When I was a teenager, there was absolutely nothing more awkward than talking to my mom about my love life. But, now well into adulthood, I’ve found something to top it: Talking to my mom about her love life.
She recently started dating again—exactly three years after my dad passed away—and we’re having a little bit of trouble working out the whole “boundaries” thing. Especially given that neither of us has ever been in this situation before (she and my dad were married my whole life), figuring out how to handle this new normal has been a complicated undertaking. But based on conversations I’ve had with friends, colleagues, and random strangers on the Internet about the experience of parents dating, this overwhelming sense of it being “awkward” and “complicated” are themes that resonate nearly universally.
But since that ubiquity alone doesn’t make me feel good about the situation, I asked experts to share their tips on how to navigate the murky, uncharted waters. The secret, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to double down on communication and honesty…as long as you’re not talking about sex (honestly or dishonestly), that is. And also, cutting yourself some slack for not necessarily being jazzed from the get-go about your parent joining the world of dating.
Parents dating can bring up a lot of emotions
There are two very distinct scenarios that commonly lead a parent back onto the market: Death and divorce. Both suck in their own unique way, for the children and parent, but understandably tend to illicit different responses. “As difficult as it is for children to heal and move on after one of their parents has passed away, they can more readily understand and embrace the idea that the surviving parent is trying to move on in the aftermath of their spouse’s death,” relationship therapist Jane Greer, PhD, tells me. “However, with divorce, it feels much more like the family was fractured, and it’s harder to accept that the marriage is over. The child may continue to hope that their parents can work out their differences and come back together. A parent dating again destroys this idea, and that can cause very intense emotions.”
There are two very distinct scenarios that commonly lead a parent back onto the market: Death and divorce. Both suck in their own unique way, for the children and parent, but understandably tend to illicit different responses.
But no matter the reason explaining a parent starting to date again, the resulting emotions a child experiences can be intense to say the least. A number of factors can explain this—particularly how long it’s been since the parents stopped being together. “Time allows for healing to happen,” says psychotherapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, adding that going to therapy and talking to friends can help you mentally prepare for your parent starting to move on, whenever that may be.
So consider “boundaries” the ultimate buzzword
When your parent does decide to start dating again, there are are a few subjects that you can safely resolve to never, ever discuss—including any and all mentions of sex. (…Yep, Mom, that includes asking me about the best place to get sex toys.)
“Try to keep all aspects of your intimate life with your new partner to yourself,” says Dr. Greer. Another no-go topic? Comparative statements between a new partner and your children’s other parent. Again, regardless of whether the partnership dissolution was divorce, death, or something else, Dr. Greer says to avoid comments about a new date being nicer, better looking, or in any way superior to their other parent.
If your dating parent just cannot grasp the whole boundaries thing, focus on being clear and vocal whenever possible.
But, if your dating parent just cannot, for the life of them, grasp the whole boundaries thing, focus on being clear and vocal whenever possible. “Say something like, ‘I’m glad you’re seeing somebody, but it’s still a little upsetting to me. So I’d rather not talk about it.’ Or if you can handle some details, you can say, ‘I’m happy to talk with you about your new relationship, but I’ll let you know if it becomes too much for me. And then I hope we can change the subject,'” says Dr. Greer. Sure, that conversation might be awkward, but it’ll be significantly less damaging than sitting through yet another dinner conversation about how great of a kisser your dad’s girlfriend is. Clearly, buckling up and being honest is in your best interest.
To any parents reading this (hi, Mom!), don’t leave the boundary-setting responsibility to your kids: You, too, can check in with them about how’re they’re doing. “Just be honest. Say, ‘This is something I will be moving into; how much or how little do you want to know?'” suggests Thompson. While some people may respond with something along the lines of “I’m so happy for you and want to know everything!” others may say, “Please don’t tell me anything unless it’s serious.” And, either—or somewhere between—is totally acceptable.
And when it does come time to introduce a new partner to your kids, plan the meeting to be a causal event in a relaxed environment in a small group or a one-on-one situation. Not, say, at a family reunion or on the anniversary of their parent’s death.
With all of that in mind, there’s really only one constant rule that everyone should follow: “Just be honest from the get-go,” says Thompson. Be open about what you need, the boundaries you want to set, and that you are absolutely not okay with sharing tips on where to buy sex toys. (Just me?)
If your parent’s new partner isn’t the only change you’re resistant to, it could have something to do with your personality type. And if you’re thinking about dating someone with kids, here’s what a relationship pro wants you to know.
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