It goes without saying that watching a parent re-partner with someone new can have a huge impact — at any age.
If you’re a child, the prospect of living with a new step-parent can prove a difficult adjustment.
But what happens when you’re an adult?
Regardless of how old you are, it can “come as a shock”, says clinical psychologist Nasreen Yasin, and has the potential to alter your family dynamics.
Understanding your own response is an important first step. Here’s what the experts recommend.
Understanding your own response
Relationships Australia CEO Elisabeth Shaw says the surprise that comes with a parent re-partnering might also be due to your preconceived assumptions — like that a parent of a certain age shouldn’t be interested in dating, or should be focusing on their children and grandchildren.
“Given those norms around older people being less sexual beings, there’s a lot of confrontation in seeing your parent date, and seeing them step out of the role you’ve had them in,” Ms Shaw says.
If your other biological parent has passed away, Dr Yasin says you may feel angry at the new partner, which is often a masking emotion for a sense of loss or grief.
Ms Shaw says a new partner can feel like a final sign that your other parent is really, truly, gone. You may also be concerned that your parent is moving on too fast, and feel strongly about how long their mourning period should be.
Even if your parents have divorced, feelings of betrayal can be common.
Ms Shaw says at any age, we might still have hopes for our parents to get back together, and feel a loyalty bond.
“If one parent isn’t travelling very well in their life, and hasn’t met anybody … seeing one parent move on in quite a joyous way when the other is struggling can raise complex feelings,” Ms Shaw says.
She says adult children often feel burdened with hiding the secret of the new partner, which can be uncomfortable.
Setting boundaries and voicing your concerns
Before approaching a conversation with your parent, Dr Yasin says it’s important to process your own emotions: “Are you simply jealous, or insecure? Are you feeling a sense of abandonment? Or is it actually a genuine concern for your parent?”
Ms Shaw agrees, and says you could think about whether your reaction is due to certain stereotypes and norms.
She suggests re-adjusting yourself to this new chapter in your parent’s life, and being curious with them about why they’re keen to date again, and what they’re enjoying about the experience.
She says the next step is to be honest with your own feelings.
For example, you could say: “I was really unprepared for you dating again, and maybe that was unfair of me, but I’m still getting my head around it. I just need to take a bit of time”.
Or, in the case of divorce: “I’m pleased for you, but I’m worried for my other parent, and I feel a bit caught in the middle. Can you help me with that?”
Ms Shaw adds that it’s OK to stand your boundaries.
If a parent’s asked you to take a particular role, or keep certain secrets that are making you uncomfortable, she says you could think about which requests are an appropriate ask, and which ones you could push back on.
For example, if your parent is keen to bring their new partner to a family event, but you feel it’s going to cause tension, you could negotiate that accordingly where you feel comfortable and safe to do so.
Talking about money
Dr Yasin says if you do see red flags with the new partner in terms of scams, financial abuse or control, and have genuine concerns, it’s important to raise this with them in a respectful conversation.
She says to remember that they’re likely to be quite defensive, so it’s important not to accuse or jump to any conclusions about this new partner straight away.
“So going very gently, the best thing would be to suggest to your parents to maybe discuss it with a financial adviser or trusted peer of some sort.
“That solution can work quite well because we are more open to our peers than our children for these kinds of monetary concerns.”
Ms Shaw agrees that pointing them in the direction of legal advice can be helpful, but says honesty is key for these kinds of conversations.
“If you just keep talking about the parent being ripped off, when it’s pretty obvious to you both that you’re worried about losing your inheritance, I think it’s better to put that on the table.”
Ultimately, Ms Shaw says, it’s important to remember that family assets do belong to your parents, and children don’t have a moral right to them.
She adds that she works with clients in older age groups, who are often already thinking about their children’s interests.
“Of course, we can be naive at any age,” Ms Shaw says.
“But I also see people who are very thoughtful and protective of their interests, who set up really interesting arrangements around continuing to live separately, but dating and travelling on holiday together and staying over.
“They really do want the joy and the fun of a relationship, but they also want their autonomy and their own space.”
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