Divorced parents can face uncomfortable situations when they try to date under the watchful eyes of their children.
Dating should be fun, playful and spontaneous. Yet having a romantic interest can become complicated when you’re a single parent. As mothers and fathers, we can enhance or hinder our children’s psychological well-being and there are important factors to consider when you’re a dating parent:
— Age of your child or children
— The length of time you have been separated or divorced
— Your child’s psychological or emotional stability
— The nature of the dating relationship
— The stage of the dating relationship
Although I can’t discuss all of these variables here, I will address some scenarios that might arise when you are dating — from your point of view and from that of your child.
“I want to wake up in the morning with my dating partner.”
It is understandable to want intimacy — nothing is more scrumptious than waking up with someone you care about. It’s lovely to lounge around in your PJs, read the newspaper and have a leisurely breakfast in bed. But it can fuel the fantasies of your kids, even if you don’t have sex. Being in your bedroom with the door closed is enough to get their imaginations in gear.
I don’t believe that sex is bad or that it should be kept secret from your children. However, some kids will interpret the intimacy as evidence that you’re going to marry this person. For others it will stir up feelings that conflict with their own sexual yearnings. Depending on the child’s age and how long ago your separation or divorce occurred, letting your boyfriend or girlfriend spend the night may intensify your child’s feelings of anger and loss toward you or the absent parent.
And what about when you’re gone all night and return the next morning? If your child is old enough, they’ll conclude that you spent the night with your dating partner. This can stimulate the same reactions as when a dating partner sleeps over. The sleepover scenario is a powerful one and can trigger an emotional reaction in youngsters regardless of their age.
“My five-year-old is calling the guy I’ve been dating for several months Dad.”
You start seeing this new guy and he hasn’t stayed over or done anything provocative, like kissing, in front of the kids. You like him and it’s getting more serious but neither of you is sure about where it’s going. Last night he came over and watched TV with you and the children. If you have younger children, say between 3-9 years old, if your man acts like dad he is dad in their eyes. Older children will not be as susceptible to these wishes or fantasies.
Why is your child doing this? It could be for a number of reasons. Due to the circumstances of your separation or divorce, your child may not have had contact with their father. Does he live out of town? Are there are legal restrictions that limit the child’s contact with him? Is your ex in another relationship that interferes with his availability to the child?
So what do you do? First of all, make sure you have a talk with your boyfriend. He might like the “dad” idea or be freaked out, depending on his own unmet dependency needs. Advise your boyfriend to be matter of fact, succinct, and gentle with your child: “I am not your daddy. I am Larry.” If you think that would embarrass your child, take them aside, look them in the eyes and say something like, “Honey, Larry is not your daddy. John is your daddy.”
Your child pouts and says, “I hate him! I don’t want him coming over anymore!”
This may infuriate you or make you feel like you’re losing control. Even though your first reaction may be anger, you must remain the mature, empathetic parent. You don’t want to shame or belittle your child, but you do have the right to tell them you don’t like their behavior. You may have to employ some form of discipline such as timeout, or TV deprivation.
You can say, “I know you have feelings about mommy and daddy leaving each other, and it is okay to be angry. I can tell you some ways to express your anger. But saying what you said is not okay.”
Even if your child has a temper tantrum in front of your date, it’s not a reason to change your plans. If you are planning to go out for the evening — go out. The message to the child is that a tantrum isn’t a way to get their needs met and that you can teach them more effective ways to express themselves.
Your child discloses that when they have their visits/phone calls with the absent parent, your ex queries them about who you’re dating.
This can be one of the biggest challenges to separated or divorced parents. It’s more likely to happen closer to the estrangement, but it can also be a long-term process.
Your challenge is to keep your child from being drawn into the conflict between you and your ex. It’s destructive to your child and it’s damaging to you too. Don’t rake yourself over the coals if you’ve done this — but it is time for you to stop.
You do have control over how you behave — but you don’t have control over your ex. You can explain the effect it has on the children. If your ex continues, commiserate with the child and let them know you understand how hard it is avoid answering daddy or mommy’s questions. Suggest they respond in a way that is comfortable, such as, “I don’t know ——-, ask Mommy.” Or, “Daddy, I don’t like those questions. Can we talk about something else?” Or, “Mommy, it doesn’t feel good when you ask me those questions.”
Remember, there are no perfect parents, perfect ex’s, perfect children or perfect dating partners. When it comes to parenting and relationships, it is a gray world with many exceptions and absolutes are in short supply. Place your children on a pedestal — not in an indulgent, spoiling sense of the phrase, but in a loving, accountable, responsible way.
Your own self-awareness and self-consciousness are essential for achieving and maintaining a healthy parenting role. And please don’t lose sight of the importance of enjoying, appreciating and drawing psychological sustenance from your dating experiences.
Copyright © Peter Getoff/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.