Dating After Divorce: What it Means for Kids
Dating: For Kids, the Death of a Fantasy
Eva L. remembers the conversation she had with her two sons following one of their regular visits with her ex-husband. Both boys were brimming with news about Daddy's new friend, Joanne. But when she referred to their father as someone who was dating, the children were quick to insist that she was wrong.
"Daddy told us he won't date until we're in college," they declared. "She's just a friend."
Tears followed some time later, when the father asked his sons for "permission" to allow Joanne move in with him. Given the power to vote on the relationship, the children cast "no" ballots and told their dad that, per his earlier declaration, Joanne couldn't move in until after they went away to school.
The story illustrates the confusion and anxiety children often feel when parents, eager for some measure of happiness and success in a new relationship, struggle over how much distance to place between their children and a newly developing romance. "Seeing a parent date is an odd scenario for kids," says M. Gary Neuman, L.M.H.C., author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way. Neuman is creator of a divorce therapy program for children mandated for use in family courts by many states. "It sometimes hammers home the message that our parents are never going to get back together."
The power of the reunion fantasy is not to be underestimated, says Neuman, observing that some children cling to the belief that their parents will get back together even after one parent has remarried. The reason is simple: A child's own identity is very much tied to that of his family. When the family disintegrates, a child's sense of self is threatened, even if he maintains strong ties to both parents.
Neuman recalls, "This 13-year-old kid once said to me, 'I feel, now that my parents are separated, that I don't exist.'"
While most children don't articulate their feelings so strongly -- in fact, most shrug or say "okay" if asked how they're coping with a parental split -- therapists who work with children of divorce agree that divorce makes kids question who they are, where they came from, and where their lives are headed.
That's not an argument for or against divorce, for or against dating. It is an argument for honest, direct dialogue with kids about new relationships: Why Mom or Dad wants one, what Mom or Dad will do if a new relationship becomes serious, and how Mom or Dad's relationship with the child will be affected.
Introducing the Main Squeeze
Eva L. had been divorced for six years when she announced to her children that she was thinking of starting to date again.
"They fell on the floor laughing," she recalls. "They told me I was too old to date."
Since then, Eva and her 13-year-old son have had many discussions about her relationships with men and his with girls. He once waited up for her when she was out on a date and asked, "How did it go?" when she arrived home. Later, the two discussed her difficulty ending the relationship. The child urged her to say goodbye to the man she'd been seeing, and Eva is now moving toward doing so, in part because she was so impressed with her son's observations.
But despite such late-night chats and an occasional "flurry of activity" on her social calendar, Eva has no interest in introducing any man to her sons.
"Some of the people I've met have said, 'Why don't my son and I meet you somewhere?' Some men use their kids like dogs in a park to get attention. I think it's horribly unfair to children."
Joe B., father of 7-year-old Cathy, was initially very careful about how much time the two of them spent with his girlfriend and her son. The parents and kids enjoyed ski trips together, often in the company of other friends. From the start, Cathy said little about her father's growing relationship with a new woman.
"I didn't really want her to know much in case it didn't work out," he recalls. "My daughter pretty much knew we weren't just friends. But she never asked me anything. She made some comments to my roommate at the time, but not to me."
"Don't ask, don't tell" dating policies are often the unspoken rule of parents who plan to keep their romantic lives separate from their children's lives, or who fear that introducing a new love interest who might not "stick around" will simply give their children a new reason for heartache.
Gary Neuman agrees that casually introducing every date to a kid is a bad idea; equally wrong, he believes, is minimizing the importance of a new love interest. Children who "discover" that their parents are in love often feel betrayed when the situation reveals itself. Already anxious about the changes in their lives due to the divorce, and often feeling closer to a parent than they did before, they may now feel that a trust has been broken -- exactly at the point when trust and reassurance are most needed.
Putting Happiness on Hold?
Rather than forgo romance, Neuman and parents interviewed for this article suggest addressing children's concerns head-on before dating begins:
More on: Dealing With Divorce
More on: Dealing With Divorce