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Modeling A Healthy Relationship

“Two little boys bobbing for apples in an inflatable pool in Alexandria” by Ashton Bingham on Unsplash

My children are the result of a three-year marriage. It was very short-lived, but while it lasted, it was very volatile and unhappy. It was an incredibly unhealthy relationship, as my ex-husband cheated on me repeatedly and I stayed, believing him every time he said it was the last time. He was abusive, and I stayed, thinking he would change. He wouldn’t hear me unless I screamed about a problem, so all of our arguments were screaming matches rather than productive discussions.

Fortunately, my oldest son was only two and a half when my ex and I split up. I was still pregnant with my youngest when I filed for divorce, and he was only weeks old when the divorce was finalized. This is a good thing, in the sense that it meant my children were both young enough that they have little, if any, memory of how bad my marriage was. It also means whatever memories there might be are very vague and cloudy.

Over the years, I’ve had a few other relationships. Some good, some bad, and some longer than others. For the most part, my kids were not part of those relationships, so they were never affected by them.

These days, I’m in a long-term relationship, and my children are involved. They adore my boyfriend, and I think the feeling is mutual. They all enjoy spending time together and have great respect for each other.

And this is a good thing for many reasons.

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After my divorce, my children’s father ultimately decided that he didn’t want to be a part of their lives. This is not the choice I would have had him make, but it was not up to me. All I could do was live with it. That’s also all my kids could do.

They have grown up without a father. In truth, because of the kind of man he is, this is probably for the best. Some people would say that even a crappy father is better than no father, and I struggle with whether or not I agree with that every day. I’m not sure, knowing how inconsistent and narcissistic he would have been if he’d stuck around, that I could agree.

So my boyfriend’s presence in their lives now is kind of a big thing for them. It’s actually a bit funny, because sometimes all I have to do is say that he thinks or says something, and my kids will be on board with the idea.

They’re teens now, not so young that they’ll likely ever form a real father-son style bond with a stepfather, but they still could use that male influence in their lives. And as male influences go, my boyfriend is a pretty good one. He has a steady, good job, owns his own home, takes care of his daughter, helps his family, and loves me the way I need to be loved. He’s pretty awesome.

My dad is a wonderful grandpa, but he is Grandpa. He’s older and has some health issues that make getting out there and playing sports or things like that a little tricky. He’s from a different generation, which makes it more difficult for him to understand the things my sons deal with. He’s done his best to help me out with them over the years, but there’s only so much he can do.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, is my age and is better able to relate to them from that parent-child standpoint, and even though he’s yet to interact with them as a parent, he has helped me parent. He’s been able to provide that male influence on me, to remind me that I’m a mom of boys and that boys aren’t like me. They don’t think like me, act like me, or respond like me.

He can find things in common with them, and even if their relationship is never a parent/child relationship and remains just a friendship, at least my kids know they can talk to him. My boyfriend looks for things to talk to them about, something their father never would have done.

“Two guys sitting on a rock and having a conversation by the seashore of Laguna beach” by Cole Hutson on Unsplash

I don’t remind them that their father disappeared. Nor do I tell them what my relationship with him was like. Doing so would be easy. Easy to hold that relationship up next to my current one and say, “See, this is how bad it can be. And this is how good it can be.”

There’s even a school of thought, one to which I subscribe, that says that you can’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad. But I don’t think that’s true for everything or everyone. I believe I have a much broader appreciation for my boyfriend and our relationship because of the bad relationships I’ve had before, but I think I would still be able to appreciate him and our connection if I didn’t have that history behind me.

I don’t think my children need their father held up as an example of what not to be or do to appreciate what another man is willing to do for them. Nor do I think they need that to comprehend what a healthy relationship should look like.

They see a healthy relationship with the one my boyfriend and I have. Or the one my parents, who’ve been married for over 40 years, have. Or the one my grandparents had in their marriage of nearly 70 years before my grandfather’s death a year and a half ago. Or the relationships around us, like my best friend from high school who has been married for 20 years to her high school sweetheart, or my cousin who has been married for over 20 years to his high school sweetheart.

“An engaged couple holds hands against a wooden railing in black and white” by Shelby Deeter on Unsplash

I believe that children learn about healthy relationships at home. But that doesn’t mean that we have to necessarily be in one, or that we need to hold up a bad one as an example of what not to do, for them to do so. They can learn as much from what we don’t do as they can from what we do.

My sons have learned that you don’t have to settle for a bad relationship from the years I spent as a single mom. They learned that when you meet the right person, there’s no need to rush the connection from the slow pace my boyfriend and I kept in the beginning. They’re learning that even in good relationships, couples will disagree. With that, they’re also seeing that these disagreements don’t have to become screamfests, nor do they always have to end with someone in tears. They see healthy ways to resolve conflict.

There’s something else they see, too. They see me, knowing that I’m flawed as a human being and that I have issues because of my past relationships, working hard to overcome those problems. They see me backslide now and then and start to fall into old patterns with my boyfriend. And then they watch me catch myself, reset myself, and approach the situation differently, in a more healthy and productive way.

I didn’t get into my relationship because it would be good for my sons. But I can’t deny the benefits that it’s provided to them. I also can’t deny that, given a choice between them learning from this example or the example my marriage would have set, I’d choose this one any day.

One thing I will never do, however, is compare the two relationships for my sons. I know that my boyfriend is the superior man, and I know that my sons know that, too. They don’t need me to trash their father for that point to be made.