I’ve read that men typically recouple first in the aftermath of a divorce. That was true in my case, after my parents split up. Here’s the story about my dad’s girlfriend…
My dad was the one who told me about his girlfriend, after I answered the phone and heard a strange female voice asking for him. I remember feeling slightly shocked by the news. It was only a month or two after my dad moved out and I was still adjusting to the new living arrangements. I didn’t expect my parents to start dating so quickly. I’m not sure if I expected them to start dating at all.
Even after hearing the news that my dad was seeing someone, it was still a couple months before I met Candy. I remember that she came over and we played Yahtzee. She had pretty red hair (from a bottle) and fire-engine-red fingernails. She had nice handwriting and she laughed a lot. My dad laughed a lot too, and it had been a long time since I’d seen him so happy. The verdict: I liked her!
Not long after the meeting, my dad moved in with Candy, which made me quite uncomfortable. It felt way too soon to make such a drastic move. She had children I’d never met. There was no room for me at her house- I had to sleep on the sofa. New verdict: My father was selfish and inconsiderate. My response was to avoid visitation with him in any way possible. I booked outings and sleepovers with friends so I didn’t have to go there.
At thirteen years old, I shouldn’t have been permitted to negotiate such an arrangement of avoidance. But, honestly, I think my parents were a little bit afraid of me. I was young enough to act on my passionate emotions, and I was smart enough to understand the mess they’d made of our family (at that time they were still feeling pretty guilty). They also had their hands full with my four-year-old sister. Providing me with extra freedom was their way of cutting themselves a break and avoiding the hard questions I might have asked.
In my case, we were lucky because I was a good kid. I didn’t get into trouble and I was adaptable enough to thrive under the circumstances once I finally did start visiting my dad at Candy’s house. Unfortunately things don’t always work out so well.
From my current perspective, I can say that my dad’s performance as a parent was somewhat crappy. He blended his children with his girlfriend way too soon. Given the situation, we all could’ve benefitted from several more months (at least!) of The New Normal before throwing more people, and another address change, into the mix. No matter how much “fun” s/he is, the introduction of a new partner is stressful for kids— even in ways they aren’t conscious of. The aftershocks of divorce leave kids vulnerable and in need of parental presence, and a new boy/girlfriend can further erode any sense of security.
On the other hand, I realize that my dad isn’t/wasn’t just My Dad. He’s a human being with a job, expenses, wants, needs, worries and the all-too-natural desire for companionship. How much can I blame him for recoupling so soon and putting me in an awkward situation? He’d found someone who made him happy and cohabitating made good financial sense. As a result, his support payments to my mom were on time and we were able to go places and do fun things on the weekends with him. It wasn’t so bad.
So… is there a recipe for blending the “parent” and “person” roles, post-divorce? No. Is there an accurate schedule to tell us when it’s OK to introduce a new partner? No. What’s the right formula for separated parents to balance their children’s needs with their own? I don’t know.
This isn’t an easy topic. There aren’t easy answers. I’ve learned a lot from my personal experience combined with my studious endeavors and incessant reflection… but, we’re all different. What might have been “right” for my family wouldn’t have worked for others. As individuals navigating divorce and post-divorce family issues, we need to remember that we’re all human. Sometimes our needs overshadow our performance in the roles we’re supposed to play. Sometimes it’s necessary to make certain compromises. Conflict is always a given and these problems are never simple to solve. The best thing we can do is be aware of how our actions affect those around us. And to be disciplined, yet gentle with ourselves while maintaining compassion for others. Practice healthy communications with exes, partners, children and parents. And remember, we’re all in this together. And nobody is perfect.
*You can find out things worked out for Gina and her father in my book, The D-Word: Divorce Through a Child’s Eyes.