When my partner announced his ex and three youngest children were moving in with him that evening, conventional thinking said that I should lose my cool.
Practically, I could see it made sense: his ex’s rental house was full of mould, the landlord wanted to raze the property and alternate housing options were slim. Meanwhile Joseph*, my partner, lived in a house with a sprawling floor plan and myriad empty bedrooms.
The pessimist in me saw this as the end of our physical relationship – adios sleepovers, and regular mid-week sex. I liked our morning coffee ritual and relied on evening meals together to debrief and get advice.
In the face of my concerns, Joseph’s stance was simple: support his children’s mother and his children will thrive. This unwavering devotion to his family is part of why I fell in love with him in the first place; I also knew his perspective (one from which my kids could have greatly benefitted hadtheir father adopted it) was spot on.
The optimist in me slowly started to emerge – I had, after all, been included in the conversation from the beginning. I also felt in my gut that this was the next step in the strengthening of our connection.
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So far, I’ve been proved right.
Routine can breed complacency: this scenario was far from that, and it forced us to think more deeply about what we both wanted from our relationship. In order to create a future together, I could see that Joseph needed to step back into his past.
Our relationship has been unconventional since the start. We were both married when we met five years ago at Joseph’s gym where I attended classes on weekday mornings when my kids were at school.
Getting fit was my self-care, an attempt to create space in my life despite an unfulfilling marriage, a chronically ill child (my five-year-old daughter was awaiting major surgery) and my lacking sense of purpose as a stay-at-home mum.
It wasn’t until I booked a personal training session with Joseph that our friendship took shape. I spoke candidly about feeling trapped in a relationship where I was misunderstood, drinking to fill the void, and fearing that my daughter would die.
As Joseph worked to learn his kids’ routines and participate in them fully, I gave him space to figure things out
When she did, due to post-surgery complications, Joseph was my rock.
My routine trips to the gym were increasingly followed by shared midday meals of scrambled eggs with avocado and coffee. Joseph asked me regularly whether I was sure my marriage was over; he had no interest in breaking up a home, and challenged me to examine my decision.
Time and again, I told him I was sure. I was also certain, as our friendship deepened and we began to fall in love those first six months, there was no changing what either of us brought with us: I knew about his ex and kids – in fact there was another ex, and more kids.
So when he told me a year ago this month that one set was moving in, I made a decision to keep our lives moving forward.
As Joseph worked to learn his kids’ routines and participate in them fully, I gave him space to figure things out. That meant I didn’t meet his children to begin with, and I only encountered his ex in passing.
We had to get creative, scheduling digital dates after bedtime and occasional weeknight dinners at my house when he had breaks from the children, which made our fleeting time together all the more valuable. I mourned the chance to have him over when my own daughters were with their dad but being in such close proximity to his kids made him more relaxed, patient and present when he was with me.
Coupled with a global pandemic, however, the set-up has tested my limits. Joseph runs a business from his home, but I can no longer drop in unexpectedly and as Covid-19 continues, venues for impromptu coffee dates or dinners out have diminished.
Without the promise of being together with Joseph every day, I have become more present when we are
Every once in a while, when I sink to a particularly low place, I think: my boyfriend lives with his ex, this is not normal. To which, Joseph always responds: ‘What is normal?’.
Thankfully, jealousy does not rank among the wide-range of emotions our living arrangement has brought up. I know Joseph has chosen not to be with his kids’ mother and, as my best friend likes to remind me, had there been a chance of them reconciling their differences and getting back together, this past year would have been the opportunity.
Without the promise of being together with Joseph every day, I have become more present when we are. He’ll come over and we make dinner and listen to Drake; other times we lie on our backs in the grass and have deep conversations. Then we climb into bed and pull the covers over our heads in an attempt to shut out the world for just a handful of hours.
Our ability to communicate clearly and openly has skyrocketed and our friendship is more solid than ever. We cheer for each other’s successes and stand ready to support one another when things go awry, which is the most important part of a successful partnership and hasn’t changed over the course of our relationship.
The lessons we’ve learnt have been huge, and perhaps the most important has been about how successfully partnering with one another starts with strengthening ourselves.
Over the past year, I have taken deep dives with my own teenage daughters who continue to struggle with the toll death and divorce have taken on our family; I have reconnected with girlfriends who I didn’t always make time and space for when living with Joseph. I finally completed a manuscript that chronicles my journey parenting a sick child.
Life will forever be full of background noise and other people but that’s OK; the key is to focus on the future. I am 45 years old, and I still get butterflies every time Joseph arrives on my doorstep.
None of this forever, just for now, Joseph reminds me. I know he is right and I trust we will create a fulfilling life together. While neither of us aspires to be married again, we are definitely to live under the same roof.
In the meantime I look for the silver lining that always exists, even with the craziest of circumstances: if our life experiences inform who we are, then I must learn to love others not in spite of all they bring to the table, but because of it.
*Names have been changed
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