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Co-Parenting in an Unhappy Relationship

Co-Parenting in an Unhappy Relationship

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple years now and always find what ever advice I am usually looking for. I am a mommy to a beautiful, sassy, smart one year old girl. I work full time, am going to college and maintain all of the household chores. My live-with boyfriend of 3 years is a new business owner and a great father. He is very driven, motivated and hardworking and like I said, a great dad to our daughter — they adore each other.

Notice how I didn’t mention “great boyfriend.” We have had our share of ups and downs throughout the years and have almost called it quits a few times, yet we always end up holding on. Don’t get me wrong, we have our good days and can make each other laugh like crazy and are very comfortable together. But man, do we fight. I feel that we have completely opposite personalities and we fight about everything! From money (He insists on separate accounts), to parenting (He’s tough love, I’m not), and everything in between. I also feel that he has created a wall between us by lack of communication, keeping our money separate and he “I’m just not ready to get married” mindset.

There are days that I absolutely want to marry him but I as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know if it’s because of the right reasons and I don’t know if we should just try co-parenting as single adults. Sometimes I feel that’s how we do things anyways, just living under the same roof. Please help me see if I’m just feeling normal growing pains of a relationship and I need to just tough it out or if we are heading down a never ending path of unhappiness?

My gut feeling (admittedly based on a very short letter) is that you have a little from column A (normal growing pains) and a little from column B (never ending path of unhappiness). BUT. The longer you continue to more or less ignore column A and accept the current situation, column B is going to start looming much taller, and eventually take over.

In other words, I think this relationship CAN be saved, but it’s going to take work, and you BOTH have to be willing to do the work. It going to require couples/relationship counseling and professional help to tear down that communication wall, and coming to compromises via open, honest discussions that DON’T devolve into arguments. And an emphasis on true compromise, not just one of you giving in to the other in order to avoid the fight (and/or because you think letting your partner get his/her way will “help” the relationship), meanwhile you’re burying seething, endless resentment.

Look, every couple fights about money. And most of us have different parenting “styles” and need to find a way to co-parent as a united front. And I certainly didn’t marry my personality twin either. These are not dealbreakers in and of themselves. What IS a big problem is the pattern you describe of almost calling it quits because you’ve been having the same damn arguments over and over again with no resolution in sight. And in time, YES, those fights can and will undermine the good things you share with him, and the things you love about him.

On the other hand:  “We have a child together and live together and there are days when I absolutely want to marry him” vs. “I’m just not ready to get married.” THAT’S a big-ass problem, right there. That’s something I feel like should’ve been worked through by now. If the plan was to get married and you both genuinely wanted to be married…well, you’d probably be married. Right?

And while I’m far from old-fashioned about modern life and families, your boyfriend is not scoring any points with me here with the “I’ll live with you and have a baby with you but a joint bank account?? OMG no.” business. Separate accounts can certainly work for some households but it should at least be a joint agreement, because otherwise it breeds distrust (what’s he hiding?) and resentment (who makes more money or who pays for more things or who isn’t pulling in their equal financial weight). At the very least separate personal/business accounts that each fund an agreed-upon household account (with a clear, organized budget) might be a compromise that solves some of the money disagreements.

But I’m officially reaching beyond my pay grade and qualifications (as in: None At All) here. You guys need a therapist or counselor. Who you see, together, as often as it takes until you’ve sorted out both your specific fight topics AND the underlying foundation problems (communication, compromise, and a real connection as a romantic couple, rather than co-parenting roommates).

And if the thought of going through that prompts a “ugh no thanks I’d rather just break up” reaction in either of you, that’s definitely a pretty clean sign that Column B is a bigger problem than you’ve been willing to admit. And I am in no way an advocate for unhappy people staying in unhappy relationships, and especially not “for the sake of the child.” BUT. Because you guys DO have a child, I DO believe you owe it to her to ensure that you’ve given your life together every possible shot before calling it quits. Couples therapy might really change things for you, for the better. Or it might very well put your relationship under a super-realistic lens where you can see that co-parenting as single parents is, in fact, the right choice. But as long as that first outcome is in the realm of possibility and something you both want on some level, it’s worth working for.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Kit

    I agree with Amy on the “you owe it to her to ensure that you’ve given your life together every possible shot before calling it quits” but only to a point. You don’t mention *how* you fight, only that you do, but I would add that growing up in a tense house with parents who are together but fighting constantly is not necessarily better than having less-stressed, separated parents. Definitely try counseling and see if you can improve your communication and get on the same page, but I think you should also spend some time thinking about what kind of environment you want to raise your daughter in and whether this relationship can give you that.

    • Kim

      I think the couples counseling needs to be about getting their act together, regardless of what their relationship status becomes.  Because they have a longer term commitment than a marriage already, and figuring out how to communicate with each other is only going to help that child in the long run.  If they can figure out the love thing, that’s a bonus.

  • Sarah

    Just for some perspective on the money thing…my husband and I have never had a joint account (married 16 years). But what we do have is open communication about what bills are each of our responsibility and a willingness to adjust that split based on changing circumstances.

    Personally, I have no patience for the “I’m not ready for marriage” line from people who are ready and willing to have children, buy a house, and build a life with a person they know wants to be married. Especially when there is no timeline for a decision. It is a cruel move that undermines the self-esteem of their partner.

  • Ali

    For what it’s worth, I am in a generally happy marriage, but with two little kids that take up our time and energy, we fight at times and just generally don’t have the time and energy for each other that we used to. I think that is a pretty common thing as part of this stage of life. Parenting can really bring out personality differences in a way that just owning pets didn’t! 🙂 I would echo others in encouraging you to seek counseling. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is a “normal” growing pain vs what is a sign of real problems. best wishes to you and your family.

