Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Ask Dr. Andrea is a series from The Lily with Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and advice columnist. She answers questions about relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Bonior, please send us an email.

Dear Dr. Andrea,

My ex and I have shared joint custody of our 4-year-old. We broke up in large part because of his lack of drive and unreliability about day-to-day things. I am much more energetic with more adventurous goals and although he is a good father, he was never able to live up to what I had hoped for in a partner. I was constantly frustrated with him and felt at times like I had to be his mother or his cheerleader just to get him to do the things he should automatically do as an adult. We fought a lot.

Fast forward two years.

We have a good relationship as co-parents. Neither of us have dated anyone seriously. He has expressed remorse for our breakup and has hinted that he wants to try again. We have been each trying to work while alternating who has our son. It has been very hard but we have gotten along well through this pandemic. My son’s child care is once again in doubt through the fall. I don’t see any easy answer because whichever one of us has our son will still have to work each weekday. He has suggested moving back in together so that we can cover each other throughout each day. He says it makes sense even on a temporary basis and will be best for our son, so that he can get more attention throughout the day depending on who has a lighter workload. Right now, we live about 10 miles apart so I can see how it could be an advantage. But I need to think through the considerations here. I am worried that this will lead to us getting back together again, and I don’t think that’s what I want. But we are also our son’s family, and maybe it makes sense for families to be together now. Thoughts?

—Pandemic parenting

I think this could go very, very well. I also think this could go very, very poorly.

(Sorry. Let me explain.)

There are several factors that could make this an optimal solution: you co-parent and get along well; you could combine forces hour to hour for better care for your son; he’d be shuffled around less; daily life would be simpler. Certainly, plenty of people are living in situations right now that aren’t meant to be permanent arrangements even though they make great sense during this crisis. I’m sure you’ve imagined how much easier it would be for you to hand off your son from kitchen to living room rather than home-to-home.

But, if you remove the current crisis, imagine how it sounds: My ex and I may move back in together, on an indefinite basis, and he wants to get back together with me but I don’t want to with him. And oh, yeah, we have a young kid who would be along for the ride. The red flags seem more glaring there, once the extenuating circumstances are removed. And the problem is, a 4-year-old may not understand the impact of the extenuating circumstances: To him, this could be confusing and bring false hope.

Which leads me to a set of considerations. I could still see this being potentially workable and beneficial, but only if communication beforehand is clear and thorough and expectations are managed.

Most important, how would your son see this situation? What does he already understand of your and your ex’s relationship, and might this give him false hope? How would it be for him to have you all move apart again? Could having a set end date (not that this pandemic would make it easy) from the get-go mitigate this? What does “temporary” mean? (If one of you is thinking three months and the other a year, that’s a problem.)

How would this decision be conveyed to others, and would you two be on the same page about that? What would the sleeping arrangements be? What would happen to the home that isn’t being used?

Might the very same things that led to fighting while you lived together in a relationship lead to fighting while you live together not in a relationship? You’ll need to be as realistic as possible about this, especially since the day-to-day disappointments of your relationship may very well come up again.

And how can you make sure to not give your ex false hope? His “hinting” at getting back together could mean anything from just thinking out loud to a full-on agenda.

Finally, what would happen if one of you wanted to start dating again (in whatever contorted pandemic form that might take)?

Think through all these realistically.

You’d be doing this for your son, so the implications in terms of him should be top of mind for every answer.

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