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My wife and I divorced recently and within less than a month after our divorce, she has a new boyfriend who spends substantial time in her house around the kids. My six year-old son said to his mom, “Mom, don’t marry him, it will make dad cry.” She got upset at me and accused me of coaching our son to say this to her. Of course, I would never put my son in the middle of our problems. My kids have told me many things about the new boyfriend and I try to talk about other things. I have told them repeatedly that I don’t want to talk about him.
I have no problem with her dating. I want her to be with a great guy. Why would I want a loser around my kids? I just think it’s too soon to introduce another man into their lives. I don’t think they’ve even adjusted to the fact that their parents are divorced. I can’t even wrap my brain around her thinking or her responses; they make no sense at all. How do I best respond to my kids and my ex-wife?
It’s so sad to see children get caught in adult drama. I’m sure it’s more than you can stand to see your son worrying about how to protect you. Even though you can’t do anything to influence your wife’s decisions about her love life, there is still much you can do to help your children through this confusing maze of family changes.
It really doesn’t matter what you and I think about how soon she should start dating someone new and introduce him to your children. What matters is how you respond to this unexpected development.
First, check your own responses to your ex-wife’s choices to see if there are any traces of resentment, jealousy, or anger toward your wife for moving on so quickly with another guy. If you’re having a strong personal reaction to her choices and simultaneously trying to suppress these emotions, the fallout will most likely spill over on your children. There is nothing wrong with having a strong personal reaction to her moving on with another guy. Just make sure you’re getting the proper emotional support so you don’t inadvertently lean on your kids for adult emotional support.
This isn’t to suggest that you act like a robot and protect your children from your emotions. I’m simply recommending you do everything you can to keep your children from feeling like they need to take care of you emotionally. Children are constantly scanning their environment for signals that their caregivers are tuned into their needs. If they sense that you’re distracted by what’s happening with your ex-wife, they will feel a need to do something to protect you. It’s your job to make sure they can be kids and not have to worry about taking care of the adults who are supposed to take care of them.
When you redirect your children to stop talking about your ex-wife’s new boyfriend, you’re more than likely sending a message to your children that you are distressed and can’t handle talking about mom’s new life. This is where it’s important to put your own emotional reactions and opinions aside so you can focus on your children’s experiences.
Let them talk about him and the experiences they’re having with him. This may be totally stressful and confusing to them, and they’re coming to you to make sense of it. You can listen to them about what’s on their minds. You don’t need to and certainly shouldn’t open up to them about how you feel about their mom and her choices. Instead, just keep connecting to them and let them share how they feel. You may be the only adult in their life that can help them make sense of what they’re experiencing. Their mom is most likely too preoccupied and biased to help them process the experiencing of meeting a new boyfriend.
There is no need to decide what they can or can’t talk about with you. Let them talk about what’s on their minds. They probably have a lot of conflicting and confusing thoughts to sort out. One of the best ways to help your children navigate this mess is to have a loving adult make room for all of their difficult emotions and thoughts. As you listen to them, you’ll know better what they need from you.
You may worry that you’ll be feeding into the drama with your ex-wife as you let your children talk about this. That will only happen if you’re interjecting your own opinions and being cynical with them as they talk about their experiences. Keep the focus on their experiences and save your reactions for your own adult support system. You might consider picking up a copy of Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott to help you know how to improve your ability to emotionally support your children.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
Geoff will be holding a 2-day couples workshop in St. George, Utah on April 25-26 to help couples deepen their connection and strengthen their marriages in a fun and interactive setting. Visit www.geoffsteurer.com for more information. This workshop is limited to 10 couples.
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St.
George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
You can connect with him at: