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Love Letters

Dating, divorce, and different parenting styles

Q. I have been dating my boyfriend for almost nine months. We have a great time when we are together. He’s funny, smart, educated, successful, handsome . . . all the things I always wanted in a partner. We have many things in common, except we have drastically different parenting styles. We both have children and it is here where we clash.

Well, “clash” might be the wrong word since I don’t often get the opportunity to interact with his children. I have been divorced for over five years and my kids and I are very well adjusted in our lives. My boyfriend, however, has been divorced for only two years and it was a bitter, nasty divorce. He continues to fight constantly with his ex and his kids seem to be very volatile and unsettled. Add to that his very unstructured parenting style (which is 180 degrees from my parenting style) and we have some fundamental issues. He admits to compartmentalizing me in his life and feeling uncomfortable parenting in his style while I am around. I have tried very hard to be supportive while not offering too much (unwanted) advice. But whatever we are doing is not working. I don’t see how we could ever blend our families, as they are just too different, and I honestly wouldn’t do that to my children (i.e. upset the harmony we currently have).

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My boyfriend and I have great love and respect for each other, and like I said, when it’s just us, the world is perfect. In fact, when he’s around my kids (far more often than I am around his), we all do fantastically. But that’s not a sustainable model, is it?

I have asked him what he wants out of our relationship and his answer indicates that he wants a future together but is in no great rush. Nor am I. But I’d like to know we have a shot when it comes to moving along the continuum. We had a blowout about this very topic over the weekend. He recognizes he has a lot of issues that require some outside help, but I get the sense he is now at a crossroad trying to determine if he can reconcile his family life with his life with me.

I feel that I am at the same crossroad. Do I stay with someone knowing that I could potentially be a “girlfriend” for the next 10 years while we wait for his youngest to go to college? (I’m in my mid 40s). Do I hope that therapy will help him get through this difficult period with his family? We have a great relationship otherwise and I recognize how rare and wonderful it is. But he has boxed us in and that stinks. Some of this feels out of my control and being who I am, I just want to take control and walk away. But that is not what I really want. I want him and his kids to “even out” and be happy so that we can all hang out together, have fun, and grow. I realize he needs to want that too, but just wanting that is not enough, is it? So I’m left vexed. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. My “what would Mere say” bag of tricks is empty so I’m going to the source.

A. There are two issues here. One is his place in life and what he wants from the relationship, and the other is his parenting style. Together those issues are overwhelming, but only one of them matters right now.

It’s only been nine months. You’re still trying to figure out what you both want and need from each other . . . and whether you’re really falling in love. It’s too early to answer big questions about combining families. You just have to figure out whether you can continue to be there for each other and evolve as a couple despite his issues.

If the relationship continues to be great (despite the divorce and/or kids stuff), you can start talking about hopes for the future — a move-in, joint parenting, etc. You can find out whether his wishes match yours, and then work together to devise a plan. Again, at nine months, it’s too soon to plan with confidence.

If you stick around and you both decide that you want more, it’ll be time to start dealing with each other’s parenting styles. Only then will it make sense to come to conclusions about how you want to manage your kids when they’re all together. But please don’t confuse yourself with those kinds of questions now. It’s too early, and he’s just learning to manage his kids with his ex.

So that’s what’s in my Mere bag of tricks — a request to give them time to even out. I know you want answers quickly, but that’s not how it works. Let this relationship evolve and see where you both stand at 18 months.

READERS RESPOND:

There is no need to have a blowout about it. If you love and respect each other, you need to talk a lot about your ideas on parenting. If you end up together, it would be best if you could be consistent with the kids, but you have time to make that work. Talking a lot helps. It can be done if you are willing to make some compromises and honestly see the other person’s view (this is the voice of experience).

I’m curious to know if he dated anyone AFTER his divorce but PRIOR to you. Are you his rebound?

It’s only been 9 months; this isn’t going to work out. Pull the plug on this relationship and move forward. The fundamental differences are too great to overcome.

I feel like there are too many mountains to climb to make this relationship work. I think you answered your own question when you said you couldn’t see how you could blend your families together. I think it’s time to move on and find somebody that wants what you want.

Date and live in separate homes until the youngest of all the kids is in college. Better for the kids and probably more likely that your relationship will make it long-term that way.

It’s WAY too soon to worry about where this relationship will be in 10 years. First, you have to figure out what you both want and if you want it from each other; THEN focus on blending families etc.

Column and comments are edited and reprinted from boston.com/loveletters. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.
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