Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don’t.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I have been dating a recently divorced man (who is 42) for the past year, and have had to deal with a lot of emotional upheaval due to the finalization of the divorce itself – the somewhat difficult issues around how he feels and feels he is being treated by his ex-wife, and the emotional as well as financial stress involved in selling their marital home. (Thankfully there were no children to argue over, so the divorce was relatively fast and clean.) I myself have never been married. I am 33 years old, totally independent, and happy to live my life free of marriage, though I value a monogamous relationship. But, as child of divorce, I have a lot of experience in having to deal with it, to hear both sides and deal with emotional turmoil. I try to be supportive. I listen, allow space to grieve the loss, and try to give positive affirmation of my partner’s emotional state.
That being said, everything is not hunky-dory with us. When he and his ex were married, they had considered having children at some point but, near the end of their marriage, he decided to rule that out (I thought perhaps because the relationship was already breaking down). But since the end of their marriage and the start of our relationship, he has continued to maintain that he does not desire to have children and that he will never father my child.
I myself have pretty strict standards by which I would consider procreating! I don’t want to have a child unless I am 100 percent certain that I am able to emotionally and financially provide for the child by the best possible means. Being that I am already in my mid-thirties and in a new relationship with a man who doesn’t want children, and not financially sound enough to even consider children on my own, I have accepted that I will probably not have children. So be it. It sort of makes me sad that it isn’t in the cards for us, but also happy that we are able to make these important decisions and both agree that having children is something you don’t just do “because.”
But: we recently found out that his ex has moved on and is having a child with her new partner, and he is depressed over it. It’s not unusual that, when he has to deal with his ex-wife, he comes home exhausted, stressed out, depressed, and just wants to crawl into his safe place and be alone – and eventually talks to me about it. But this is beyond just that and bothers me more. It bothers me not because he is upset, but because he is upset specifically by her pregnancy. They both have moved on, finalized everything, have new partners and are moving in different directions. Why be depressed by her pregnancy when he doesn’t even want children, and has commented that he is thankful that he did not indeed decide to have a child with her? He doesn’t want children, not with her, not with me, not with anyone! I don’t get it.
The first thing I want to do here is call your attention to something that I assume everyone else reading your question already noticed: There is a lot in here about what you do for him in this relationship, and almost nothing about what he does for you. You are “supportive,” you “give him space,” you “listen,” you give him “positive affirmation.” In all of that, the best recounting of what he does is talk to you about his divorce and his depression, and make the decision with you to honor his desire not to have children, ever.
Obviously, this is one version of your relationship, I get that, and I’m sure that, had I pressed you in person like a close friend might, you would list a dozen great things about him. But, when writing me unprompted – and providing a lot of other context – you didn’t think to include anything about what an awesome guy he is and how great your relationship is otherwise (except for the bit about how great it is to come to a joint decision to honor his stated wishes to avoid being a parent). That’s when for me, the warning bells start to chime a bit.
I mean, yes, absolutely, no one should have a child that they don’t want and aren’t ready for, but – as I’m sure you know and I have written before – there is no 100 percent situation (financially or emotionally) that you can guarantee will last 18+ years, and no guarantees for the best possible means. Life is messy, complicated, unpredictable and (on average) pretty long, and sometimes the decisions you make today are ones you can’t unmake tomorrow. So the question for you is not whether your situation is the 100 percent perfect situation or will be soon. The question whether you want to be a parent and/or, in this specific case, whether you’re willing to give up being a parent even if you wind up in the best emotional and financial situation by your own reckoning with this particular man who says won’t father your child under any circumstances. (And in case it doesn’t go without saying, if he is very serious about not having children, he shouldn’t do it either, but you’re the one asking the question here.) Being a parent with him might well “not be in the cards” for you two, but that’s because he’s taking them out of the deck. You can still choose whether you want to play this version of the game.
But, to the larger question of why he is all depressed about his ex-wife moving on and having a baby with someone else, I think you know the answer in your heart of hearts. To put it plainly: he’s not really over her or the end of their marriage. Signing the papers, selling the house, finding another significant other, moving in different directions – sure, that’s moving on externally. But moving on externally doesn’t necessarily mean he’s past everything internally, and if a year into your relationship he’s still coming home from spending time with his ex (which: if the divorce is final and the house is sold, why exactly is he doing that?) and going somewhere to be alone (like bed) exhausted and depressed, that is not totally-over-it behavior. And being upset about her being pregnant with her new partner could, I guess, just be attributable to minor jealousy that she’s happy in a way she wasn’t with their marriage – which is at least a minor level of still-attached – but when added to the other symptoms you describe, it doesn’t seem that way to me any more than it does to you.
You say that he chose, near the end of his relationship with his ex, to “rule out” a child with his ex – not that they decided together to postpone parenting until their relationship became stronger, or that they decided together that their relationship never would be so. He “ruled it out” then, as he has already done early on with you (a rather patriarchal way of terming it), in a time of emotional turmoil. Maybe he really doesn’t want to parent – or maybe he doesn’t want the ongoing emotional ties to the perspective mother or a child, or maybe, just maybe, ruling it out for himself and, by extension, his partners gives him a sense of control over himself and his relationships. But whatever the reason, as you note, if he really, really, really didn’t want kids at all ever, yucky poo-poo, there would be no reason at all for him to have any feelings about his ex-wife having one with someone else. If having a baby didn’t matter to him, then it wouldn’t matter.
So, look: if your partner hasn’t gone to therapy, it’s way past time for him to do so. Talking to you, being able to lean on you, getting emotional support from you has, I’m sure, been great and been helpful for him (though it’s not clear that it has been for you). But clinical depression can’t be cured by the support of a significant other, and sometimes the sadness that is the result of major life changes (like divorce or a death in the family) can’t be resolved by talking it through with a significant other. If this depression-indicating behavior has been going on for ages, as you say, this is clearly one of those times that going it alone isn’t enough, and it might well time for him to get the professional help he may need and which everyone deserves. Helping him get to a therapist is just another way you might be able to support him.
And while he’s doing that, take some time to evaluate your relationship on your terms, possibly with your own therapist. You have clearly done a lot of emotional care-taking of him here and, from your letter, at least some of it has been frustrating. You’ve already identified one major life decision of yours that has essentially reflects his opinion on the matter though it makes you sad, and you’ve only been together for the last year. And you talk about doing all this care-taking as part of being the child of a divorce where you had to play the (very adult) role of having to “hear both sides and deal with emotional turmoil,” which seems to say something about how you see your role in relationships. Sure, it’s important to hear the other person’s side of things in any good relationship, but that doesn’t mean you need to privilege their perspective over your own or treat it as though it were simply another side of an objective story.
So, look: listen to that part of yourself which is upset with his behavior. Listen to the part of your brain which is identifying disconnects between what he says to be true (he has moved on, he doesn’t want children ever) and how he is acting (upset about his ex having a kid, depressed every time he sees her). In life and especially in relationships, we all have a tendency to take facts or statements that fit the pattern of how we want things to be, and discard the outlying facts that don’t work as well in that pattern. Think about what it is that you really want to have in your life in a vacuum, and then about how he fits (or doesn’t) into that vision, depression and jealousy-you-find-inexplicable and all. Think about how long it makes sense for you (and the kind of relationship you want in your life) to be doing all of this difficult emotional care-taking for someone, and how long you think it will go on, and what you are getting from him in terms of emotional support and thoughtfulness and real partnership. And then make some decisions about what’s best for you, and just you.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com