Q: My ex and I are co-parenting our 5-year old daughter. We each have her for a week at a time. For several years I have been in a relationship with a woman who is wonderful with my daughter and we recently moved in together.
My daughter's birthday party was last week. All four grandparents, friends, me and my ex, and girlfriend were all there. I thought it went great. My girlfriend said it was horrible because I was not affectionate with her as I normally would be (holding hands etc). I said it would be inappropriate in that setting. Help!
A: Granted, we understand that get-togethers of this sort can be stressful, but it is completely understandable if you feel that open displays of affection are inappropriate the very first time you attempt this type of get-together, and to expect you to do something other than what you feel comfortable doing, is very bad Ex-Etiquette, indeed.
However, in your girlfriend's defense, we must also point out that you get responses like this from girlfriends when a partner's boundaries are not clear, and since this is the first time you have attempted a celebration of this sort, we suspect you may be sending out mixed signals. In other words, your girlfriend may be questioning if she is as important to you as your child and even your ex-and she's looking for an open display from you to demonstrate, to those attending this shindig and to her, that she matters to you.
We suggest a frank, private conversation prior to any such get-together, remembering ex etiquette rule No. 8, "Be honest and straightforward" and reassure her of her place in your life. Then explain your feelings about affection in front of the ex (because open displays of affection in front of an ex can be perceived as flaunting and may complicate things far beyond a mere birthday get-together). Then come to an agreement as to how you will conduct yourselves as a couple in such a situation.
If you come to an agreement prior, she will know what to expect and will not be disappointed. Now, not only are your individual boundaries clear, but you have created a clear couple identity in which your girlfriend can relax and feel secure.
If, after you do all that, she still has problems with how you are acting, we suggest taking a good hard look at your choice of partner. You have a lot of time invested in this relationship, but you had a child prior to her getting involved with you. These issues were part of who you were when she met you. And you have the most equitable parenting schedule around. It is not for the weak of heart. Your girlfriend needs to get a little tougher or you may not be the guy for her, either.
Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharyl Jupe are authors of "Ex-Etiquette for Parents," and founders of Bonus Families.