Many people whose parents split up during their childhoods will remember the mixed emotions they felt when their parents began seeing other people.
For younger children, Mummy or Daddy’s new friend is an unknown quantity, a slightly scary stranger in the nest. They may be torn between resenting the new person and wanting to relate to them in a parental way.
Older children will usually have more understanding of the parents’ interest in new relationships and even recognise that they are happier for them but they may still feel a sense of gloom or resentment about the end of their parents’ marriage and the sudden disappearance of one parent from their everyday life.
It gets worse. If the children get on well with their mother’s new boyfriend or father’s new girlfriend, and that relationship comes to an end too, the child could then find themselves facing the loss of another parental figure, one with whom they have no genetic or legal bonds. Children from challenging backgrounds may find this particularly difficult to cope with.
It’s an emotional minefield and clearly one that needs careful handling by conscientious parents.
This weekend I enjoyed reading an article on the Huffington Post blog called Dating After Divorce: When To Introduce The Children, by an American therapist called Kimberly Seltzer.
Seltzer sets out some of the most important considerations for divorced parents wishing to ease their children into meeting their new partners. One is timing. She suggests thinking of a new romantic relationship in stages – from the initial, romantic, ‘getting to know you’ phase through to the commitment phase. Seltzer suggests only introducing the children at the latter stage, and points out that children who have seen their parents divorce will in many cases still be affected by the experience. Give the children time, she suggests, to accept the loss of their parents’ marriage. In time – hopefully anyway! – they should ready to accept a new parental figure in their lives.
All very sensible stuff. Seltzer also has interesting things to say about the psychology of the situation. Younger children are rarely sensitive to their parents’ need for adult companionship and will many will dislike the thought of ‘sharing’ their parents with other people. Even teenagers may find seeing their parents as beings with a sexual life disturbing and confusing. I suppose, on some deep level, that this revelation reminds us all how we came into the world.
Seltzer quotes a researcher called Constance Ahrons who, interestingly, has found that many children are even more unhappy about their fathers dating than their mothers. In the vast majority o cases, of course, it is divorced dads who are absent from their children’s day-to-day lives and so, perhaps, such children may perceive their relationships with their fathers as more precarious. Their fathers have already left the family home. If they begin a new relationship, might they not lose interest in their kids and disappear altogether?
Of course, that is a simplistic, exaggerated, child’s eye take on the situation. But children wresting with such fears will not know this and not every child, sadly, has sensible and sensitive parents who can offer them the reassurance they need