There are few family events more difficult or disruptive for children than divorce. Children are invariably confused and frightened by the threat to their security, parents try to do everything they can to provide stability and reassure the children that they both will continue to love them and provide for their well-being. But then, some months later, just as children are getting used to the changes in their lives, a new development often threatens their still-precarious sense of balance: Mom or Dad starts dating.
“There are several reasons that a parent’s dating may exacerbate a child’s anxiety,” explains parenting specialist, Toby Dauber of Morris Psychological Group. “After the divorce, children may have come to feel even closer to a parent than they were before. They may see dating as a betrayal of that bond or they may fear that a new person will replace them in the parent’s affection. Also, many children, even if they don’t express it, continue to nurture the hope that their parents will get back together and dating may be the blow that destroys that fragile, but sustaining dream.”
In the face of a child’s insecurity and anxiety about dating, what is a parent to do? Ms. Dauber provides answers to parents’ questions.
How long should I wait after the divorce before dating?
Everyone needs time to heal after a divorce. It is generally advisable to delay dating at least until you and your children have adjusted to the changes in your lives and until the intense emotions surrounding the end of your marriage have subsided. “Dating won’t make you less angry or insecure, so it’s important to get past those feelings and to take the time to reflect on lessons learned before getting into the dating scene,” says Ms. Dauber. “It may take months or more than a year but you’ll know when you’re emotionally settled and ready to move on.”
What should I tell my children?
Explaining dating to your children will depend on their ages. With young children, you can simply say that you’re spending some time with a friend. Adolescents understand dating and may have been expecting this eventuality. Encourage them to express their feelings, but don’t ask their permission. Don’t judge or try to gloss over a negative reaction. Assure them that your social life won’t interfere with your relationship with them or the time you spend together. Older teens may be dating themselves and you may want to acknowledge the possible awkwardness in your parallel situations. Just remember to maintain your role as a parent and not fall into one of confidante or best friend, comparing notes after a night out.
When should I introduce my dates to my children?
Don’t introduce casual dates to your children. “Children will have conflicting emotions about a new romantic partner in your life,” says Ms. Dauber. “They may be hostile, fearing a threat to their own position in the family or displacement of the other parent. Or they may form a premature attachment, fantasizing about the formation of a new, intact family only to be disappointed and feel personally rejected – sometimes repeatedly – when relationships turn out to be short-lived. Wait until a relationship becomes serious and has long-term potential to introduce a new romantic partner to your children.”
Give children time to adjust to the new person in your life. It goes without saying that they should not meet a new partner for the first time when he or she is about to move in. Prepare the children in advance that they will be meeting someone who is important to you. Arrange the first meeting around a casual activity rather than a forced “getting to know you” session. And make sure that you trust that your new friend will understand what is appropriate in the early days with your children, i.e., not to rush the relationship by being overly familiar, not to expect too much too soon, not to discipline or in any way usurp the role of the other parent. Let your children express their feelings about your friend, but make clear that they don’t call the shots on your personal life.
What about sex? Overnights?
Only you know when you’re emotionally ready for sex and when you’ve found the right partner. For many, rushing into physical intimacy leaves them in a quandary of confused feelings. Others are comfortable with casual sex in a transitional period after divorce. Whether casual or committed, an intimate relationship should be kept private. Open displays of sexual affection in front of young children are best avoided as are surprise appearances at the breakfast table.
“In the aftermath of divorce, it’s important for your children to come to the understanding that it is appropriate for you to spend time with new friends,” concludes Ms. Dauber. “Reassure them that no one will ever replace them in your life or replace the other parent in theirs. Encourage them to express their feelings and listen patiently to their opinions. Keep in mind that you are setting an example for them as they mature and seek romantic relationships of their own. Your behavior can reinforce their trust that a broken family can heal and can build a new life based on love, patience and understanding.”
Toby G. Dauber, L.C.S.W., has more than 25 years of experience working with adolescents and adults, specializing in coping with chronic illness, parenting, stress management and sex therapy.
Morris Psychological Group, P.A. offers a wide range of therapy and evaluation services to adults, children and adolescents. www.morrispsych.com