Ask Bear: Can My Boyfriend and Me (and His Kid and His Ex) Make a Home Together?

Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email  [email protected]. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length. 


Dear Bear,

I've been with this fellow for 2.5 years now. We both had been in long-term relationships prior to meeting (his was 11 years plus a kid, mine was five years plus a cross-country move). We adore each other, and have talked about moving in together for almost two years.

He has a unique situation, one I've never seen or heard of. He and his ex still live together, in a house with two other people. He says it's for ease of taking care of their kid, who is now almost nine. Now he and I have been pre-approved for a mortgage and have been house-hunting for not just us and his kid but a place that would accommodate his ex, too.

I have been trying so hard to be understanding and compassionate to their situation and both he and his ex's desire to both live under the same roof as their kid. At the same time, I've been convincing myself that I would be ok with all of this, but deep down I am not. And I told him this, that I do not want to live or share space with his ex. She is nice, a great mom, etc. But I think it's totally reasonable to not want to live with my boyfriend's ex, right? He understands this, too, and is supportive. But now what?

Also, what bugs me to no end is that in this whole process - going to home buying classes, running around looking at houses in between work, kid, dogs, other commitments, etc.- his ex isn't doing anything to a) help this co-housing future and b) isn't trying to figure out her living situation outside of just living with us! It's super frustrating in my opinion to have to find a home not only for me and my dude and his kid, but his ex, too. I am starting to feel resentment, anger, extreme insecurity and doubt about whether this future is for us or for them and I just happen to be someone who can financially help. I want to live with my dude, and build a life with him, and not feel like I am just joining their thing. HELP!

• • • •

Dear Brave Correspondent,

So the good thing about falling in love later in life is that we often come to it with a stronger sense of self-preservation and better discernment about what makes a good match, partnerwise. But a hard part can be that the people we fall for may have entire previous lives, including exes and children (and bankruptcies and bad decisions and burned bridges and who all knows what else). It’s a lot, and your feeling of overwhelm seems totally reasonable.

First, though: the custody arrangement you describe is called “nesting.” It has versions, but the basic principle is that the kid(s) stay put and the parents move around, or co-habitate in some version—often with renovated/separated spaces or other clear boundaries so that the adults have little or no access to each other’s space while the kids have access to both or all parents. In child development terms, it’s proven to be very good for the child(ren) if the adults can make it work. It’s not uncommon, and is gaining popularity as the benefits (to the child) become more clear. Perhaps the news that this actually is a thing will help you feel less weird about it?

You also don’t talk about your relationship with this kid. Will you be a step-mother type of person? Are you already doing that kind of thing? Have you had some conversation about this with him? With her?

My first concern about your situation is that the “clear boundaries” part seems to be missing. Your letter contains no indication that anyone but you has thought much about separation of the adults—privacy, emotional space, or anything similar. I am also not sure that either your dude or his ex have completely appreciated the emotional/psychological buffer that living with two other people has afforded them in terms of intimacy, house rules, etcetera. There’s a world of difference between four adults living in a group house where two of them are coparenting a kid but everyone has their own room, and what seems to be happening here in which your dude will try to negotiate living with his ex-person and his current-person (kind of gives me hives just to think about it).

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It’s also totally valid that you’re upset with the ex for just kind of… taking the ride. She may also feel like because she doesn’t have the money for this change to happen then she can’t or shouldn’t participate. Are there specific things you wish she would do to help, or ease your time crunch? Can you discuss them with your dude, or with her? Is she perhaps stalling the process, or dragging against it, for her own emotional reasons?

I think you need to open up a conversation with this guy and tell him that you love him and the kid but that you would also like some privacy at home, and you will only be comfortable entering into a living arrangement where his ex has her own, self- contained space or where she lives elsewhere entirely. This could be a duplex, condos in the same building, or a renovated space like this separated house in which the adults have separate apartments but the kids stay in their rooms. There are versions of this, but even fairly friendly ones are built on the “good fences make good neighbors” principle. It’s fair to want to have your new house with your sweetheart be your house together, including his kid but not his ex-partner.

Here’s where reality sets in, though. Is that within your means, financially? If not, what amount of compromise are you willing to accept? I think you need to really discuss this with your dude, probably with the assistance of a professional—and definitely with the help of a lawyer. Your own lawyer. Before you buy any kind of anything bigger than a backyard grill, I need to advise you most strongly to have a legal agreement drawn up about who is entitled to what.  Are your dude and his ex legally considered common-law spouses because they have continued to cohabitate? What is the law where you live about your role with this child if you and dude cohabitate—in some places, if you and dude live together, you could be considered to have the “rights and responsibilities of a parent” and be responsible for child support if the two of you separate. What happens if you want or need to sell? Don’t, whatever you do, let yourself get to the deposit stage of buying something without a very clear legal agreement about what everyone’s rights and responsibilities are regarding this property.  I guarantee that whatever you feel about his ex now, if you find yourself with a house you no longer want to live in because of your relationship but can’t sell because of his obligations to his kid and/or ex? That won’t be good. But also, in Jewish tradition, we use the ketubah—the marriage contract—to specify the obligations we take on if the marriage has to end, because it’s easier and nicer (and fairer) to plan for the end during the bright and generous beginning. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, this is a concept you could borrow.

The good news is that he’s a committed and involved parent and wishes to stay that way. Being a person who sticks with a thing even when it gets difficult or complicated is hard to come by, especially for people who are dude-identified and get plenty of cultural room to just bail out if they want. The bad news is that he may have to be the one to provide for his ex, either money or solutions or both. She may just be unwilling or unable. Ideally, your dude would absorb all of that without letting any get on you, but that’s not really how humans work. That’s not to say you have to accept whatever’s offered because of some hum-de-hum angels-singing claptrap about the love for a child being the most pure love or whatever.  But it is to say that now would be a good time for all the adults involved to frock up and have a serious conversation. This, again, is where some professional assistance (couples/family system counseling) might really benefit you.

Bottom line, Brave Correspondent, this is going to take some work. Children are a lot of work, and getting serious with someone who has children means being prepared to do some of that work. In small ways, it means giving up a certain number of weekend mornings to breakfast and soccer practice instead of going back to bed and having sex again. In large ways, it means finding a way to structure your entire living situation so that your dude can also be an involved co-parent. I think probably some of your upset can be worked through, and some of it will show you where your boundaries are.

I think that if your dude is really invested in you, this can be managed in a way that doesn’t leave you jockeying for counter space with his ex. If not, maybe what you have learned is that it’s not the right time for you two to buy a house together— which would be sad, but not as sad as finding that out after you co-owned a house. More importantly, you will have learned to actualize the feeling that your needs are 100% as important as anybody else’s needs, Brave Correspondent, and that understanding will serve you well in all your endeavors for the rest of your life.

Love and courage,

Bear

        Read this next: Ask Bear: My Friends Say I Can't Take A Joke
        Read this next: Ask Bear: How Do I Talk To My Partner About Nonmonogamy?

by S. Bear Bergman
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Bear is a writer, storyteller, publisher, and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing. Check out where else to find him or his work at sbearbergman.com.

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