‘My partner does not like our oldest child. I worry how this will affect him’

Tell Me About It: ‘There is no doubt he is the father but I wonder if he questions that’

PROBLEM: My partner does not like our seven-year-old eldest child, who is a cute, warm and intelligent boy. I am terrified of the impact that this will have on his development.

My partner is not aggressive to the child in anyway, he just completely dismisses him, but is attentive to our other son and daughter. He never spends any time with him, he never plays with him or does anything for him, like pick up from school or take him to football practice and when it comes to buying clothes or presents for the children, he will often not include the oldest boy.

In every other way he is an amazing life partner, he is a mostly kind and romantic family man. I have tried to discuss this issue with him, but he gets angry with me and says that I am imagining it. I know that this is real: both his parents and mine have expressed their concern to me that he is distant from his son. The ironic thing is that so far, our little boy is 100 per cent loyal to his dad and probably idolises him more than the others do. I can’t understand why my partner acts like this. There is no doubt that he is the child’s father and I wonder whether he questions that.

I had been engaged to someone else just before we met, and I got pregnant within six months of meeting him. I am afraid of the consequences for my son if I do not tackle this situation now, but I am worried of the impact that making an issue out of it could have on the rest of our family.

ADVICE: Even though you do not want to create a crisis, you may have to force your partner to engage with you around this issue as the effect on your little boy could be very detrimental. Imagine your son’s struggle to understand why he is singled out for differential treatment and his confusion and hurt at not being loved as fully as his siblings.

Of course, he is doing everything he can to win his dad’s attention but at some point the rejection he receives will trump his hope and then his belief in the world will turn sour. This is why you need to insist that a conversation happens. You have your suspicions of why your partner is withholding love and you must find the strength to put this on the table. However, some groundwork needs to happen first.

Both of you appear to be acting as if your family unit is brittle and so you walk on eggshells while hoping somehow that something solid and strong emerges

You will find your own words and of course you can only say them if they are true. It will be very beneficial when you are talking to your partner that you make it clear that whatever happens in the conversation you will not leave him and that you believe in your family as a unit. Equally, your partner needs to know that expressing his doubts does not equal treachery and in fact, it may lead to a stronger, more open relationship between you.

His fear may be that if he speaks his doubts, it will break apart your family and your fear is that if you challenge him, it may also cause an irreparable rift. Both of you appear to be acting as if your family unit is brittle and so you walk on eggshells while hoping somehow that something solid and strong emerges. It would be better to have a family where there is an underlying assumption of solidness and where secrets and beliefs do not go untested or unspoken. Of course, your partner may request a DNA test and you will have to think about what this might mean to your seven-year-old and some sessions with a family therapist would be strongly recommended if this is where your conversation goes.

Tell your partner that you intend to have many conversations with him and that you do not need an outcome quickly, but you must be determined and convincing that these conversations are going to happen whether he likes it or not. Always start by inquiring what was it like for him to become a dad so early in your relationship, what were or are his hopes/fears/blocks about fatherhood and indeed, what was his own experience of being parented.

What does he think might happen if unspoken things come to the surface and what does he believe you will do if things continue as they are. Because you have a busy home life, it may be a good idea to commit to weekly walks or breakfasts out to facilitate your discussions – your children will be highly sensitive to your moods and wellbeing and so all conversations should end with a commitment to each other and to the family, eg, “even though we disagree, I am here for the long haul”.

This will have the effect of steadying the relationship and will build a powerful pattern for difficult conversations in the future – this is a legacy worth giving to your children.