The Friendship Doctor

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New Love: How Do I Tell My Child and My Ex? (By Mark Banschick, M.D.)

Wait a long time before you introduce a new person into your children's lives

When I received the note below from Amanda asking about new love, divorce, and children, I couldn't think of a better expert to call upon than Dr. Mark Banschick, a fellow blogger on Psychology Today. Dr. Banschick is a child psychiatrist an author of the series, The Intelligent Divorce. The question Amanda initially posed to me, and responded to by my guest blogger, revolves around remaining friends with her ex while doing what is best for her daughter.

QUESTION

Dear Irene, 

My ex and I split three years ago after four years together. We have one daughter. Since the breakup, we've managed to become good friends, and that's important to me. In the time we've been apart, he's become seriously involved with at least two women, both of whom spent time with my daughter. He didn't tell me about either relationship. I don't like the precedent he set, for a couple reasons, and decided that if and when I got involved with someone, I'd play it differently.

Well, for the first time since we split, I am seeing someone, and it's getting somewhat serious. I want to be the one to bring it up, before I introduce this person to my daughter. I'm not looking for approval from my ex, but I feel like he has a right to know what's happening in his child's life. I also don't want him to find out about it the way I found out about his girlfriends: by accident.

I know that this will change our dynamic to a certain extent, but I'm wondering if there's anything I can do to minimize hurt feelings or weirdness. I'm also not sure how to approach the subject in the first place. I don't want to just casually "throw it out there," but I don't want to present it in a way that makes it seem more serious than it really is.

Signed, Amanda

ANSWER

Dear Amanda,

You and your ex have a precious daughter together and the fact that you are staying good friends, despite the hurt and loss of a divorce is a big thing. First, it's good for your health because you're not stewing in anger and resentment all the time. Many marriages don't work out and if you're going to raise a child together, it's so much easier if you can get on the phone with him and not cringe at the thought.

More importantly, what you've created together is wonderful for your daughter. She doesn't have to be dragged into the middle by two parents who hate each other. She can see that you get along and therefore will not feel like she's betraying either one of you if she has something nice to say about one parent in front of the other. Good work.

There are three crucial issues here, timing, the age of the child, and respecting the dignity of the ex who has to deal with a new lover on the scene. Yes, many readers will say, how very nice to talk about what is good for the child, but many men (and women) after divorce act like teenagers and enjoy an active social and sex life, while forgetting about their kids. This is true, but often preventable. Our approach in The Intelligent Divorce is to teach and not preach. When a parent realizes that his (or her) kids may be confused or hurt by meeting a "new friend" too early, they often show intelligent restraint.

When you go through divorce you will have discretionary time, particularly if it's a joint custody arrangement or if you are the non-custodial parent. Date away! Feel free - and enjoy your sexuality. No problem. You will have plenty of private time away from the kids, but when they are around, they are your priority.

It's best to wait a long time before you introduce a new person into your children's lives, particularly if they are teens or younger. They need time to digest the divorce - a year is a good measure. Don't put them in a position to have to decide whom they like better. Should they please you? Are they betraying their mom (or dad) if they like your new friend? Note that kids need time to grieve the loss of their nuclear family without having to deal with something new. And, make sure that you really love this new person and that the relationship is serious. A series of lovers or friends just provides instability for children and makes them feel unsafe (and makes you look shaky).

I can't comment directly about your case, because this is a blog and I don't know you or all the facts. So, in general, if an ex husband brought two women into your daughter's life right away that's usually destructive. Did he really believe that each woman was going to be a stable feature of his life going forward, or was it just more convenient to hang out with his girlfriend when your daughter was with him?  As we noted, timing counts as well as the seriousness of the relationship. Reading between the lines, we get the idea that you believe that the way he handled things was disruptive. If you believe that to be true, it is wise to move slowly. This is not a game of tit for tat.

I am very happy for you. It's a wonderful thing to have love back in your life. Indeed, this is good for your daughter because she has a happier mother and gets to see you moving forward with your life. Bravo. The same rules apply to you, though. Make sure that you are seeing someone who is serious before introducing him to your daughter. Yes, this will change the dynamic with your ex husband, but maybe for the better. He will see you as a competent woman that others find attractive. He may feel displaced, but that is part of his grief work. You are divorced if I understand things correctly. It was a bad experience that you found out about his lover by accident. I agree. These things are better (but often not) done in collaboration. It's good for an ex to know about an upcoming introduction of the new friend in advance. This can only be done when there is trust and respect in the room. But, preparation is so healthy and healing. It reduces the chances for more bad feelings and unwise statements that can drive a kid batty.

I like the way you think. From what you've presented, it appears like you've tried to think things through and now it is time to introduce your new friend to your daughter. You have let time pass and she has had a chance to grieve. I hope that this man is a serious choice and not just a passing interest. If so, let your ex husband know in advance.

This will work if your ex is mature enough to use this information productively for the sake of your child. The conversation will revolve around a statement of fact. I am introducing a man that I have been seeing to our daughter next weekend. He's a great guy, and we are pretty serious. I will be telling her this week to prepare her. We plan to have a simple outing, going to the zoo or seeing a movie. Nothing dramatic and he's not going to sleep over. This is a good start.

If your ex is not sufficiently mature to handle this conversation constructively, you will have to deal with this differently. In these cases, I strongly suggest that you get a therapist for yourself and your child, because you will both need objective help to navigate these waters well. Immature ex spouses can say or do destructive things when they feel out of control. Get the help if you need it. For some insight, you may want to read one of my prior posts on Psychology Today: It's Not Fair! But Why Should It Be?

But, this example comes across as a relatively healthy divorce. So, if your ex husband is in a strong alliance with you with regard to your daughter, he will go along for her sake. He may feel a sense of loss or a sting of jealousy, but that goes with the territory of divorce. And, if he's healthy, he may even wish you well and know that this is a good move for everyone. I wish you and your daughter much happiness

Signed, Dr. Mark Banschick

P.S. Reminder to my readers from Irene:
Can you take a minute to vote for my blog and my book, which are finalists for the About.com Friendship awards? You can vote once each day---for each of them---through March 21. Huge thanks for your support always!

 

 

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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