Caught by the kids
Published 19/06/2010 | 05:00
Picture the scene. You have been dating for months and it looks like tonight might be the night. You are ready to move things on to a more intimate plane.
After your divorce, you never thought you would meet someone again, but things are looking good so you decide to go to your place.
As you come through the front door, it looks as though the coast is clear. You make your way upstairs and, just as you think you are home and dry, the lights goes on. "What the hell is going on?" the twenty-something fruit of your loins shouts. "This is a respectable house. You have no business bringing that kind of carry-on in here."
The break-up of parents is tough for children, whatever their age, but dealing with a parent in another relationship poses a whole new set of challenges for an adult or nearly adult child living at home.
Teens and young adults, dealing with their own sexuality, can struggle to see a parent in a role other than provider and carer, making it difficult for the separated parent to be open about new relationships.
Parents can suddenly find themselves removing their shoes at the front door and tiptoeing through their own home so their 'children' don't know how late they have been out, or -- horror of horrors -- that they haven't returned alone.
The guilty, blushing parent finds themselves breaking off phone calls, erasing text messages and whatnot. One separated father I know went to such lengths to conceal the sexual part of his relationship from his worldly teenage daughters that he told them his girlfriend was staying in a guesthouse at the end of the garden, only to sneak her inside after he believed they were asleep.
No one can interrogate as keenly as a teenager on the warpath, and avoiding their wrath or -- much worse -- their hurt or sense of betrayal can lead a parent into a world more commonly frequented by rebellious teens themselves.
"They are real judges; they judge you like nobody else," says Dermot, a separated father-of-four living in Co Donegal.
His children were aged nine, 13, 17 and 20 when his marriage ended 10 years ago and it took several years before he returned to the dating scene. When he started casual dating, it was with friends and people who lived close by.
"I was very sensitive that the kids would be judging, aware and watching, so that definitely modified my behaviour," he says.
"When the kids were with me, they expected me to be just there for them. I would pick a day I knew I was on my own and would go somewhere I wasn't going to run into them. For them, the family had changed."
For Roisin, a separated career-mum-of-two, the challenges emerged when her anxious nine-year-old daughter insisted on keeping open both her bedroom door and her mother's after Roisin's partner moved in.
"When parents separate, there is a period when the kids are on their own with the parent, and the parent is working hard to ensure the split has the minimal impact," she says.
"They devote a huge amount of time to the child, so when you meet somebody else and they become a feature, and you go into a cohabiting relationship, the child is suddenly feeling one step removed.
"That is why it is really important that you don't send out messages unconsciously that they are now back to third in line in the pecking order," she adds.
International studies have shown that children of separated families can harbour the fantasy of a reunion long after the marriage has ended and sometimes even after a parent remarries.
US psychotherapist Gary Neuman, author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, says that a new romance sometimes "hammers home the message that our parents are never going to get back together".
This reunion fantasy that even adult children have is powerful and not to be underestimated. A child's own identity is connected to that of the family. When the family structure crumbles, Neuman says a child's sense of self is threatened, even if they maintain strong ties to both parents.
He maintains that casually introducing every date to a child is a bad idea, but equally wrong is minimising the importance of the new love interest. Children who "discover" their parents are in love often feel betrayed when the situation reveals itself.
Neuman emphasises the need for honesty. Children should be told that the parent needs other adults to interact with, and desires companionship and love.
This can open up heart-to-heart talks about how the parent's new relationship is affecting them. If they reveal apprehensions, these need to be addressed and solid promises made to the children to allay their worries, he advises.
Roisin and Dermot agree that issues must be tackled as soon as they emerge. "If you don't address them, you have difficulties, sulks or behavioural problems," says Dermot. "If you address them, it can lead to interesting conversations that families who are all together may find difficult to broach.
"You end up discussing relationships and feelings, and get to know your children better when they are at an age they might otherwise be distant from you."
He adds that if the new partner has children, this can also throw the cat among the pigeons for the dating parent's children.
"We are not talking The Waltons or The Brady Bunch here," he says. "Seeing you with another child can be really problematic for kids. It was a factor for me. They would bring up seeing me in the car with someone, and that someone would not be the woman, but the child. They can feel displaced and this can be a real issue that has to be discussed and negotiated."
Roisin stresses that reassurance is the most important thing for a child. "It is about being careful how you manage moving into a new relationship, and making sure that when you do meet someone important, you introduce that person carefully to the child and make sure they don't feel excluded," she says.
"Sometimes, as a parent, you think you are protecting the child by not telling them, but the child is not stupid and they know if you have met someone."
Sometimes, too, a child can assume the role of wanting to protect the parent from future hurt.
"When you have come out of a bad relationship, the child suddenly thinks they have to look out for you," Roisin says. "They have already had a negative experience, so they suddenly become anxious for themselves and for their parent."
But, ultimately, children want to see their parents happy.
For this writer, the greatest moment came when my husband's adult daughter, who had struggled with the new relationship, casually conveyed her happiness that he had found his soul mate.