Dear Ms Peirano,

I (45) have been with my boyfriend (48) for four years. We met at the gym and it was love at first sight. He separated from his family for me and we have been living together for three years.

Nevertheless, I am often unhappy: he has not divorced to this day. He spends holidays like Easter or Christmas Eve with his ex-wife and the children, for the sake of the children, as he says. His kids are 7 and 9. The kids come with us from time to time and we get along well, but mostly he goes there. He also eats dinner there once or twice a week, puts the children to bed or picks them up from school. He always says that they are at home there and he doesn’t want to tear them up.

I haven’t really gotten to know the friends from the mutual circle of friends and his parents either, supposedly out of consideration for his ex-wife. She was very close with his parents and is suffering greatly from the separation. His parents want to “take everything slowly.”

Is it normal that he takes so much time? And do we have the chance of a real partnership without these legacy issues, including getting married and celebrating together?

That’s really bothering me!

Best regards, Svenja A.

Dear Svenja A.,

I can imagine that the situation is not satisfactory for you. When you first met your partner, things “worked out” for you up to a point, meaning he left his wife and moved in with you. But now four years have passed and he still holds on to his old family and goes in and out there, even on holidays. And many doors to a life together are blocked for you and he makes no attempt to open them for you.

For example, he doesn’t get divorced and thus doesn’t make it possible for you two to get married at some point. The door to his family of origin is locked because his ex-wife still occupies the place there, and you also do not have access to family life with his ex-wife and children and then you are without your partner at Christmas or Easter.

You always have to look at things from all sides so that the picture is complete, and you have to change perspective from time to time.

It should also be noted that you have found a married man with two small children (aged 3 and 5 at the time) and started a relationship with him. That led to him separating from his wife. What did you get from the way his wife took it? Was she okay with that because there was already a crisis, or was she in a bad crisis at the time?

I’ve had a few mothers with young children in therapy whose partners left them for another woman, and I can imagine how hard that must have been for his wife. To be honest, it is often a mixture of being overwhelmed, severe existential fears, emotional injuries and trauma.

Was there a conversation between the two of you at the time or did you get to know each other or are you still a red rag in the eyes of the ex-wife? And if you put yourself in her position: Can you understand why she wants nothing to do with you and is hurt?

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of your partner. He fell in love and therefore separated from his wife. But he seems to have feelings of guilt and a very bad conscience towards her. Can you understand that? Of course, he hasn’t separated from the children, and it’s obviously very important to him that the children are doing well and that the “old” family doesn’t break up. That is why he celebrates Christmas and Easter in the old constellation, even if he knows that by doing so he is hurting and excluding you. He’s probably not fine with it either.

We therapists are supposed to be neutral, but we are mostly on the side of the children because they cannot choose what they want, but are also a bit victims of the circumstances.

And I must honestly say that your partner’s young children are the closest to my heart in this story. Their family is broken, the father lives with another woman, the mother is unhappy and hurt, and there are many conflicts in the environment that the children are likely to sense as well.

I can imagine that it’s really important for the children that their parents have a good relationship with each other, that the father doesn’t hurt the mother any further and that the old world is kept up a bit.

But of course I can also see your side and understand that after four years of relationship you wish that more doors would be opened for you and that you would not be constantly excluded.

I think that it is necessary for a reconciliation and rapprochement to take place between you and his ex-wife. I don’t want to judge your behavior, but I think it helps to understand the following: Taking a man out of a woman (and mother) is extremely disrespectful! After that you can’t just carry on as if nothing had happened, but talks have to take place and respect has to be restored. And that is a difficult task!

Have you tried talking to her? Has your partner tried to mediate and bring about a rapprochement? Would your husband’s ex-wife be willing to accept an apology? And would you consider an apology appropriate?

It would make sense to talk to your partner about it first, because they have deep insight into their ex-wife’s feelings and suffering. A respectful letter from you, preferably read beforehand by your partner and the most empathetic friends you have, or a couples therapist, could also be a first step in reaching out to them. After that, you could try initial counseling or even go to family therapy as a threesome (with your ex-partner).

The key is respect and understanding, and that must be very sincere on your part. Can you discover that in yourself or do you see his ex-wife as an opponent? In the latter case, it would certainly be helpful to go to a coaching session or a family therapy session on your own to uncover why this is the case.

Patchwork is always associated with a lot of communication, sensitivity, respect and appreciation so that it can succeed. It’s never easy!

The alternative would be to feel like a third wheel for many years to come and to wrestle with your partner for every minute, every Easter and every visit to relatives. The tug-of-war will only make things worse because your partner feels guilty about his ex-wife and has compromised himself in some way with his behavior now. If you (want to) throw him off balance, it will create conflict between the two of you and it will likely jeopardize the relationship sooner or later.

I hope you all manage to get closer to each other. Then maybe someday there can be a Christmas that you all celebrate together and where no one is excluded.

Herzlich GrüßeJulia Peirano