Writer and broadcaster

“My partner is sometimes too harsh with my little boy.” Published in The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My partner and I separated more than three years ago. We took every care to ensure that we put our son, now six, first during the breakup, and he has a fantastic relationship with his father, who is very hands-on, lives nearby and sees him frequently.

I have been in a relationship for just over two years. I introduced him to my son after a year and he liked my new partner immediately. They formed a strong bond and over time my son has seemed to grow more fond of my partner. My partner and I have been making plans for him to move in with us. I talked to my son about this and he was very excited.

The problem is this: I love my partner very much and for the most part, our relationship is harmonious, happy and calm. However, he has a fiery temper, and on the odd occasion that we do argue, he can become extremely irate and vocally aggressive. I would like to point out that he has never been physically violent and I am certain he never would be. In the two years of our relationship there have been about five occasions when he has shouted and sworn at me during an argument, then walked out of the house and driven away.

Now that he spends more time with my son, there have been occasions on which my partner has disciplined him. I don’t have a problem with this as, if my partner is assuming the role of stepfather, this will sometimes be necessary. The problem is that there have been times in recent weeks when I have felt my partner has been too harsh and I have found that I have been on edge when I know the three of us are going to spend time together in case my son’s behaviour should provoke a reaction from my partner.

In one recent incident, my partner shouted very loudly in my son’s face about what I felt was a minor incident. My son was extremely shocked and frightened and hysterical afterwards. My partner apologised to him immediately, but I was extremely upset and angry. I felt I was in a difficult position as I didn’t want to tell my partner not to treat my son that way in front of him, but also didn’t want my son to think that I agreed with my partner’s actions. Later that night, I expressed my concerns to my partner. He reiterated that he felt dreadful and that it would never happen again, but we did argue over it and I have been worrying about it ever since.

This morning, I mentioned about my partner moving in and my son said, “Sorry, Mum, but I don’t want X to move in any more.” He kept saying he was so sorry if this had upset me and “It’s OK if he moves in if you still want him to.”

I do not know how to proceed. I love my partner but his actions have left me with many concerns. I am also very worried that my son may discuss this with his father, who would obviously (and understandably) take a dim view. Anon, via email

I do not know your partner, and I cannot predict what will happen. But I do know we often project worries on to our children that we feel for ourselves, but aren’t brave enough to voice. How much do you know about your partner’s relationship history?

I would counsel against moving in with this man at the moment. There are too many “what ifs”.

The biggest alarm bell for me was this line: “I have been on edge when I know the three of us are going to spend time together.” That’s not great – it shows you are starting to tread on eggshells. I’m not saying you should split up, because I can’t decide that for you. But I think you need to wait and see how things progress and listen – at all times listen – to that inner voice of instinct. If this behaviour continues, you may want to reassess. There is no point in your partner apologising for behaviour that he keeps repeating.

Far from keeping this to yourself, I think you should share it with your ex-partner. The moment we start to withhold such information from other people, we need to look at why. Your ex may have valuable thoughts. Has he met your new boyfriend?

If you had no worries, and your son just didn’t want your partner to move in, my advice would be different. But you do have worries, as does your son, and you need to think carefully.

My big worry is abusive behaviour. I wrote an article recently, which I’d like you to read . It’s a big step to suggest that your boyfriend may be abusive, but I feel you do need to think about it. These traits often manifest themselves when you make a commitment – in this case, moving in together.


First published in The Guardian Family section on 12 July 2013.