Cary’s classic column from Friday, Jul 11, 2003
I have four kids, so should I break with my sometimes violent boyfriend?
I’m a mother of four: three preteen boys from my marriage at the tender age of 19, and a 3-year-old daughter with my current live-in boyfriend. Here’s the deal. I had a lot of sex in my 20s, a lot of boyfriends, and was basically irresponsible. I was married young to my first real boyfriend. He left us when I was 21. Insecurity and immaturity and an endless pursuit for a father for my kids led to a string of real losers. I’m not talking about boring guys or guys who worked sporadically — I mean losers: drug addicts, criminals, men who wanted a free place to live, etc.
And the sex was good, on-the-edge porno-type fucking. When I was 26 I moved 3,000 miles away and started again. I met my current boyfriend, who was sweet, worked hard, and seemed to love me. He was younger, but I was immature, so it worked. He isn’t passionate, though — he doesn’t like to kiss, and he’s sexually selfish, preferring a blow job to the “extra effort” it takes to have sex, there’s minimal foreplay, and his sex drive makes sex every three weeks the best possible scenario.
A couple of years ago my father died, and suddenly I had a moment of clarity and from that moment on my kids have come before anyone or anything else in my life. I must have done something right, because I couldn’t have asked for better kids. They are compassionate, kind, and funny. My boyfriend cares for my sons and tries to show them in his way — which is usually by correcting them and being strict. He is an excellent father to our daughter. He takes on 50 percent or more of her care, gives her attention, and basically loves her to pieces. My ex-husband was remarried two years ago; since the marriage he has paid child support and asks for the boys to visit each summer. It’s fun for them, and I’m supportive of their need to develop that relationship. He was young, I was young, people make mistakes.
Here is my dilemma. I love my boyfriend, but am not in love with him. I was sooo in love when we moved in together, but when I had my growing-up incident a few years ago, I saw him in a different light. His angry outbursts pissed me off more. I was pregnant and since that time, I have often thought about leaving him, but then I look at all the changes he has made, and he tries so hard, and that makes me love and appreciate him, because I’ve met so many people who never try. In the past four years he has completed one degree and is working on another while working full time and making time for the family. He doesn’t drink, go out to the bars, or leave me wondering where he is at night. We have had episodes where there has been some physical violence. He grew up in a violent home. I put it off as the stress of being in a relationship with me, a bunch of kids, my jealousy, whatever.
He’s worked through that and sought some outside help. He doesn’t cheat on me. I’ve already had the experience of raising small people on my own and seeing their sad faces ask me for a father. I also hate thinking I had found one and then realizing that he’s kind of a dick to them — I mean, couldn’t he balance the discipline with some fun? My daughter has her father: Should that be my No. 1 priority? Do people have happy lives without good sex lives? If I told anyone that he has hit me before, they would automatically tell me to leave.
Have you heard of anyone working successfully through something like that? I have worked long and hard to make something of myself and provide a decent life for my children. I have overcome my own selfish, self-centered nature. I have prayed, cried and grown strong. I love my kids and feel that they have enriched my life so much. I love watching them grow and play.
I don’t need him, but I am afraid that I just feel that way because he is around and if he left I would revert to that person I used to be, and what if the next guy was worse? He wants to get married. If we broke up, I’m pretty sure that would be the end of my love life. I don’t think I want to go through the dating process or the having another man in my house process or the introducing my kids to another guy process. Nope, I think I’d be done, but who knows, maybe I’d become a total nympho again?
A Good Mother
Dear Good Mother,
I recommend that you make as amicable a split as possible with your boyfriend. Support him in his desire to keep close ties with his daughter, but free yourself and your sons from his oppressive yoke.
This is not an easy conclusion to reach. No matter what you do or do not do, someone is probably going to be unhappy with you. So you have to be firm and think of the next five or 10 years. What I’m thinking is that making some difficult changes now will improve your chances for a happy and secure future, and reduce some long-term risk to you and your children.
It’s not an open-and-shut case. As you say, some people will claim that if he’s ever hit you, even once, you have to leave him and that’s that. But abusers can and do change, and there are sometimes core economic and family issues to consider. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you must leave him because he hit you. Others would say that fatherhood and the family unit are sacred bonds that should not be severed under any circumstances. Again, although fathers have certain rights to their children, and children need stability in their homes, I don’t believe that you have to keep mother and father together 100 percent of the time.
It seems more a question of what brings the least harm and the most benefit to the most people.
Sometimes removing a “strict” father who is a source of fear and repression can be a good thing for a child. Those three boys may be absorbing from him a regime of intimidation and implied violence that will make it very difficult for them to live happy, peaceful lives as adults. You might go so far as to say that they are undergoing a process of slow spirit death, the steady banking of boundless rage. The conflict between him and your three sons will only get worse as they become teens and assert their manhood. Dangerous, traumatic and violent clashes could lie ahead. They will question his right, as simply a boyfriend or stepfather, to assert his authority over them; he in turn, unable to accept their challenge to his authority, may find himself striking out with fiendish cruelty, while justifying his violence as necessary to maintain order.
“It’s for their own good,” he’ll say, and by then the damage will be done. Such conflict could make you own life a living hell throughout their teenage years and damage your relationship with your sons for years afterwards. If he became a violent tyrant and you did not protect your sons from him, they would resent you and feel betrayed and abandoned. On the flipside, if you side with your sons against your boyfriend, his violence against you may erupt anew.
So I really think, hard as it is, that you should act now to remove him from your house and try to put in place a system of visitation that works over the long term.
If you find yourself concerned that leaving your boyfriend means depriving your sons of the discipline they need, consider this: While discipline is important, it’s confusing if only one parent is strict. Kids need to internalize a dependable standard of conduct against which to measure their own actions. If you and your boyfriend differ greatly in your strictness, your children may conclude that standards of conduct have no inherent validity but depend on the whims of whatever authority figure is enforcing them. That is a lesson that allows for criminal thinking: The standard of conduct becomes whatever they can get away with. They need to know that there is a standard of conduct that is always applicable. Even if it’s just you making the rules, even if you’re not a great enforcer, at least they’ll know what the rules are.
I sense that you have at times led a chaotic and impulsive life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: At least you are powerfully alive; you are not meek or cowering; you have a vibrant lust for experience, for ecstasy, for sensation and emotion. You may be a creative type who has not yet found her art, a deeply passionate person who simply has to learn how to direct and regulate her energies. Another reason I think you should move away from this man is that if he is a controlling type, you and he will come into sharper conflict as you begin to exert or sublimate your libidinous, expressive energies into other forms — music, dance or art, perhaps, forms that may threaten his need for control.
I think you will be OK on your own. You say you fear that without this powerful, authoritarian man in your life you may regress into sexual compulsion. I don’t think that’s likely, not if your kids remain your focus. That moment of clarity you had when your father died sounds like a significant, life-changing moment to me. I’m guessing it was about more than simply putting your kids first. I think you may have had a kind of vision, a visceral and highly personal awakening to the sacredness of life and the value of innocence, and the deep importance of primal bonds. If it has caused you to begin to think hard about your choices, it has changed you in a deep and permanent way.
Do not fear change. It is better to try to achieve something good than it is to try to avoid something bad. Both paths have risks, but only one can lead to happiness. So do not simply coast along thinking maybe this is as good as it gets. This is not as good as it gets. It gets much better than this. You need only the courage to act. Take strength in knowing you have come a long way and you are doing the right thing.