Help! My Partner Doesn’t Seem to Like My Child


I am a mother of one child, and I share custody of that child with her father. I’ve been divorced for seven years, and for the last two I’ve been seeing someone I’ve become really close to. We’ve lately been discussing getting a place together, but there’s one thing that’s been bothering me—he doesn’t seem to like my child. He’s not mean, short, or even rude. He just doesn’t engage her, doesn’t talk to her much, and doesn’t seek out interactions with her. In fact, it’s like he’d rather pretend she isn’t there, unless he has to do otherwise. He prefers to go out and take trips when my daughter is with her father, even though I’ve said frequently that I’d like to include her in the future, at least some of the time.

My daughter is 8 and reasonably well-behaved, well-mannered, energetic but not too wild—in short, she’s a typical kid and acts like one. There are no underlying factors of health or behavior that might complicate the situation, and she really seems to like my boyfriend and though she hasn’t yet seemed to notice that he often brushes her off, I’m worried she’ll begin to and be hurt by it.

I’ve tried to talk to him about this, but he says he likes her just fine, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to talk to kids. It was a relief to hear that the first time, and I said he could talk to her about anything—a show she likes, the book she’s reading, or her friends at school, etc. But the next time they were around each other, nothing changed. This has become a pattern, and so I’ve mostly stopped bringing it up.

I haven’t dated much since my divorce, so I don’t have anything to compare this to. Is this normal? Should this be a deal-breaker? How can I find out what’s really going on, and whether it’s something that can change? —Mulling Mom

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Dear Mulling,

Thank you for sharing what sounds like a deeply complex dilemma. Dating when you have a child is so very hard because you are ideally looking for two connections—one between you and your partner and another between your partner and your child. It sounds like you have one of those connections, but not the other, and you’re trying to decide where to go from here.

I find myself feeling curious if you’ve talked to your daughter about how she feels about your partner. If you haven’t, it seems like it might be time. Invite her to be honest, and ask simple questions. Does she like him? How does she feel when she spends time with him? Is there anything she doesn’t like about him? What does she wish was different about him? Keep the questions directed at her experience of him; do not ask her to weigh in on your decisions about the relationship—that’s too much responsibility for a child to take on. After such a conversation, you may have a better understanding of her experience of him.

Even with an understanding of how she feels about your partner, it’s important to remember you are the parent and you are responsible for making the best decisions for your daughter.

Even with an understanding of how she feels about your partner, it’s important to remember you are the parent and you are responsible for making the best decisions for your daughter. For example, if the conversation with her validates your belief she is unaware that she is being brushed off, this doesn’t mean she will remain unaware. You indicate a concern she will notice and it will hurt her. I think that is a valid concern. As she grows, she will almost certainly realize his disinterest in her, which may be hurtful in the moment but may also send a message to her about what she should expect in her own relationships.

You ask how you can find out “what’s really going on” and if it can change. This can only be addressed with him. It sounds like you haven’t seen any change in his behavior with your daughter and the conversation between you and him is so unproductive that you have ceased having it. Perhaps it’s time to consider enlisting the support of a couples therapist. If both of you are willing, a therapist can help you to move beyond this impasse and have a more productive conversation.

If he is unwilling to engage in therapy with you, it might be a good idea to engage in your own therapy. This is gut-wrenching. You’ve found a relationship you feel happy in after your divorce but question—with good reason—what the impact might be for your daughter. There are no easy answers here, and having the support of a therapist could be helpful as you try to set a course for your future.

Best wishes,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Shelley


    August 18th, 2017 at 2:42 PM

    I think that it is time to not only have a good long talk with your partner but also a good long look at yourself. This is obviously not the kind of relationship that you want to get into if the person that you are with does not love and respect this child like he would his own. Step families can already be so confusing and complicated for any family, especially those with young children. Don’t ever make the mistake of letting your child feel like you have chosen a partner over her.

