Q: I have been separated for just over three years and I have a nine-year-old daughter. She sees her dad about twice a week and the arrangement seems to work okay for everyone. I’ve recently started seeing someone new, and I’m worried that my daughter is not adapting well to the new situation. My new partner tries to win her respect and is very good with her, but I think she resents him for taking the place of her dad. It’s been going on this way for about six months, and I’m not sure how to make the situation better.
A: Introducing a new partner to children after separation can be fraught with problems and generally requires delicate handling. Some children feel uncomfortable with one of their parents moving on and starting a new relationship as it brings up the pain and loss of the original separation. Some children continue to harbour an idea that their parents might get back together again and a new partner marks the end of this fantasy which can lead to feelings of upset an d resentment.
Some children feel obliged to reject the new partner out of a “sense of loyalty” to the original parent who they worry might be unhappy with this new change. Alternatively, other children don’t like the arrival of a new partner as it interrupts the status quo in their lives – your daughter might have got used to having you all to herself and the arrival of new partner might make her feel insecure or that she will be second place in your life.
Help your daughter express her feelings
It is important to understand that there can be a lot of complicated feelings for children in your daughter’s position. It will help her immensely if you take time to understand what she is feeling and encourage her to express this. Pick a time when you are alone together and ask directly how she feels about the separation three years on and, in particular, how she feels about the new partner in your life. Try to ask neutrally and make sure not to react defensively whatever way she responds. Your goal is to listen and to encourage her feelings.
If she does not answer immediately, probe a little and say neutrally that you sense she is a little unhappy with his arrival and ask her to say what upsets her.
Reassure her about her worries and fears
Once you get a sense of what is going on for her, take some time to reassure her about underlying fears and worries. Reassure her that having a new partner does not change your love for her and that she will always be central in your life. Reassure her that the new partner doesn’t change her relationship with her father and that you will always support her contact with him.
Try to point out some advantages about the new arrangement – that your partner makes you happy and you hope that he could be a friend to her as well (when she is ready).
Involve her father in this discussion
You don’t say how your co-parenting relationship is going with her father but, if this is going well, it can be very helpful to ask him for support in helping your daughter. If appropriate, ring or meet him and discuss how your daughter is having trouble accepting your new partner and ask if he could talk to her about this.
In a few families I have worked with, the father communicating to the children that he was okay with the mother having a new partner, removed the “divided loyalty” the children felt and gave them permission to accept the new partner. Of course, this conversation is possible only if your daughter’s father has accepted the separation and is in a good place about it.
Have realistic expectations about your partner’s relationship with your daughter
Frequently, when separated parents meet a new partner, they have unrealistic expectations about their children’s relationship with this new person. The parent might have “fallen in love” or feel very positive about their new partner and they expect the children to feel almost the same and to accept him immediately, taking up a full role in the family. It is important to realise that your daughter might have a different view of your partner and needs time and space to choose how she gets to know him.
You should, of course, communicate to her about how you feel – that your new partner makes you happy and that you want him to be part of your life. Express the hope that he might be a friend to her too but give her space to choose this herself. In my experience, once they feel secure, most children eventually welcome their parent’s new partner though it can take some time and adjustment.
Support your new partner’s relationship with your daughter
Be careful about expecting your partner to be a step-father to your daughter. While you should of course insist that your daughter respect your partner as an important person in your life, given the fact that she is nine years old I would not recommend that he make parental decisions, at least in the short to medium term.
Discipline and rules should continue to be your remit (as well as that of her father) and I would suggest that your partner focuses on developing a friendship with her instead. This would free him up to form a supportive friendship with your daughter at her pace and this is likely to be helpful in her acceptance of him.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.