Even great divorces have their rough times, and dealing with a new love interest is often one of those moments. I want to thank Irene Levin for inviting me to look at a common problem found in the best of divorces—one that brings up issues of displacement, divided loyalties and even jealousy.
Here’s the setting: Irene has a wonderful blog on friendship and received an interesting question that involved divorce, parenting and a new love. She was kind enough to ask me to comment on the question and posted it on her blog site. Here’s an edited version of what appeared as:
Now, here is the question, which I will respond to step by step.
My ex and I split 3 years ago after 4 years together. We have one daughter. Since the breakup, we've managed to become good friends, and that's important to me
This is a very good start. 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. This is exactly what we teach in our course work for parents in your situation. Good work.
In the time we've been apart, he's become seriously involved with at least 2 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 & when I got involved with someone, I'd play it differently.
This point really requires a whole chapter because it is so important and difficult.
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. This is a topic covered nicely in The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Your Children.
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 who 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.
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 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.
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. Any advice would be very, very welcome.
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 you 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:It's Not Fair! But Why Should It Be?
But, this example comes across as a relatively healthy divorce. So, if your ex husband has 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.
The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter (here) and radio show (Divorce Source Radio) is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.