When Parents Start Dating
In some families, a new adult relationship may have started before the separation, or may begin in the early stages of separation and divorce. In others, a new person may not enter the picture for months or years. Many single parents are trying to keep up with the extra demands of parenting on their own, and have little time or energy to spend on developing a new relationship. Some parents don’t want to start going out with someone new – they may feel insecure about where to meet others and how to approach them, uncertain about their attractiveness, and concerned that they might fail in another relationship. For others, dating helps them adjust to divorce. It reaffirms their self-worth, reduces feelings of loneliness, and helps them get on with their lives.
Whatever the circumstances, dating may trigger emotions that are similar for both parents and children. They may be fearful of being hurt again, worry that they may not be loved by the new person, and have concerns about how the new person will fit into their lives. Parents can use this new situation as an opportunity to talk about how adults – just like children – need peer interaction with people their own age, and supportive relationships.
If the marriage ends after one parent leaves the relationship for another partner, children may feel particularly betrayed and angry. Children in these families will need plenty of opportunities to express their confusion and feelings – a difficult task for a parent who may be experiencing similar emotions.
Children have mixed emotions about their parents’ new relationships. Depending upon their age, they may feel betrayal, jealousy, anger, confusion and even guilt. For example, they may feel:
• that the parent who is first to begin a new relationship is betraying the other parent. The parent can explain that people adjust differently, and that it is time for him or her to meet and go out with new people, even though the other parent may not be ready to begin another relationship.
• the parent-child relationship doesn’t give parents the opportunity to do all the activities that adults like to do. It’s important to keep on reminding children that friends and new partners do not replace the love between a parent and a child.
• their parents may get back together again. No matter how often parents have told children that getting back together won’t happen, many children continue to hope, even after a second marriage
• embarrassed that parents have sexual feelings and a need for affection. This is especially true for children in their pre-teens and early teens. Parents should explain that they, like other human beings, have sexual feelings and that these are a natural part of adult life.
• they have been abandoned again and experience a renewed loss when parents spend time with another adult. Finding extra time for the child while seeing a new person is difficult, but important.
• anger at being forced by adults to make another adjustment. How children act out this anger depends on their developmental stage. Clear and sensitive communication is the key to helping children cope with the adjustment.
• anger that parents have their own rules for sexual behaviour and enforce what may seem like different rules for their children. Teenagers are especially likely to feel that while they have curfews or have to date people their parents know and approve of, their parents seem to follow a different standard. Explain that there are two sets of rules – one for adults and one for teenagers – and explain why this is so.
• anger at the loss of privacy. Children need space they can call their own.
It is important that new partners respect that space and treat children as individuals in their own right.