When You Don't Like Your Parent's New Significant Other
How to work through complicated feelings and maintain good relationships
After my grandmother passed away, my grandfather casually dated several women. They were mostly from the neighborhood and had known my grandmother. My mother and her two siblings were grateful that he had some companionship, especially at mealtime, because they knew how lonely he was without his wife of over 40 years.
But when he introduced them to Greta* (name changed), their gratitude changed to concern. Greta was 20 years his junior, tall and gregarious — nothing at all like their petite, reserved mother.
It was easy to see why my grandfather would be flattered by Greta’s interest. It was equally understandable that my mother and her siblings had reservations about Greta's intentions. While they didn't want my grandfather to be alone, they didn’t think Greta was right for him. They were conflicted about whether they should express their feelings or stay quiet about their concerns since he was happy.
Sorting Through the Baggage
Situations like this are not uncommon. Sarah Hewitt, family therapist and owner of Well Life Therapy in Middletown, Conn., says, “It is difficult for even adult children to separate their parents from being their parents and people who are allowed to have relationships themselves.”
Whether through divorce or death, adult children need to process their feelings about their parents no longer being together. These feelings may include anger, loss, disappointment or a combination.
A surviving parent dating after the death of a spouse can reignite feelings of grief in a child. Psychiatrist Dr. Laura Dabney of Virginia Beach, Va. says, “When a parent starts dating, it’s a painful reminder to the child of their loss. It may not be that you don't like the woman your father is dating, but that you wish your mom were still alive."
Adds Hewitt, “No matter the relationship with their mother and father, there is an innate loyalty that most children feel towards their biological parents. It is difficult to 'accept' a new 'parent,' and this does not discriminate when the child is above the age of eighteen or thirty or forty five.”
A Shift in the Family Dynamic
Even if a parent's new partner is sweet and kind, adult children still may have trouble accepting the presence of this person in their parent's life.
Richard Horowitz, a life coach at Growing Great Relationships in Palm Harbor, Fla., says, “First off, the adult children need to make sure their judgments are objective, not based on biases, both conscious and unconscious. The adult children must make sure they are clear about what their parent needs and is looking for in a relationship.”
Adult children have to be mature and separate their own needs from those of their parent.
Hewitt explains, "When we are young children, we are egocentric, and this continues into adulthood especially when we are with our parents. The family dynamic may shift and age over the years. However, our roles within our family often remain the same. If we grew up as a 'daddy's girl,' it is never going to be a simple adjustment to accepting our mother's new significant other, when it used to be our dad.”
While adult children may think "she's not his type" or "he is nothing like Dad," that may not mean the new significant other is wrong for the parent.
Remember that the parent is at a completely different stage of life now and may be looking for someone who doesn't resemble their former spouse in looks or personality. What may appear to be an odd match to the adult child may be just what the parent needs to be happy.
Julie Fanning, a clinical social worker and owner of Holding Hope Services, in West Dundee, Ill., says, “Don’t forget that they’ve been around the block a couple more times than you have and they have the right to make the choices that bring them joy despite your personal feelings.”
One common concern, especially with later-in-life romances, is about finances.
“Adult children may worry the new significant other is a gold digger or that their parent will wind up financially supporting their new partner and perhaps decrease the amount of money left for the children to inherit," says Horowitz.
Another issue is that adult children may not want to share their parent with someone new. They may see the new significant other as an intruder, especially if the relationship seems to decrease the amount of time the parent now has for the adult children or grandchildren.
Adult children who have experienced the loss of a parent may feel abandoned by the living parent because of his or her new partner. Fanning advises, “While the feelings are real, remember that parents are not trying to replace you, they are embracing their own full life.”
Should You Speak Up?
Before voicing concerns to a parent about a new significant other, find another sounding board. Hewitt says, “The adult child needs to take a step back and reflect on the situation. Do they not like how a new person in the system makes them feel or is it truly the individual that they have a problem with?”
Siblings, close friends, partners and/or a therapist can provide a safe space to vent, complain and sort through mixed emotions about the situation.
If you feel there is a serious disconnect between what the parent wants or needs and what the new woman or man can offer, it may be wise to speak to your parent directly. Horowitz advises adult children to proceed with caution, though, making sure to start the conversation with a positive.
“Begin with ‘I love you and I want you to be happy’ and then in a gentle manner share concerns with genuine compassion,” Horowitz says. “Ask the parent in a non-confrontational manner what they are hoping to get out of the relationship.”
Be careful not to act demanding (like a child) or speak critically of the significant other. Dabney says, “It’s important to own your feelings. If you say to your father, ‘She’s not right for you,’ he will probably get defensive. Instead, focus on yourself and say, ‘The situation is painful for me. It’s not how I envisioned our family. But I am going to try my best. Can you give me time?’ for a more productive conversation.”
If there is a concern about finances, gently suggest involving an impartial third party such as a lawyer or investment planner to set clear boundaries and avoid miscommunication or hurt feelings.
It may be that your issues are not really about the significant other at all. You might just miss spending time alone with your parent and this is a valid feeling, especially as parents age.
It’s okay to express these feelings in a positive way. Something like, “I have such great memories of us going to the ball game when I was a kid. Can I buy tickets for just the two of us or do you want to come over to watch together like the old days?” lets a parent know you value your time together.
Keeping the Peace
Ultimately you want your parents to be happy. Widowhood and divorce can be very lonely. Studies show that people who have strong human connections as they age tend to have live longer, healthier lives. If your parent has found someone to share time with, try to be supportive and grateful that he or she is enjoying life.
Fanning advises, “None of us are promised tomorrow. Ask yourself if you can figure out a way to be respectful, civil, and even once in a while, enjoy interactions with your parent’s [new love]."
Odds are your parent will really appreciate you making an effort to help everyone get along.