Dating During Divorce

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Reader’s Question

I was attacked by my family last night when I voiced my concern for my sister, who is going through separation and divorce proceedings, and has already begun a new relationship. She was married for about 13 years. Although I support her decision to divorce, I am struggling with her decision to engage in a new relationship before the divorce is finalized. He was at a family gathering, and I was unaware he was going to be there. I was told last night that she “met” him about seven months ago, however no one in my family (she, my mother, my father) even mentioned it to me. I think they were afraid of my disapproval. She has two children, aged 12 and 8, and I worry about how this could affect them.

Anyhow, I would like to present them with some third party information about dating during divorce. I appreciate any advice you can provide, even if it is contrary to my beliefs.

Psychologist’s Reply

It does seem as if you have some very strong feelings and beliefs about this situation. Without knowing more about what your specific concerns are, I can speak only in general terms about some aspects of the situation. You did not ask about how you might work through the relational rift that has occurred, but I have included some thoughts about that too.

In general, there is a possibility that a dating relationship during separation and divorce could affect divorce proceedings. One way this could occur is that your sister’s soon to be ex-partner could become less willing to be cooperative with her. To the extent that a new relationship increases conflict with the former partner, conversations about how to divide assets, or what the custody and visitation arrangements will be could become more uncomfortable or adversarial than they already are. A second aspect is that, in some states, the court could consider the new partner’s financial position or assets as decisions are made about how the marriage assets are divided. The legal aspects are certainly not within my area of knowledge; if your sister is concerned, she could consult with an attorney about how this relationship might affect things legally or practically, if at all.

You mentioned concern for how this could affect the children. There are so many variables to be considered that it is hard to weigh them all. Divorce is, of course, a huge change in a child’s life. Most changes, even positive ones, are difficult for children. To the extent that this relationship is adding one more new thing to which the kids have to adjust, it could be argued that waiting might be easier for them. However, there are other variables as well, and the answer is not black and white. As much as children would prefer their mother to be in a happy marriage with their father, research tells us that there are greater ongoing negative consequences for children living with high conflict in the home, than for children whose parents end the marriage (Forehand, et. al., 1988; Morrison and Coiro, 1999). Additionally, a mother’s well-being affects her children. Maternal depression is known to negatively affect parenting behavior (Lovejoy, et. al., 2000). So if your sister is happy and her children can see and feel it, one might argue that the new relationship could be a positive factor in their overall well-being. Again, it is difficult to specify whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ across the board. It depends on many things, including the relationships between the children and their mother, their father, and your sister’s new partner.

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Two important choices parents can make for their children during divorce are 1) to maintain a positive co-parenting relationship with the other parent (an important topic, but one for another time), and 2) to keep an open line of communication with the kids. Children need lots of opportunities and time to talk, and they need to know that parents and others are open to hearing the entire range of their feelings (positive, negative, or otherwise). For example, your sister could approach the kids with a neutral opening statement such as, “We’ve been spending more time with So-and-So lately” and remain neutral, non-defensive, and mostly quiet as the kids share their thoughts and feelings about this. Practices such as these can help parents stay tuned-in to what concerns and worries kids are holding. Through times of change, such as divorce, it is important to continue to invite kids to talk again and again, as there is no time at which kids are ‘done’ with adjustment. If kids are not willing to share thoughts or feelings at one particular time, it is a good idea to let them know that it is OK if they are not ready or in the mood to talk, but that they can bring these topics up any time.

It sounds like you were taken quite by surprise by the fact that your sister is involved with someone. I imagine that you might be hurt by the fact that your family members kept this from you. You mentioned that you suspect they did so in order to avoid your disapproval. This led me to wonder about how things typically go in your family. Maybe everyone hides things from everyone. But in this case, it seems as if your family members were anticipating a reaction from you in particular, based on past interactions with you. In any case, information like this is feedback that you can use to better understand how your family members experience you. Going a step further, understanding how others experience us can lead to informed choices about how to make positive changes in the way we act in relationships. The term for information about how others perceive us is ‘interpersonal feedback’. If your family members had said, “We hid it from you because we did not want to deal with criticism from you,” this feedback would have been more direct and clear. The question you could consider at that point might be, “How can I share my reactions in a way that maintains connection and closeness?” Also, “How can I best express myself to my family members when I am feeling attacked?”

You did not specify what beliefs in particular you hold that create such a strong reaction to this choice that your sister is making, or what worries you have about what she is doing (beyond the kids). It appears that you and she may just fundamentally disagree about this. I wonder how you have dealt with times in the past in which one of you was making choices that the other would not.

If you want to enter into deeper discussion with her about this, I would imagine that it might be impactful for her to hear exactly what it is that bothers you about this situation. Beyond the objective right/wrong of the situation (and who knows if there is such a thing), one thing you could do is take responsibility for your own reaction and claim it as yours. This is a relational skill that is a work in progress for most of us. For whatever reason, it is more difficult to say what is going on inside of us than it is to point to something outside. Some examples of statements based on this idea are as follows:

  • I am having a lot of worry about you, the kids, and what is going to happen with this.
  • I am having a strong reaction of judgment about this.
  • I feel really angry that you are dating someone and hid that from me.
  • I am concerned that the kids are going to be negatively affected by this relationship.

Statements such as these invite the other person to join you in conversation without being defensive. And, as they say, no one can argue with your feelings, because they are what they are. Good luck as you and your family members work through this disagreement.

References:

  • Forehand, R., McCombs, A., Long, N., Brody, G. & Fauber, R. (1988). Early adolescent adjustment to recent parental divorce: The role of interparental conflict and adolescent sex as mediating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 624-627.
  • Lovejoy, M. C., Graczyk, P. A., O’Hare, E. & Newman, G. (2000). Maternal depression and parenting behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 561-592.
  • Morrison, D. R. & Coiro, M. J. (1999). The effects of parental divorce and parental conflict on children: An overview. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61, 626-637.

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