Even though divorced parents may be excited and hopeful when they start dating again, their adult children don’t often share their feelings. These adult children likely feel conflicted about their parents dating and may experience all kinds of difficult emotions including; renewed grief over the loss of their family unit; discomfort seeing their parent behave in non-parental ways; anger at the dating parent; uneasiness about role reversals with parents; doubts about their own relationships or marriages; and worries about their parent’s safety and financial security.
So, how can divorced parents broach the topic of dating to their grieving adult children?
What can they do to help them accept their new life and the new people they want to introduce them to?
Share the news that you are dating (or in a relationship) in a quiet moment with your adult child – in person if possible.
Be prepared and respect that this may be painful for him to hear. Say something clear and direct like, “I want you to know that I am dating.” Or “I want you to know that I am seeing someone.” Then, be quiet while your adult child reflects about what you have said. Hundreds of thoughts and feelings may be overwhelming him as he tries to figure out what this information will mean for him. Avoid adding, “Isn’t it great that someone wants to be with me after I have been unhappy for so long?!” Your adult child may not be as happy about this as you are.
Understand how your dating may affect your adult children.
Your adult children may be experiencing your new relationship as a loss. Give them time to adjust to this “new normal.”
When a parent begins dating, it forces their adult children to confront the reality that their parents may never reconcile. Even though adult children can intellectually understand that it is unlikely that their parents will reconcile, at the emotional level, their hopes and fantasies of the family becoming as it was in the past can persist.
Parents moving on can dash these hopes and fantasies, and the grown kids can slip into unexpected, more profound grief that their hopes and fantasies prevented them from feeling. Research indicates that they often experience a parent’s new relationship as a loss.
Parents acting like giddy teenagers, looking at themselves in the mirror, checking out their body, wearing youngish clothes, whitening their teeth, and dying their hair can embarrass grown kids, who can then lash out in anger at their parents for not being “parentlike.” Maybe they never saw their parents acting this happy. In these moments, they can feel the pangs of loss for something they didn’t yet know they had lost.
Avoid creating a role-reversal by treating your adult child like a peer.
Exuberant about their new-found freedom, some parents share their dating adventures with their adult children, ask them for advice about the different people they are dating, or seek guidance on emotional and sexual issues. Others might invite their adult children to go to clubs with them as their dating buddies.
Parents who do this create a role reversal where their adult child becomes the parent to her parent. Avoid this temptation and discuss your dating, emotional, and sexual questions with a friend or professional instead.
Resist making your parent-adult child relationship contingent upon the adult child accepting your new significant other.
Often parents are so excited about their new love interest that they want to share that person with their adult children right away. Remember that your adult children may be feel resentful that they never saw you be so happy with their other parent.
Avoid insisting that your new partner be involved in all activities with your adult child. Many adult children report that their parents never talk about their previous family lives together. Assure your adult child that you want to spend one-on-one time with her, and you be the one to reach out to her to schedule the one-on-one time.
Reminisce about fond memories, so that she knows that you value the family that you had together and that you have not erased her entire family history with you and her other parent. If she is married, schedule time for just the three of you to be together. If she has children, schedule time for only her family and you to spend time together.
Don’t tell your adult child what he “should” be feeling.
Resist saying, “You should be happy for me…You shouldn’t be sad…You shouldn’t be angry…” Feelings simply are. Your adult children probably will not be as happy as you are about your new life. While your energy is focused on moving away from your past life with your adult child’s other parent and moving toward your future, your adult child is looking backward at what he is losing from his past. He is losing his family history, his family unit, and the future he thought he and his family would always have. Expecting him to be as happy for you in your new life as you are disrespects his feelings and his journey on grief’s path.
If you are a parent who had an affair, avoid saying, “I was so unhappy I had to find someone so I could enjoy life. You should be happy for me! I deserve to be happy, don’t I?” Your grown kid may shout, “You act like I am not supposed to have any feelings about you selfishly destroying our family!”
If you are tempted to ask your grown kids to keep it a secret from their other parent that they are dating, don’t! Loyalty issues can arise when parents request this. If your adult child likes your dating partner and is happy that you are happy, he can feel guilty and disloyal to his other parent, who is still struggling with the divorce.
Reassure your grown kids that your money and their inheritance is safe.
Adult children may worry that vulnerable parents my fall prey to con-artists and gold-diggers, which will endanger their parents’ retirement security and cause their parents to become financially dependent on them. If this occurs, you could assure your adult children that you will not give expensive gifts to this new partner and that you will get a prenuptial agreement if the relationship is leading to marriage. Or, agree that you will work with an estate planner to ensure that your money remains in your family.
Resist comparing your adult children to your dating partner’s children
Avoid telling your adult children how happy your dating partner’s children are for you or how accepting they are of you and your new relationship. Such comparisons will only alienate your adult child. She will likely feel that you do not understand what she is feeling. When parents do this, the adult children often think or scream at them with a fury they have never experienced, “Of course her children are happy!
You have abandoned Mom and me for your girlfriend and them! I bet they are glad to have the father I have lost! You don’t get it at all! You have left me in this misery! Go have your happy life with all of them! I hate what you have done to me and our family.” So, if you are thinking about telling your grown kids how much your dating partner’s kids accept your new relationship, don’t! They are more likely to get to acceptance if you listen to them and honor what they say they are feeling.
Divorce is a family event that affects everyone in the family. All the family members are transitioning to a “new normal.” Understanding what your grown kids are experiencing, accepting what they are feeling, building new connectedness, and celebrating life’s events with your family members can facilitate healing.
Adapted from HOME WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN by Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg with permission of Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright © 2020 by Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg.