Sometime after parents separate and often before they divorce, at least one begins to date. That's generally healthy for the adults; it means they're moving on to the next phase of their lives. But what about their children?
"It's still a parent-child relationship," she says. "I'm very mindful and protective of their emotions."
Not to Elaine, a mother of three who asked not to be identified because she's in the midst of divorce proceedings. "I made horrible mistakes," she says. The first was starting to date two months after her separation.
"You go through a selfish stage when you split up," she says. "You assume your kids understand that mom needs a life outside of them. They don't."
Mistakes 2, 3, and 4:
* Introducing her children to the first man she liked.
* Allowing him to spend time at the house, especially playing ball with her son, then 8.
* Giving him a peck on the cheek one day as they parted. "My oldest [then 13] saw," says Elaine. "She screamed at me, 'I hate you! I hate you!"' As awful as that was, it was worse to see her son so miserable when the relationship ended. "He asked about him almost daily, for months," she says.
An unfortunate example of the opposite extreme?
Not at all, say professionals. Children of divorce have already experienced loss, maybe trauma. The problem is not that they get attached to a new person, but that exposure to a parade of new people creates the potential for more loss.
"At its heart, this is about trust," says psychologist Leah Klungness of Long Island, who specializes in single-parent issues. Children are likely to wonder, "Who can I count on to stay around? Who can I trust?" Some blame themselves: "I'm not lovable." The more loss there is, the more distrustful they can become, including in their own future relationships. By the time a parent finds someone to commit to, they may be adamantly resistant.
Parents are entitled to a personal life, but it's best to keep it private in the beginning. Children need to know only two things: (1) "Since your mother and I aren't living together, there will be new people in my life"; (2) "You are always the number one relationship in my life."
They do need to know that much, emphasizes Tufts University psychologist Donald Wertlieb, whose practice in Wellesley Hills specializes in families coping with stress. "Even preschoolers tend to intuit more than we realize," he says. "It's better to be open [to that degree] than for them to feel there are secrets." He advises telling your ex-spouse that you're taking this step and, when one parent starts to date before the other, to say, "I know your dad is dating. When I'm ready, I will, too." Otherwise, children are caught in a bind, feeling protective of the parent who isn't moving on and angry with the one who is.
Even when a relationship is in that stage between casual and committed, keep details from children. For parents with custody, this may mean not having a date come to the house if children are there. For parents who have children on weekends, Klungness urges, "Avoid a babysitter. When you have limited time with children, their take-away message is that the person is more important than they are. If a date can't pretend Wednesday is Saturday night, she's not a grown-up." Klungness is co-author of "The Complete Single Mother" (Adams).
Other rules of thumb:
Wait to introduce a person until you have seen him/her exclusively for several months.
Meet on neutral territory, such as a park, a skating rink, an ice cream parlor, not at home.
Keep it casual "A new friend is going to meet us there," not, "I want you to meet the man I date."
Introduce your children to his/hers down the road, unless there's a natural intersection, and not at either home.
Even so, children may hurt. Like adults, they have emotional baggage. It often surfaces as anger.
When Elaine's daughter screamed, "I hate you," it may have been simple embarrassment at her mother's intimacy, innocent as it was, or it could be more complicated, says University of Virginia psychologist Robert Emery, author of "The Truth about Children and Divorce" (Viking).
Perhaps she blames her mother for the divorce and was letting loose her true feelings. Perhaps the subtext was, "I hate you because now I know things are going to change again"; "I hate you because this isn't fair to dad"; or "I hate you because I don't want someone to take your time away from me." Even teens harbor fantasies of parental reunions, so there could be some of that, too, Emery says.
Whether a child is 6 or 16, avoid responding with more anger ("How dare you say that?!"). Censure her behavior but accept her feelings ("You're entitled to your feelings, but there are rules about how you can act.") and let her know you're willing to talk: "I wonder what's behind your anger."
As important as it is to understand and respect a child, if you tell your 7-year-old that Tom is coming for dinner and "she has a fit and you say, 'OK, never mind,' that's too much power," says Emery. "It's scary for her." She also isn't getting a chance to know the person or to deal with feelings behind her reaction. Get around this by sticking to neutral turf, or by having short, casual visits at home. ("Tom's stopping by to fix my computer. Do you want help with your software?")
If a relationship you expected to last doesn't, a child may be heartbroken. With children under 12, the first time the person isn't around, fill the void with other activities. To questions of, "When is she coming?" go for limited honesty ("She has other plans today."), and after time passes: "I know this is upsetting. We're not going to see her again."
The better they knew the person, the more details they need. Klungness would be careful, even with a teen: "Do you say he was sleeping with someone else? Never. That you want different things out of life? That's incomprehensible to kids." She would go with, "Our feelings changed." Be prepared to repeat it over and over.
Even when a relationship is going well and children like the person, they may reveal underlying emotions in subtle ways. Marilyn Friedman says that whenever she and Shana and Ed play a board game, Shana insists on partnering with her mother, the two of them against Ed. She never does that in any other threesome.
"Clearly, there's a message she's trying to send," says Friedman.
Contact Barbara Meltz at firstname.lastname@example.org.