Dealing With A Jealous Child

When you're dating a single parent, the child may resent the attention you get.

By Andrea Orr

hen Debbie, a divorced mother of three children under the age of 10, started dating a divorced father of a 16-year-old girl, she braced herself for some family adjustments. Debbie had heard all about the ways young children could feel threatened when a strange new man entered the household and she went
The busy schedules of two single parents with full-time jobs left very little time for formal dates.
out of her way to let her three young ones know they still had a devoted mom as well as a devoted dad who could never be replaced.

Not that she needed to be so concerned. The busy schedules of two single parents with full-time jobs left very little time for formal dates, let alone lolling around the house on a Saturday afternoon when the kids were home from school. Gradually, her three kids got to know Doug better, but contrary to what Debbie had always heard about awkward adjustments, they barely seemed to notice the guy. Her 10-year-old daughter would sometimes ask what she’d had for dinner when Doug took her out, but that was the extent of her curiosity. Debbie looked a little closer. After all, she had been a psychology major. Could it be that they were so deeply troubled by the change in their mom’s social status that they had withdrawn? It certainly didn’t look that way. Her children were happy and active as ever — just more concerned with Barbie and Bob the Builder than with Doug the boyfriend.

No more nuclear family
If only it had been so simple for Doug’s 16-year-old daughter. Week after week, Debbie would expect to meet her, only to be told that she was away at a soccer match, staying with her mother, or out with friends. After a few more months had passed, her constant absence started to bother Debbie. It wasn’t that she had unrealistic expectations. The last thing Debbie needed was another child, but she was starting to fall for Doug and it seemed only natural that she should become acquainted with his daughter. Understanding everyone’s busy lives, Debbie asked Doug to set aside a time that was convenient for all. But when pressed, Doug changed his story. He said his daughter was extremely jealous of all the women in his life, and had refused to meet Debbie.

The short lesson of this story is that jealousy can be a hard thing to predict. When Debbie entered the relationship, she just assumed that three young children who depended on their mom for everything from food to transportation to clean laundry would be more prone to jealousy than a mature 16-year-old who ought to be old enough to care about her father’s happiness.

Anyone who has dated a single parent will tell you that the rules for dealing with the kids are pretty simple. First, you give them lots of space so that they understand you are not trying to usurp their real mom or dad. Second, as you do get to know them, you try to approach them as a nice uncle or a cool aunt, so that they will feel comfortable in your presence but won’t get confused about who the
The short lesson of this story is that jealousy can be a hard thing to predict.
real parents are. Finally, if the relationship deepens, be prepared to perform some motherly or fatherly duties that you feel comfortable with — not because you’re trying to replace a biological parent, but because families nowadays are complicated. If you’re headed down a path of remarriage with someone who has kids from another relationship, sooner or later you’re all going to have to stretch your notion of the traditional nuclear family.

Immature child, or immature adult?
That’s why it started to eat at Debbie that her boyfriend of more than six months had still not introduced her to his daughter. At first, she considered it utterly unacceptable that he would let his life be ruled by his daughter. After some more reflection, Debbie decided she didn’t buy it. Doug probably had his own reasons for keeping the two women in his life separate. It helped keep the whole tone of the relationship light and casual. But Debbie wanted more.

On Doug’s birthday weekend, some of her worst fears were confirmed. He celebrated with Debbie on Saturday night, but made her scramble out of the house before noon on Sunday when his daughter was coming over for the “family celebration.” A few awkward conversations later, Debbie discovered that Doug was not even divorced, just separated. It didn’t seem like he had any hope of reconciliation with his ex-wife. But it was also looking less and less like he was ready for anything serious with another woman. As Debbie opened up more about her own feelings, Doug returned a cool blank stare.

Debbie never did meet Doug’s daughter, but she learned some lessons in her first romantic relationship with a divorced dad. Yes, children do change everything and when you start dating later in life, you can’t expect it to be all about romantic weekend getaways for two. But she also learned that kids can be surprisingly resilient and accepting when the partner in question is a decent person. If you date someone who has a jealous kid, you should start out being very understanding and prepare to give it some time. But if you’re with someone who is resolved to hide you from the children altogether, it’s worth asking whether your real problem is a jealous child or just a grown-up longing for the kind of no-strings-attached relationship that worked so well in high school.

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in major newspapers around the world including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
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