Does my divorced partner feel too much parent guilt?

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Question: My partner has been divorced for more than five years. He is the one who initiated the divorce, and I know at the time he felt a lot of guilt over his kids not having their mum and dad living together.

I have no children of my own. He and his ex share joint custody, with the kids spending one week on, one week off with each parent. Fast forward to now, and he still feels guilty. To the extent that when it's our week to have the kids, he expresses that he feels torn if I ask for attention.

He could, for example, spend the entire day with the kids without me, doing an activity, and if I ask him for some solo time that evening, he gets wracked with guilt. I have recently relocated to another city for a great job opportunity, and I knew he wouldn't move with me so he could stay hands-on with his kids. But when we all got together recently after a month of being apart, he still felt bad about giving me some prioritised time.

Because I'm not a parent myself, I struggle to empathise with his level of guilt. Is this normal? I'm not a needy person, but I consistently feel like I'm in an unwanted competition with his kids, which isn't healthy for any of us.

Answer: I receive many questions about families and children of divorce, so thank you for this. I've read your note many times, and here is the one question you ask of me: "Is this normal?" Meaning, is your partner's level of guilt normal? "Normal" is such a loaded, yet useless, word that I am loath to use it here.

Instead, let's reframe this: Should you stay with a man who is healthily or unhealthily invested in spending time with his children? It appears that the answer is no. If you feel like you are "unwanted competition," then you have all the answers you may need.

There are so many details that I don't know here, and I don't know why your partner is so guilt-ridden. (Did he have a wretched separation from his ex, emotionally wrecking his children? Or was he the one primarily wronged, and hence he mourns that loss of the nuclear family for his children?)

I know and have coached many divorced parents, and all suffer at the thought of hurting their children. Even when the marriage is toxic and separation is clearly the answer, parents would do virtually anything to not cause their children to worry. Even if your partner is doing his best and parenting his bottom off, his sense of inadequacy won't allow him to rest. And this, sadly, you are not going to change.

Of course, I am going to recommend all the things that everyone will recommend to you: clear communication, couples counselling, and an exchange of clear values and needs. But, since you have moved away, you seem to know where this relationship is headed: nowhere.

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Although I want your partner to stay close to his children and it is wonderful that he has them part-time, a relationship built on insecurity is a slippery slope to misery. When guilt and love become intertwined, it can cause parents to lose their footing, their own leadership, and sadly, themselves. I hope that your partner, with or without you, finds a way to be with and enjoy his children while tempering his guilt.

My last thought is also a question that I don't have an answer to: Are your expectations unreasonable, and could it be that your partner is not feeling guilty at all? You say you don't have kids, and although I believe childless people are as empathic as any parent, maybe you don't appreciate what your partner has been through and the time he needs with his children.

It could be that your requests are out of line with his values, and this is a competition you won't (and don't want to) win. If you are competing against children for love, what would winning in that scenario be? That they lose? No one wants that, and you deserve to be with someone with whom you feel equal.

If you are up for it, ask some trusted friends (with and without children) if you are being reasonable in your requests of time. Then, have a crystal-clear conversation with your partner about what you need out of the relationship. He can either meet your needs or he can't. If he cannot, let him go.

If you are reasonable and he is tortured by his guilt, you have to be truly committed to this relationship for the long haul, and that doesn't sound like something you want to do.

Good luck.

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