WTF Wednesday: My boyfriend makes his ex his priority — not me

single mom advice

Dear Emma, 

I’ve been in a relationship for 2 1/2 years with a man who is 10 years older and has a child from a previous relationship. They never married but decided to raise the kid together (even though they weren’t a couple when the kid was born). 

My boyfriend is amazing, says he wants to marry me, and I do not doubt his love for me — or mine for him. He treats me well and is there for me. He’s a great dad and I love spending time with him and the child.

However I feel the mother takes advantage of him and his kindness: if the kid is ill, she calls him and he is the one who has to leave work to care for the child. He always takes her to school because the mom says she doesn’t want a nanny or to be late for her job — so my boyfriend takes her  and in turn he is late! The mom claims she has no money and can’t afford things like a nanny, but is always going to parties…

My boyfriend won’t stand up to her because he doesn’t see it. He’d rather cancel plans with me than make the other woman cancel her own plans. It seems he always cares about her happiness and if something we do interferes with her plans, he’d cancel our thing so she can do hers.

 But with all of that plus the fact that they’re weirdly close really annoys me. He feels guilty he can’t give his kid a normal life and they do “family time” — the three of them go on bike rides, day trips to different cities, and other activities.

The woman has a long-term, live-in relationship. I don’t know how he feels, but I don’t think it’s heal they pretend they’re a normal family when they’re not!

This situation makes me feel like I’m his second best, like he regrets not being with her and so is settling for me.

I’m in my early 20s, not bad looking and with a bright future ahead; she’s in her 30s stuck in a dead-end job and objectively unattractive. So why do I feel so inferior? Should I worry that my boyfriend spends so much with her pretending things are normal and they’re a family? Shouldn’t he be doing family things with me, and the mother with her partner?

I’m so confused! Am I insane? Am I awfully selfish? Please help! 


Dear Natasha,

I believe you reached out to me after reading one of my most popular posts, Why single parents should put kids second when dating. The post is polarizing — either people get what I’m saying, or they don’t. What I am saying is: In a healthy family with two committed adults, that romantic relationship comes first — the nucleus around which children, in-laws, friends, careers and hobbies orbit. All those other things are critically important and require the adults’ devotion and attention, but the little solar system cannot be sustained without prioritizing the adults’ bond.

I hear in your note that is not the case in your relationship. Your boyfriends’ daughter’s mom comes first — then, it seems, his kid, then you. You resent that, as is totally understandable. You indeed are second or third in a relationship in which you deserve to be first.

There are other things at play. You wrote about your boyfriend spending time together with his child and her mom: “I don’t think it’s heal they pretend they’re a normal family when they’re not!” There is nothing wrong with the three of them spending quality time together. If they enjoy the time, it is a great way to teach the daughter about commitment, compromise and the true meaning of family — that marital status or living arrangements do not define people’s relationships or love.

However, if these activities consistently take place at the expense of your romantic partnership — as it sounds they do — that is another story. You of course, must make compromises in this relationship, and that may mean that some times when you’d prefer to be hanging out with your boyfriend, he is bike riding or zoo-going with his daughter and her mom.

In other words: Who is to say what is “normal” if everyone agrees to the situation, understands the parameters and expectations, and the activities and bonds create more love and more support for the children. You say he admits to trying to recreate a “normal” family life through these outings. This situation will never be a nuclear, two-parent household. But, it is completely possible that it could evolve into a healthy blended family of your own devices — one where a whole village of civilized adults come together to adore and support any children that are or come to be part of it.

However, it sounds like your resentment towards these outings is a direct result of your resentment about all the above relationships. You resent that your needs and plans are ignored when the mom demands your boyfriend’s time. You resent that relationship is more important than you. You resent that you are not appreciated for your beauty, success or youth.

You feel taken for granted. And from what I understand — you are.

I hear you mostly blaming the mom for this situation — that she complains about not having money when she very well might, that she makes unreasonable demands on your boyfriend’s time, and exploits his kindness. But you are in a romantic partnership with this man, not the mom. He is the one who allows this behavior. He cancels plans with you to appease her. He, you believe, is over-concerned with the mom’s happiness. He is the one who does not appreciate or prioritize you. So let’s focus on this man — not his overweight, underachieving ex (common, that wasn’t nice!).

You need to express your feelings to your boyfriend. Just say it like it is. At a calm moment, plainly tell him what you want and how you feel. Try:

“I believe that to make a relationship work, the romantic partners must be each other’s No. 1 priority. I adore your daughter, and one of the things I love most about you is what a great dad you are. I would never want to stand between you, and I hope I can become closer to her as you and I grow together. But right now I feel I am No. 3 in your life — behind your ex and your child. I resent this, and long-term, this will not work for me.”

Allow him to respond, and be prepared with specific examples of how you feel marginalized or unappreciated. Tell him you need to be able to rely on him. When you have dates or activities planned, he needs to adhere to those obligations, barring emergencies. Tell him in order for you to make your lives work together, you need a regular schedule that includes his daughter. He cannot regularly upturn his and your plans to appease the mom. As you said: he may not see his behavior, or how disruptive and hurtful it is to you (or himself). You must tell him.

While going through this, remember the basics of argument:

  • No blaming.
  • Stick to how you feel. He can’t argue with how you feel. That is your truth.
  • Be calm – no name calling or swearing.
  • Keep it current. Even if you are irate about something that happened last year, don’t bring it up. That is ancient history, and your relationship was not nearly as serious then as it is now.
  • Remember: You love him and want this to work out.
  • Be prepared to compromise.
  • Accept that this is very emotional and you do not have a 100% clear perspective (no one ever does).
  • Remind yourself of your bottom line: You deserve to be a priority and appreciated.

You may want to involve a neutral third party like a therapist, religious leader or friend.

And to answer your underlying questions: No, you are not insane or selfish. Trust your instincts!


xo, Emma

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

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