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When Kids Dislike Your New Partner

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When I started seeing the new man in my life, my 14-year-old son had a fairly typical reaction. First up was a lot of glowering and the question, "When are you getting rid of him?" When I didn't give the answer he wanted, he angrily folded his arms and said: "I will never ever speak to him." I felt badly about my breakup with this fledgling boy's father and had actually thought about it for years before I plucked up the strength to make the final move. It took a good therapist to counter my guilt about breaking up the family by pointing out to me the harm being done to any child being raised around adults living in a dead relationship. That therapist was instrumental in helping me decide it was not only okay to end the marriage, but actually could be for the best -- for me and my younger son. "What if he eventually sees you in a loving relationship with a man?" he asked. "Won't that be a wonderful role model for him to see adults who actively care about each other?"

It all sounds good in theory, but of course the transition was very difficult. A years ago my son, having weathered the trauma of the breakup, was hugely upset by the idea of a new man in our lives. I knew it was a turning point for all of us, and it had to be handled as well as possible. We've all seen horrible situations where children of divorced parents are caught in the aftermath of an unhappy breakup. Some parents openly badmouth the ex-spouse and their new partners to their children. Others consciously or unconsciously get the children to side with them against the other -- with horrible consequences, punishing pain for the excluded parent, and possible longterm damage for the children.

There were four distinct steps we took which have helped our situation enormously. First, both my son's father and I went to great lengths to let him know that neither of us was leaving his life, that while he would live primarily with me, his father would see him frequently. Secondly, a close female friend and I took my son for an afternoon meal in a big empty Mexican restaurant, a place where we could talk and not be bothered. We told him he was allowed to say anything. He was allowed to feel anything. He talked, vented some hostile things to me which were hard to hear, but that he had to say out loud. He said the breakup was my fault, that I had made his dad leave, and he cried. We told him his feelings were completely understandable. We tried to give perspective to his allocation of blame, that both parents were responsible and both were in agreement about the divorce. Then we moved on to the current situation -- his hostility to the interloper. We gently addressed his determination to never speak to the new man. We, the adults, helped him to contain his feelings by saying that he could feel anything he wanted about the new man, but he had to answer when spoken to, and be polite. That set the ground rules. And it also allowed for movement, because he had been eased out of an intractable posture which could have gone on for months or years.

Thirdly and very importantly, I talked to my ex about our son's problem with my new partner. I thought his dislike of the new man was his way of staying loyal to his father so that his father was not displaced. I asked my ex to talk with our son and tell him he was okay about the new man's presence and that the new man was an okay guy in his book. My ex was caring enough of his son to do this, putting aside any problems between he and I, putting aside any primitive dislike he had for the new man on the scene. This made the world of difference and I think spoke directly to the primitive instinct in boy children to stay aligned with their fathers (and perhaps girls with their mothers).

Fast forward now -- one year later. We are all living together -- me, my son and the new man. The new man's good - he doesn't push it, he knows when to back off, he's figured out what candy to bring home from work for my son. They greet each other with some joking formality. My son even lets the new man drive him to school sometimes. As for our relationship with my son's father, he comes in and out of the house to pick up our son and the grownups make an effort to be cordial. There were some bumps along the way as the new man struggled with his occasional discomfort and I sometimes found myself in the ringmaster role. But eventually we were even able to have Christmas dinner together -- my ex included. And when my ex's sister was in town recently, she stayed with me and my new man -- she and I are close friends, and we have a guest bedroom. On her last day here, we all, my ex included, went together to see our astonishing and talented 14-year-old play rock guitar at the Whisky A Go Go, followed by a happy laughter-filled farewell dinner. My son was happy and comfortable to be with his newly configured family, which is the point of it all. I think that's the key -- for the grownups to put themselves and their feelings aside and do what is best for the children. After all, they have their whole lives ahead of them and need to be launched as smoothly as possible, even if their imperfect parents are divorced.