    • Michelle B

      I’m cosigning Sarah’s comment on the “I’m not ready for marriage” line. He’s ready for a shared home, a child, family life, but…not a piece of paper that somewhat formally recognizes that which he’s already committed to? 

      Agreeing otherwise with everything Amy said. My husband is also not my personality twin, and we’ve had plenty of arguments about how we plan to do things. However, we figure out a way that works for both of us – it may not be the absolute ideal for either of us, but it a plan that *works*. You don’t “need” to get married or have a joint bank account to make it work, but you DO need plans that work for BOTH of you.

  • SarahB

    How much sleep are you both getting?

    There’s plenty else going on here, but the first year of a child’s life is HARD, and that surely isn’t helping the position you both are in.

  • Stephanie

    Parenting very young children is really hard.  And it tends to highlight and even magnify any cracks in partner relationships. My husband and I have been married for twenty years, and some of the hardest times we’ve had as a couple were when my daughter (our first child) was a baby. I know that your daughter is not an infant, and you might think that you should both have adjusted to the drastic changes that a baby brings by now.  But it’s just hard. Babies are hard.  Toddlers are hard.  Young school-aged kids are hard. Not that it’s just hard all of the time and doom and gloom; of course it’s really great and rewarding and fun a lot of the time, too.  But it can take a while to find your groove again, as a couple.  Longer than you might think.
      
    I agree with Amy that counseling would be a good idea.  For all of the reasons she mentioned.   

    And, I’m with Sarah about the whole “I’m not ready for marriage” thing.  Having children together is way more permanent and binding than marriage.  You can divorce your spouse, but kids tie you to that other parent for at least the next 18 years, whether you stay together as a couple or not.  

  • Ida

    An additional piece of advice (because yes having babies IS hard in the beginning but there seems to be additional issues too) is to read the book Attached by Levine and Heller. I found it very helpful myself – in addition to a good night’s sleep – to better understand the interactions in my relationship.

  • Caroline

    So the baby, was that just an accident, or something you both wanted unequivocally? I ask because his unwillingness to fully share his life with you, in terms of money or marriage hints at a resentment and an ”I’m not getting trapped that way” mentality. It’s not to say that marriage is the only way, nor to say that unmarried couples cannot be extremely happy and committed, but generally it’s because they are on the same page. You two are not on 2 of the most fundamental stress areas in any relationship, 3 if you count the differing parenting styles. An unwillingness to co-mingle finances is always a red flat to me. Why not? Do you not share a child and a bed? Surely the trust and ”what’s yours is mine, we’re in this together” bridge should have been crossed? I see a lot of people have their own accounts – and that’s obviously a very personal decision, but no co-mingling at all, no shared costs that are ”ours”, one of you constantly having to reimburse the other, the bean-counting that inevitably happens (I do know a couple who did this and it was awful) is a minefield. Then there’s the issue of marriage. Did you have a child deliberately, knowing full well he was hesitant about marriage? If so, well, he hasn’t changed and the gamble didn’t work. If it was something he’s always promised but is failing to deliver on, that’s another matter. Honestly, without some proper couples counselling to establish what you each want and foresee as your futures, I wouldn’t hold out a vast amount of hope. Sorry to be blunt, but money, parenting and marriage are 3 dealbreakers… and you’re dealing with them all by fighting with no resolution.

  • Jeannie

    My husband and I had out first ten years ago, and added a second four years after that. We are not married; we don’t have a joint bank account. We don’t even parent exactly the same, and we certainly aren’t personality twins. None of these things is necessary to a committed relationship. The only thing that is is *commitment*. We are committed to our family and making things work. We are committed to our kids and to each other. 

    So in my opinion, the only question OP needs to ask her SO a is ,,.. Are you in, or are you out? Commit or don’t commit. That’s all. You can work out finances and marriage and co parenting if you are truly, 100% committed to the relationship. 

    (but I agree couples counselling is great, and a good way to sort out that commitment question.)

  • April

    I can’t speak to most of this question, but my husband and I have 5 accounts — seperate checking and savings and a joint checking. We each contribute to the shared account to pay bills and then the rest is ours. The main reason is that it allows me to be a saver and him a spender without fighting. We occasionally borrow from one another and repay, but I don’t feel like I need his permission to splurge on a new dress and he doesn’t have to get grilled by me every time he buys more music. That said, our accounts are not secret. We have access to one another’s information for emergencys and to reinforce trust.

  • CeeBee

    Take a look at the book “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” It doesn’t matter that you are not married. It can easily apply to two people in a relationship who want to stay in a long term relationship. John Gottman talks about habits that will keep you together or force you apart, along with exercises to strengthen your relationship. This is a great book for people who are smugly happy all the way to those on the verge of calling it quits. Its hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read and it’s backed up by 40 years of his own research.

    • Lisa R

      I was just getting on to recommend this book! Gottman is the man. He also points out that MOST arguments in a marriage are going to be things you’ve already discussed before–the trick is to make sure you’re doing it nicely each time and coming to a new compromise if you need it.
      It can be hard for me to remember this (married 5 years, 2 kids), but it helps to know that when the same things keep coming up it’s not that we are failing as a couple. Best wishes!

  • K

    We have been married 5 years. We got pregnant early in our relationship (like months in) and chose to get married right away. We have separate bank accounts, and an agreed upon model of who pays what from their account based on what we can comfortably do given our incomes. Things aren’t perfect – in a lot of ways we have different personalities, parenting approaches and sometimes even life goals/priorities. The first few years were hard, these last 2 have been hard for other reasons. All that to say – shared finances don’t mean anything. What has mattered more to us has been our decision to try to be kind and give 100% to each other. Were we ready for marriage? Who knows. But – if he isn’t all in, then it’s couples counseling or splitting, in my mind.