By Susan Newman, Ph.D.
You’re happy with your new partner. You’ve found someone to share your life with, someone you never believed existed. Why aren’t you children overjoyed, too? Accepting a parent’s new companion or spouse isn’t always easy. Many adult children need help understanding and dealing with their feelings and concerns.
A new love interest
Whether you are widowed or divorced, its very likely you will have a new love interest at some point, if you don’t already. Finding that right person can happen in your 20′s or in your 80′s. Whatever your age, when there is a new person in the picture, your bond with your adult children changes.
It’s especially hard for adult children to welcome a new partner amicably if they doubt the partner’s suitability or sincerity. Frequently offspring can’t even pinpoint what they don’t like about the person you love. Nonetheless, you seek their approval for your mate choice in much the same way they want your acceptance and understanding when they make changes in their lives.
When adult children have doubts
The first step in warning to your new partner is to figure out why your grown up children are hesitant. Their reluctance may be deeply rooted and near impossible for them to put into words. If you can understand their reluctance, you will be able to talk to them about their concerns or fears and reassure them.
Adult children resist a parent’s new partner or spouse because:
• They have been watchful and protective of you – a watchfulness bordering on possessiveness – and they are faced with the possibility of someone taking over that role.
• Likewise, they could be dismayed that this new person is assuming the role of their much-loved deceased or absent parent.
• They may perceive a new partner as a competition for time with you.
• They may have difficulty thinking about you as a sexually active person.
• They thought you would remain alone and the change may make them anxious.
• They worry about your financial situation or security.
Questions to ask:
Once you figure out what is holding them back, you can begin to gently ask important questions, questions and answers that may help them see whether their reasons for not accepting your new partner are reasonable and worth holding on to.
Ask probing questions:
• What is the point of your behavior?
• How is your behavior affecting our relationship?
• How is your attitude affecting my relationship with the person I love?
• What do you hope to gain?
• Whom are you really punishing?
• Do you think your behavior is going to change my choice?
Listen carefully to their answers and address whatever worries they may have directly. Don’t hesitate to let your adult children know their behavior upsets you and makes you feel torn between wanting to please them and wanting to move on with your life.
As they begin to accept the fact of your new partner, you can begin to reduce the friction the new situation has caused. One important way is to make an effort to get them to see things differently, particularly if you are happy and plan to stay with or marry the new person in your life. Ask them to think of the new family constellation, your new partner and his or her family, as extra dinners, more people to love, and an extended support system.
Here are other ideas to help you and the entire family adjust to the new dynamic:
• Ask them to give the new partner a chance.
• Reassure them that the new partner is not a parent figure; he or she is not displacing their other parent.
• Look for interests your partner and children can share.
• Let them know you are worried about your relationship with your grandchildren.
• Talk about their serious objections or concerns delicately and calmly.
• Remind them that a parent’s choice of companion is not theirs to make.
• Stay in groups to help dissipate uncomfortable situations.
• If the partner remains unacceptable to your adult child, continue a separate relationship with them rather than sever the bond.
• Encourage them to be flexible in accepting your partner’s family by trying new ways of and times for celebrating holidays.
If need be, remind them of your new partner’s good points and be understanding if cordiality is be the best they can achieve for now. Blending families is always a challenge, but relationships change over time. Your children may very well grow to like, even love, this new person as much as you do. <<
Adapted from Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship you’re your Mother and Father (Walker and Company, 2003)
Social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and is the author of twelve books –most recently “Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father.”