Relating to adult children — 09 October 2005
Adult children reactions to their parents’ dating

Parents of young adults are sometimes stressed by their children’s new dating behavior. Interestingly enough, adult children of divorced or widowed parents may have equally or greater challenges in accepting their parents’ dating.

The single parent’s entering the dating scene pleases some adult children. They may see it as a sign that the parent is recovered from the trauma of divorce or death of a spouse. They may also welcome the new person’s companionship for their parent. For some, the parent’s joy about a new and emotionally rewarding connection is thrilling. Seeing a mother or father enthusiastic, excited and full of life again is heartwarming.

Yet, other adult children are less than pleased with their parent’s association with a new person. Why would adult children not be receptive to their parent’s search for a new mate? What could motivate them to resist, hinder or sometimes even obstruct the seeming happiness of their parent? There are several reasons that cause adult children to be reluctant to embrace the parent’s new love interest.

One reason may be that the adult child is not ready to accept the end of the parents original union. In a case of divorce, as unlikely as it may be, children of any age fantasize about the possibility that the original parents will reunite. In cases of a death of one parent, the desire to maintain the sanctity of the original family may be strongly felt. Adult children may view a parent’s interest in another mate as a betrayal of the deceased parent, as though the love their parents had shared is diminished by the interest in a new mate.

Another reason for the reluctance to endorse the parent’s new companion has to do with unresolved grief. Every divorce is a trying experience for the couple and the impact of this dissolution resonates deeply with children as well. Adult children have to reorient themselves to the new family constellation and work through their disappointment, disillusionment, hurts, and even fears about their own marriages. The children usually begin the process of adjustment later than the parents, who may have foreseen the inevitable outcome for a long time.

When a parent passes away, the grief of the spouse and the grief of the children may take different amounts of time as well. Usually the widowed mate grieves intensely and deeply, while slowing down all other aspects of life. The adult children may grieve more intermittently and slower as they must attend to their routines. So when a parent is ready to restore a normal life, the children may not be quite as prepared for it to occur.

In some families there are concerns about the intent of the new companion. If the parent is of means, it is feared that the new beau may have more than loving on his mind. Some are concerned that the future spouse’s children may end up sharing the original family heirlooms. Though these concerns are impolite to voice, they may sometime contribute to the children’s mistrust of the new companion.

Protectiveness of the parent is another common consideration of adult children. They are aware that the parent has not dated in years and are concerned that her desire for companionship may put her at a risk for hurt feelings, rejection or even mal-treatment. Caring children wish to spare divorced parents a repetition of another ending. With widowed parents of a happy marriage, the children may be worried that another good relationship may not materialize.

These loving attitudes are kind, but may restrict the autonomy and future happiness of the parent.

If you are an adult child of a single parent, please consider:

• Separate your emotions about the divorce or loss of a parent from your parent’s needs.
• If you haven’t made peace with your parents’ breakup, or you need more time to grieve for your departed parent, be open about your feelings without assigning fault to your parent.
• Realize that the need for companionship and love is natural and spans all age groups. Your parent deserves to have a new life after the hardship she endured.
• How your parent will allocate eventual inheritance is his decision. Whatever is left for you is a gift, not an entitlement.
• Rejoice in your parent’s happiness as he or she has always felt for you.
• The greatest gifts you can give your parent are understanding, support and endorsement of her new life and newfound love

October 9, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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