Barbara Brooks expected her adult kids, Amy and Bryan (names have been changed), to be happy for her. After all, they were the ones who had fixed her up with Gerald, a fellow divorcé and a friend's uncle, because they didn’t want her to be lonely.
But when the relationship “took” and Barbara announced that she and Gerald were getting married after three years of dating, the kids went bonkers.
“You’re ruining our family,” Amy, then 25, yelled at her mother over the phone. Bryan, 23, kept repeating that he could no longer “trust” her. Both children were so insistent that she put off the wedding for at least a year that she did, reluctantly.
“They had relationships. They had companions. Their dad had recently remarried — to someone they like. Why didn’t they want me to be in love?” Barbara lamented to a friend. “I thought I was close to my children, but suddenly I felt like I didn’t understand them at all.”
Why Grown Kids Don’t Like Your New Partner
Throwing a hissy fit is a natural youthful reaction to divorced parents’ dating, says Dr. Carole D. Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who is on the clinical faculty at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. Unfortunately, this behavior doesn’t always end after a child is in his 20s. And, given that boomer divorce rates are on the rise, increasing numbers of parents are likely to experience disapproval from their adult kids when Cupid’s arrows land.
“Children of all ages feel betrayed and abandoned when their parents divorce because their cozy nest is disrupted,” Lieberman says. “This even upsets kids who are already out of the nest. The message their parents are sending is that it is more important for them to have a life of their choosing than to remain in their prior, primary role of mom or dad.” The result: strained relations, uncomfortable moments for everyone and, for you, the feeling that your children may not have your best interests at heart.
Sometimes there are psychological reasons for an adult child resisting a parent’s new love life. For instance, a young woman may be especially sensitive when her father forms a serious new relationship. “She may feel her dad prefers the 'other' woman to both her mom and herself,” Lieberman says.
“It comes down to jealousy,” says Dr. Itamar Salamon, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “Children, even when they’re grown, get attached to being important in their single parents’ lives, and they resent it when someone gets between them and the parent.”
(MORE: How to Tell Your Adult Children You're Divorcing)
On top of the emotional reaction, Salamon says, adult children may also have anxiety about their parent's ability to help out financially, as well as their own anticipated inheritance, which creates resistance to the prospect of their parents partnering up. Money-talk avoidance seems to be more common among the wealthy, but the taboo exists across all economic classes. Fanning the flames, perhaps, was the recent buzz over a study suggesting many boomers didn’t feel they owed their children an inheritance.
Case in point: Melissa Spence, a 24-year-old schoolteacher in New Jersey, who’s been watching from the sidelines as her father, Richard, spends money on his new wife, Pat.
“I asked my dad if he could help out with my rent for the few months between graduate school and when my job started, and he said he had too many other expenses,” Melissa says. “But the next time I visited them, Pat was showing off her new emerald-cut sapphire ring. That thing cost more than a down payment on a house!” Melissa also knows that her father changed his will to let Pat live out her days in the house he’d formerly bequeathed to his children.
Richard sees things differently. “If I want to spend my money on the woman I love, that’s my prerogative,” he says. “I paid for my daughter’s education, and I am putting away money for my future grandchildren.”
When told about Melissa’s concerns, he responded: “My children and grandchildren will be well provided for. Maybe they’ll get less than they might have if I hadn’t remarried, but there’s plenty to go around.”
(MORE: The 6 Things You Shouldn't Say to Your Adult Child)
When Children Have a Significant Other
According to Lieberman, tensions can be exacerbated when your child has his own partner. Anne Keller had such an experience when she remarried at age 56, five years after being widowed. At first, her two 20-something sons were fine with her new husband — until they settled into relationships of their own. “Both of their significant others don’t like my husband,” Anne says. “One calls him a leech, just because he doesn’t have as much money as I do. The other says he’s boring and that she’d rather be with interesting people.”
Lieberman says: “Anne needs to realize that this is probably an expression of her children's fear or jealousy." Her advice: Acknowledge their feelings and try to talk it out, or, if they're not willing or mature enough, to learn to live with it and minimize stressful family get-togethers until they are.
6 Tips to Ease the Transition With a New Partner
Life with kids is never easy, even when they’ve grown up and moved out. But if your relationship with them starts to suffer because of a new romance, follow these suggestions from Salamon and Lieberman.
- Keep the relationship “need to know” until they need to know. If your children are living at home, they are going to be more aware of what you’re up to on the dating front. But once they’re on their own, you don’t have to share every detail. In fact, if you constantly flaunt each new “friend,” you devalue the “right one” when he or she comes along.
- Let kids know when things are getting serious. If you decide that your new romance is heading toward marriage or cohabitation, give your children plenty of advance notice so that they can prepare themselves and get used to you as a remarried person. They also have to feel their way into being comfortable as part of a blended family. And definitely tell them if you plan to elope. “You can’t pull surprises because that sends the message you don’t care about their opinion,” Salamon says. “You actually are betraying them if you run off into matrimony without their knowledge.”
- Prioritize family time. No matter how old children are, they can feel less important as they watch your affection grow for an “outsider,” Lieberman says. Making a point to spend time with them alone can compensate for their sense of loss. And to help knit as a new family unit, find activities everyone enjoys and always be inclusive and supportive of the kids.
- Be willing to negotiate. Maybe your adult child doesn’t want your new romantic interest at his holiday party. So agree to that, but tell her that you expect her to show up at your holiday party, where they’ll have a chance to talk. “Don’t let your children dictate how everything goes,” Lieberman says. “Give in where you have to, but stand your ground when it’s important to you.”
- Take a stand for yourself. A little dose of “let’s think about me for once” may shake things up enough to help your children really get that your new relationship makes you happy. But remember to keep the emphasis on what you need and not what they did “wrong.”
- Address uncomfortable issues. No one likes talking about wills with their children (or their parents), but when you sense money concerns are the cause of unhappiness, it's worth bringing things out into the open. When Richard found out how upset his daughter had been about her place in his financial plans, he realized he needed to sit down with her and a lawyer. Lieberman thought that was a good plan. “Parents should overcome our cultural taboos about discussing money. They should be open with their children about exactly what they're willing to do in the present as well as assure them that they legally protect their future inheritance,” she says.
As annoying as grown children’s objections to your new love might be, Lieberman brings up an important point: Children's feelings are important to acknowledge and address — and sometimes they can even be instructive. “Many a bad girl or bad boy prowls for rich divorced baby boomers to marry and fleece,” she says. If your children, who presumably love you dearly in spite of all that other stuff, raise concerns, maybe you should hear them out before diving in. And when you can't reestablish harmony in the family, short-term counseling could be beneficial for everyone.