Come adolescence, it can feel awkward, even embarrassing, to begin dating and have a parent who is also starting to date.
If the adolescent now feels old enough to date, the parent may be supposed to be too old to date. If the adolescent is now motivated to dress to be deliberately attractive, it can be threatening to see a parent dressing with the same intent. If the adolescent has anxiety about safe dating, there can be worries on that score for the dating parent as well. If the adolescent is shy about being physically demonstrative it can be uncomfortable to see the parent acting in an affectionate way with a dating partner. If the adolescent is coming to terms with sexual feelings, it can feel awkward seeing a parent act those feelings out in an intimate relationship.
However, when a parent starts dating, it doesn’t just complicate life for the adolescent; it complicates life for the single parent too. Start with the role conflict in which a single parent can feel beset. The nature of the conflict is in the title: single parent—between wanting to be a SINGLE person free to date and find a significant companion, and wanting to be a responsible PARENT by honoring family commitment to one’s children. This conflict feels like a double bind because it often is when satisfying one want sometimes comes at the expense of satisfying the other.
To make time for dating and developing a serious relationship can mean energy and attention taken away from parenting; while putting offspring first, treating children as a top priority, can mean finding and keeping a romantic interest a secondary concern.
One outcome of this conflict can be an honest ambivalence. Sometimes the single parent can feel like having children is a mixed blessing when their needs or demands make it difficult or impossible to cultivate a serious adult relationship. Other times the single parent can feel the dating companionship is a mixed blessing when his or her needs and opinions complicate or conflict with parental commitments to the children.
Resolution of this conflict by siding totally with one extreme or the other can be costly. Total focus on the children can deny the single parent dating companionship; create more dependency on love from children; and perhaps cause an increased sense of loss when it is time to let grown children go. Total focus on a dating companion can deny children of needed parental attention, cause actual neglect, and foster feelings in children of emotional abandonment.
So what resolution should the single parent seek? There are two. One is making a compromise about attention and the second is making a distinction about love.
The compromise between balancing needs for adult companionship and parental responsibility requires understanding that between the extremes of total absorption with children and total social preoccupation with another adult is a middle way.
Children have to understand that it is important for their single parent to have caring adult companionship so that child love is not the only source of caring that mother or father is bound to have. The adult companion has to understand that the single parent is married to a previous and ongoing commitment to children that will not be forsaken for dating interest or romantic attachment.
To find the middle way, the single parent must honor relational needs with children and with significant other by dividing availability out. “Neither one of you can have all of my attention, but there will be sufficient to go around. You can’t always have as much from me as you ideally want to get. I can’t always provide as much for you as I ideally want to give. Many times none of us will be totally satisfied, and that is okay.”
Resolution of the being single vs. being parent conflict means that all parties concerned—single parent, children, and significant other—will have to be content with compromise: some attention is going to have to be enough.
Now an important distinction must be made. Sometimes, in the conflict between wanting to act single and wanting to act parent, the single mother or father can feel torn—attachment to the romantic other in seeming conflict with attachment to one’s children. On these occasions it helps if the single parent can separate the concept of love from the concept of attention.
Showing one party less attention on a particular occasion than the other more does not signify less love for one and more for the other. As mentioned above, compromising how attention is given is the best a single parent can do. Attention shifts around, but love is constant. Inequality of attention does not signify inequality of love.
In addition, not only is love a constant, but there is an important between difference between partner love and parent love. They are not the same. They are not in competition. Neither one need be or should be at the expense of the other.
Partner love is committed to deepening adult intimacy. Parent love is committed to care-taking a growing child. To give partner love to a child inappropriately treats that son or daughter as a source of adult intimacy. To give parent love to a significant other inappropriately treats that man or woman as a dependent child.
The resolution of the single parent (acting single vs. acting parent) conflict is compromising how attention is given to separate attachments, and maintaining the distinction between partner love and parental love.
Finally, when starting to date, it can help if the single parent gives the adolescent some explanation and some assurances.
1) The purpose of my dating is to have someone adult who is fun to go out with.
2) As much as possible, I want to conduct my dating in ways that are comfortable for you, so please tell me when it’s not and I will hear what you have to say.
3) Unless I tell you otherwise, this dating is casual only, for the sake of social companionship and enjoyment and there is no need for you to meet the person, unless you want to.
4) Should the relationship become more serious, I will tell you and give you the chance to get to know the person.
5) Should a serious relationship move toward a desire for marriage, before that happens we will have time for discussing how this family change is going to work.
There is nothing simple about single parenting, and that includes the complexity of wanting to start to date.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: Educating Adolescents about Dealing with Change