The “American Family” has been changing for decades. An estimated 40-50% of marriages in America end in divorce, 43% of children are born outside of marriage, and 46% of children under 18 live in a home with two heterosexual parents in their first marriage. It should come as no surprise, then, that more and more people are dating and forming relationships when they already have children. But what happens to children when relationships with people who aren’t their birth parents end? And what are the best ways to navigate ending relationships when children have grown attached to your partner?
My ex-husband and I split when our son was not yet three. It was tough because we tried to work it out for his sake, but we knew we couldn’t stay together. While my son has scant memories of our life as a family, complete with his older half-sister, most of his memories are of having two homes: Mommy’s house and Daddy’s house.
I dated casually for a few years and when he was five, I began seeing a man seriously. This was the first man I dated who I even considered introducing to my son. I followed the guidelines I’d set for myself: wait a year before introducing him; make sure to spend adequate time with them both so they can get to know each other; prioritize my son’s needs; and introduce him to my son’s dad as the new man in my life so they could know each other’s place in my son’s life.
When we broke up four years later, I found myself asking one question over and over: What about my son?
It’s difficult as a parent because you have your own emotions to manage and if the break-up was hard or ended on bad terms, you can find yourself sinking into your own pain and trying to keep your own head above water. Then you remember that your children also have feelings about the situation and if they’re old enough to understand what’s going on, they need support too. They are dealing with a loss too and it can be just as hard on them as it is on you.
Image: Eduardo Merille via Flickr
These are a few things to consider when processing the end of a relationship in which your children were involved.
Reassurance and Affirmation
When I explained to my son that he would no longer have contact with my ex-boyfriend, and that he wouldn’t be coming to his upcoming recital as he’d promised, my son asked, “Did I do something wrong?” Children often blame themselves when their parents are hurting; they are often more empathetic and compassionate than we give them credit for. My son, especially, is one of the most emotionally connected children I’ve ever known. I made it very clear that he had done absolutely nothing wrong and that mommy just made the decision to move forward with her life without the man he’d come to love.
You have to be mindful of your children’s emotions and how they process the separation. Repeated affirmations and positive reinforcement helps; they need to hear from you that you will all be OK, even if it doesn’t happen tomorrow. They rely on you to set the tone and lead the way, so figure out a plan to make sure that they know you’re going to move forward, one day at a time.
Age-appropriate honesty is important. You have to decide what to share and what not to share. A five-year-old might not understand that you could no longer deal with your partner’s heroin addiction, while a fifteen-year-old might better understand that your partner slept with everyone who ever said “Hello”. You can give minimal details and focus on the simple fact that it is over. When they ask questions, answer what you can and give yourself permission to say, “Sweetheart, I don’t really want to talk about that.”
You have to be honest about your feelings, though, so if you’re sad, you don’t need to work too hard to hide it. Children being exposed to various emotional expressions is healthy for them; they learn how to be emotionally expressive and allow themselves diverse feelings. When my son saw me crying once, he simply came over, wrapped his arms around me, and said, “Mommy, think of it this way… you’re better off now because you got me and I will always love you forever.” I hugged him and he whispered, “I’m sad, too, Mommy, but I’m going to be here for you.”
Be Supportive and Avoid Transference
It is easy to spiral down into a well of self-pity and there is a time and place for that (that you have to plan for and limit). However, you’re still a parent and there are young people who rely on you to make sure they do basic things like eat, get to school, and brush their teeth. You have to find a way to wake up every morning and tend to their basic needs, as well as their emotional needs.
Listen to their concerns. Give them space to express themselves. Monitor changes in their behavior and make yourself as available as possible. They need to know they still have you. Depending on how close they were to your ex, the impact will vary. Children are generally resilient, so trust that they will get through this with you.
Be careful that you don’t turn your child into your therapist. They are not there for you to unburden everything and they cannot offer you the level of support you might need. That’s what friends and family are for and if they’re unavailable, consider seeking professional assistance.
Go out and have fun! Take a family trip to the park or a museum. Plan a special dinner out and dress up fancy. Go to the movies. Buy yourselves a few video games and have fun competing with each other. Devote ample time to reconnecting as a unit that doesn’t involve your ex as it will remind you both that you are each other’s priority.
Take Your Time
Before you jump into a rebound situation, give yourself some time. When you’re ready to date seriously again (and you will be), focus your intentions on things perhaps you ignored before. Have more discussions with the new person about their intentions and how they plan to engage your child long-term. Wait a little longer before introducing your new beau to your child. Talk with your child about their feelings about you dating someone new and give them some say in when they feel ready to meet the new person. You don’t have to rush anything at all.
Dating as a parent has its ups and downs. Too often, parents feel guilty about wanting to have companionship when their children should be the priority. You deserve happiness and love and support from a romantic partner, though, so don’t give up on that, especially those of you who are older or who haven’t dated in a long time. You just want to make sure that the next time, you mitigate as many risks as possible.
You got this!
Feminista Jones is the Love & Sex editor at BlogHer.com, a freelance writer, and a mother living in New York City.