadness at what you have lost. You might also be holding at bay the fact that for the first time in a long time, you are available for actual intimacy.

You say your husband did not meet your needs for intimacy and support and that is why you divorced. So you lived with this man for a long time and got into the habit of not having your needs met.

I suggest you try asking yourself, What is going on right now? What do I need right now? And what am I feeling toward my ex-husband right now?

Try to put this in the form of actual emotion, not fears about what he might do or assessments of his behavior but your own emotion. What are you feeling toward your ex-husband now?

Perhaps what you feel is some kind of hurt. Maybe it is a feeling of being left out, with echoes of earlier abandonment, or having your needs not met in some way.

For years, you made a habit of not getting your needs met, of turning to someone who cannot meet your needs. In order to get by in that way, no doubt you found ways not to feel what you were feeling, and not to allow yourself to get what you actually need.

Now things have changed. You are free to feel what you feel. It is time to turn your attention to getting your own needs met.

So focus on the present.

One way to focus on the present is to be in the present with your kids. Rather than see you worrying about some future problems, they could benefit from direct, honest communication with you in the present. They want to feel close to you, and they want to know what you actually feel. They may ask you if you are sad that their dad is gone, if you miss him. Try to respond to them honestly. This will keep you in the present.

Certain emotions have to be lived through. You can't shortcut them or think them away; you have to just go through it and it takes a while. So you might as well make whatever you are feeling be your friend. Don't fight it. It's vital. Don't give in to the temptation to push aside what you are feeling now and replace it with anxiety about the future. If you take care of the present, the future will take care of itself.

Your current sadness is the food of your future wisdom.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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