Q My husband and I are separated almost two years and the marriage was well over for about four years before it officially ended. We have three children aged 15, 10 and seven. The older two have both shown clear signs of stress and anxiety about the separation. I'm starting to get a social life again and have met a really nice guy. I have no intention of introducing him to the children, but my teenage daughter is starting to ask questions. Should I let her know I'm dating or is it way too soon?
David replies: Family separation can be hard for children, as much as it may be hard for parents too. While it may seem to you that the marriage has been over for six years, your children's experience may be that it really only ended two years ago, or whenever the physical separation occurred, of one parent moving out.
Separation and its impact will always be an evolving process for children. They take time to get their heads around different aspects of the new routines and new family dynamic. That requires parents to be mindful and emotionally supportive over an extended time.
You have seen that your older two children have struggled with aspects of the separation and have experienced stress and anxiety. It is likely that different elements of the separation may have affected them in different ways. So, things like first Christmas apart, birthdays, any legal disputes, changes in access or time with each parent may all have had an impact.
Parents moving on from the marriage and moving into dating is another new experience for children and it too can be stressful for them. For some children it can bring up issues such as a recognition that the separation is permanent, and any fantasy of parents reuniting can be dashed. For others it can bring an insecurity into their relationship with their parent, wondering if you might love your new partner more than them. It may be that one parent dating leaves them feeling sad or sorry for the other parent.
In other words, dating after separation can be a complicated experience for children.
The fact that your teenager is asking you about the possibility of you dating may mean that she already has suspicions that you are dating. It may be that those suspicions have fuelled further stress or anxiety for her linked to the kinds of issues I have suggested above. It may be that her asking about dating is just her way of trying to work out the state of your relationship with her dad.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, since life will always continue to move on and part of what our children have to learn is how to cope with adversity, change or things not working out like we planned. The fact that she is raising the issue of dating does provide you with a good opportunity to explore what meaning dating may have for her and gives you a really strong platform to begin helping her to process what any of these feelings are about dating, or the separation generally.
A really nice way to respond to her might be "you seem really interested to know if I might be dating. I'm guessing that me seeing a man might be complicated for you and might bring up lots of different feelings. I wonder what me dating might mean for you?" This gives her an opportunity to talk about her feelings if she wants and it also shows her that you are willing to talk about the issue generally, even if you aren't necessarily ready, right now, to discuss your actual relationship status.