  • Adrian


    August 21st, 2017 at 7:13 AM

    I have a different perspective than Ms. Noel and even Shelley…. I am in a relationship where I am in the role of your boyfriend… I am married, and my husband has a 19 year old step-son. Being in this step-mother role is not an easy one. You are expected to take on the same responsibility yet “you aren’t the parent” and the child is allowed to not have to listen to you. Part of what I could imagine going on here is that you have someone from the opposite sex trying to figure out how to have a relationship with a child who they have nothing in common with besides you. For example when I met my step son he was cordial, but he would not talk to me, and if he did it was one word answers. I want a relationship with him, but I don’t know how. His main interests is watching sports and playing sports. I have gone to his games, I have played with him, but I can not have a conversation about sports because it does not interest me. Kids know when people are faking and trying too hard too. Now that he is a bit older and in college I reach out to him to help him with his resume or job skills and I’m still pushed away. Without you there would be no relationship between your daughter and your boyfriend. My advice would be to create activities where everyone can have fun and interact like playing board games, doing a science project together, going swimming, something where you have to interact with each other and it’s not forced. It takes a VERY long time, YEARS to build a relationship like that, don’t expect to rush it. My step son has a step father who has essentially raised him as his own, they get along well. He’s been in his life nearly his entire life and they have everything in common. I think sometimes it is easier to forge a relationship with step-children who are the same sex. My husband was married before he met me and his first wife experienced the same challenges forging a relationship as I have with his son. The difference is I have been myself, and genuine. I don’t bombard my step-son with routine questions, “How’s your mom? How’s school? How’s sports?” My husband sees that the relationship is not the greatest, but he also sees that is just how his son has up a wall. He’s not outwardly rude or disrespectful towards me and right now that’s all I can really ask for. I’ve had to give up my idea of how perfect I wished my blended family would be and accept it for what it is. It’s hard. I’ve heard if you want to have a marriage or relationship work you put your spouse first, not your kids. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Sure you make sure their basic needs are met. But remember your kids are not your significant other. It’s a delicate balance. I can’t tell you how resentful I have felt towards my husband at times for putting his son above me… His son would be inconsistent about wanting to visit. He had his own car and would drive yet text my husband last minute to pick him up which was a 3 hour round trip drive and we would already have other plans that had to be cancelled. (I don’t understand why his son would never drive to visit us, and why we always had to pick him up and drop him off at his mother’s house.) Or how we would look forward to see him because we made plans and at the last minute something would come up and he would cancel on us. I felt like my life was being run by a teenager with no boundaries, and no consequences taken place. It takes a special person to be accepting of walking into a situation where they’re not the first spouse, and there are kids involved. It’s a role that can be overlooked and taken for granted. It gets complicated for everyone when you are divorced and have kids from another relationship. Please realize that this is not your boyfriend’s child and he doesn’t have to have any feelings towards her, the same for your daughter. They don’t have to love each other, and they don’t even have to like each other, but they do need to be respectful to each other. Kids in these types of situations can learn to be EXTREMELY manipulative. They know there is a breakdown in communication between you and your ex most likely, and possibly your significant other and they will use it to their advantage to get what they want. At 8 years old that may look like “Mom can I have a cookie before dinner?” “No.” ” Dad can I have a cookie?” “Sure!” But what does this look like as a teenager? Suzie Q is grounded by mom for texting naked selfies to her boyfriend. Suzzie Q goes to dad’s for the weekend, ” Hey dad can I go out to the movies with some friends ( and boyfriend)?” “Here’s $20, have a good time.” There needs to be communication between all adults to be on the same page with the kid. Everyone is going to want to be the fun parent and the most likeable. When your daughter is with your ex you have no idea what’s going on when she is not with you. The other side of your daughter’s family can also play a big role in her interactions with him. I was raised in a blended family and as a kid I didn’t know how offensive it would be to my mom’s side of the family to also call my step-mom (at the time girlfriend) mom also. Your daughter may feel like she is betraying her father by befriending your boyfriend. The whole thing is a complex issue for sure. Maybe I went a little overboard here with my comment, but I’ve lived it as the child, and I’ve lived it as the wife/ step-mother.

  • Heather


    August 21st, 2017 at 1:11 PM

    The point is that no one ever said that being a step parent would be easy. It isn’t easy being the biological parent either. But you owe it to the family to try to step up and be everything that that child needs you to be. If you are not willing to do that, then you should bow out.

  • Rex


    August 23rd, 2017 at 2:13 PM

    This can be a challenge in today’s dating world because there are a lot of single parents out there, and you might be interested in someone before you even know that they have a child. I don’t think that it is wrong to be a little hesitant about getting further involved with someone with kids if you are not sure that you are ready to be a parent. It can be even harder when there is a divorce issue that the parents still are battling over and man, who wants to have to get in the middle of that? There are so many issues that you have to think about before fully committing to a relationship where this will definitely be something that has to be confronted.

  • lexi


    August 24th, 2017 at 2:36 PM

    What do some of your friends have to say? Do they think that eventually he could come around?
    Sometimes they have their finger on the pulse of the situation far better than what we may have being in the midst of the relationship/

  • Paul


    August 31st, 2017 at 1:28 PM

    Blended families aren’t as easy as most may believe. The Brady Bunch had us fooled.
    I agree that communication has to be aligned with all parties involved. I came into my relationship with two children and my fiance came in with one child. I treat all of the children the same. I don’t use the phrase “step” when speaking because I look at my oldest girl as my blood daughter as well. My youngest daughter was only months old when my fiance and I became involved. Now I feel, based on visual interaction, that my fiance doesn’t embrace her as one with their history should. She’s 7, so she’s definitely a handful as any other 7 year old is. As a parent, you see things differently when it involves your child. My fiance is harder on my 7 year old vs her 12 year old for issues that relate to the same things. She uses phrases like ” your child” or “your kids” and it really bothers me. Talking through some things allowed it to get better, but ultimately, the suggestion of counseling may be the best option. That mediator gives a push for people to speak their true mind. Sarah’s suggestion for couple’s counseling just ignited a flame for me.
    MULLING MOM & ADRIAN – I suggest the same for you as well.

  • Suzette


    November 26th, 2018 at 12:37 AM

    I am married for a second time my son lives with his father, so i don’t see him as much, but we spoke regularly. my problem is every time I tell my husband something that my son said or did something , he always have something negative to say, and I rely don’t know what to do any more He knows that I get upset when he does this but he still carry on , he has daughters and they are always the best always have best marks from school always does best at sports , my son also do his best and he also do sports but still it is not good.
    what do i do , do I just walk out of my marriage.

  • Andy


    November 25th, 2019 at 1:01 PM

    Hi Suzette, I’m in a similar situation where I have children from previous marriage. All my kids are polite and well behaved in most cases and my partner was fine for some time. But after some years perhaps a jealousy has crept in as if I see my children which is not often these days or if I speak about them she makes quite nasty comments about them. I put it down to her not having much contact with her own children but cannot understand as a parent how someone can be so nasty and not realsie how upsetting to me that it is as I never speak ill of her children.

  • Venina


    July 10th, 2019 at 8:25 PM

    What is the best solution to make my husband understand my only daughter{from another men}.What I usually do is keeping some aside from my pay so that I can financially supporting her without my husband concern.My daughter is 15yrs old and also the same period my husband and I are together.One day I was just trying to get his opinion by sharing with him,like what if i want to go and see my daughter or even attend her parents interview in school or if she could spend her school holiday with me? I just take into heart when I get a NO from him.

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