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Who Comes First: Partner or Kids?

Ask a therapist — and mother of seven—how to prioritize

QUESTION: My girlfriend is upset that I put my kids before her. I’m doing the right thing, right?

Military dad hugging his two kids with a semi-truck in the background.
Did you leave her in the cab? (Image credit: coastguard.dodlive.mil)

First, congratulations on being a stand-up parent. There aren’t enough of you in the world, so round of applause. But are you entirely right to put your kids first? Let me ask you a few questions, because the answer’s not as simple as you might think.
  1. How long have you been dating?
  2. Is your relationship with her the reason you’re no longer partnered with your kid’s mother?
  3. Is she crazy?
  4. Is she kind?
  5. Does she want you to be a good parent?
  6. Has your ex ever referred to you as “Disney Dad”?
  7. Do you hope to marry your girlfriend?
  8. Are your children at risk of becoming entitled narcissists?
  9. Are your children around the age of 15? Older? Adults?
  10. Are you being kind?


Answer Sheet

Answered all ten questions? Let’s examine the answers.

1. Longevity. If you’ve been dating less than three months, you don’t know her well enough to introduce her to your kids. Absolutely prioritize the kids. Longer than three months? Go to the next question.

2. Infidelity. If you dumped your kids’ mother (or she dumped you) because you were cheating, and it was with this woman, your kids are broken. Again, absolutely prioritize your kids. They’re going to need every bit of your energy and time, over an extended period, to get unbroken. But if she had nothing to do with your split from your kids’ mother? Go to the next question.

3. Stability. “Crazy” isn’t a clinical term. But it’s a useful one nevertheless, and it applies equally to men and women. Does your partner get overly dramatic? Have an explosive temper? Have emotional meltdowns? Get aggressively jealous? Overspend? Experience chronic unemployment? Have a substance-use disorder? Engage in domestic violence, either now or in the past? Have a recent history (ie, within the past 10 years) of criminal behavior? Resist working through past experiences of trauma or abuse? If any of those conditions exist, it’s too early to bring that person into your children’s lives. Prioritize the kids. But if she’s generally an emotionally, financially, and mentally stable person? Move on to question 4.

4. Grace. Kindness toward you, toward your kids, and toward other people is key to happy long-term relationships. Kind people are curious, gentle, and optimistic. They assume the best of others. But people who demonstrate a sense of entitlement — who put themselves first (ie, park in handicapped spots, demand the best view, grab the last cookie); who chronically criticize and/or blame other people; who expect more than they give; who speak harshly, or use sarcastic or demeaning language — are a bad bet. Unkind people will eventually be unkind to your kids, so if your partner has demonstrated any proclivity for unkindness, prioritize your kids. They deserve your protection. But if your partner is generally kind toward other people, generally positive and good natured, and generally speaks well of others? Move to the next question.

5. Support. Does she want you to be a good parent? If your kids are young, does she actually like children? Enjoy interacting with them? Is she supportive of your co-parenting arrangements with the other parent? Does she encourage you to take advantage of your time with your kids? Or does she complain that you have too much visitation, pay too much child support, that your kids are underfoot? Does she imply that you should spend less time with them? If she actually dislikes kids, it’s easy: Prioritize your kids. On the other hand, if she’s otherwise kind, stable, and affectionate, but has some concerns about the way you parent, you’re in a gray area. You may have different, but still valid, perceptions of what it means to be a “good” parent. This is a time to get a therapist involved. You may need to get some coaching to navigate this area. 

6. Maturity. If your ex has problems with your undisciplined, lax, or competitive parenting, your girlfriend is probably on track. You’re probably not stepping up and doing the hard work of parenting, and you are very likely causing harm to all your relationships, especially the one with your partner. That’s not going to result in anyone — least of all your kids — being happy. Not in the long term. This is definitely a case for relationship counseling.

Ceramic figurines of old couple on a bench.
In it for the long haul? Prioritize the partnership. (Image credit: pickpik.com)

7. Commitment. If your girlfriend is stable, kind, and supportive (and would like to marry you), you’d be a fool not to want the same thing. Such people are rare finds. So assuming you do hope to marry her at some point, you’re going to have to rethink your priorities. Your kids would be well served to see you in a happy, solid, committed relationship. And they’d also be well served to have another loving, kind adult in their lives. They’ve already seen one (or more) relationships that didn’t work. You have the opportunity to model for them a good, healthy, secure marriage relationship — but it won’t happen if you don’t put the partnership ahead of the parenting. 

8. Entitlement. All children are biologically driven to try to drive a wedge between the adults in their lives. All of them. They try with all their might to split up, and steal the affection of, their parents and other caretakers. But secretly — deep down, below their level of consciousness — they really, really, really hope you’ll fight back. They’re in a battle they don’t actually want to win, but they have to test their mettle. If you let them win that battle you create selfish, out-of-control, narcissistic takers who never learn boundaries, self-regulation, or kindness. If your children are criticizing, back-stabbing, undermining, and bad-mouthing your partner — and their complaints have no actual foundation beyond “me, me, me!” — see it for the power play it is, and call it out. They’re not being evil. They’re being kids. They want you to have a backbone and stand up for your relationship. Do them a solid. Prioritize your partner.

9. Teenagers. Age 15.5 is the nadir of human civility. It stays at rock bottom for about two years, then makes a dramatic rise toward humanity at just about the time kids are ready to leave home. Maybe it’s maturity; maybe it’s fear of being kicked to the curb without resources. Either way, if your teenager is being especially nasty to your partner, square your shoulders and be firm but kind. Your partner is in your life. You are available to do your kids’ bidding at certain hours of the day, and you are willing to share your resources (including your wifi password) with them in direct proportion to their humanity. But if there’s going to be a power play, the partner gets priority. The teens will be leaving orbit and starting their own little solar systems at some point. Your adult children are responsible for making their own happiness. None of them are the sun in the solar system called “family.” Until they break orbit, you’re all just planets rotating around the primary relationship: The one between you and your partner. 

10. Character. If your partner is a good and honorable human being, and you’re taking advantage of that kindness to deprioritize and neglect her, and — worse— to abuse her loyalty, ask yourself the hard question: Are you being kind? Are you giving her your best? Does she deserve to be mistreated? Don’t let “My kids are my first priority” become an excuse for “You’ll just have to suck it up until I get around to you. If I ever do.” Cold, hard look in the mirror, friend. Your partner is a human being, same as your kids, and has the same need for your humanity and loyalty and kindness that they have. 

So best of luck to you in all your relationships. Your kids will appreciate your ability to love them, as well as your willingness to bring more stability and joy into their lives. Carry on!


More from The Relationship Institute

Looking for a good therapist? Check out this article on How to Pick a Counselor — And Bypass the Bullies and Buffoons at The Relationship Institute.

Sometimes it’s hard to hold on to your privacy and still be nice. The Beauty of the Four-Sentence Cover Story takes care of it.

Marriage isn’t a zero-sum game. Here’s help in letting everyone be right: Read You’re Not Wrong — And Neither is Your Partner.


AiKi Relationship Training uses a martial-arts metaphor to coach relationship, communication, and life skills. Visit our digital library, schedule training events, and sign up for our newsletter to receive free therapeutic advice for improving your relationships.



LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also executive director of The Relationship Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns. She lives with her husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris.

(This article is published simultaneously at Relating magazine.)