No matter how long it has been since a death or divorce left your older parent single, it can be tough to wrap your head around the idea of them moving on and seeking a new companion in their senior years. The truth is, as your parent begins to date or start a new relationship, you could find yourself in uncharted waters emotionally.
“From grief to confusion and even anger, adult children may experience a variety of emotions when mom or dad ventures into this new phase of life,” acknowledges Megan Harrison, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Tampa, Florida. “Some adult children are heartbroken when they realize their parents will never reconcile while others feel uncomfortable with their mom or dad’s openness and excitement about dating or falling in love. If the other parent has passed away, adult children often relive the grief they felt after losing their mother or father once their aging parent moves on.”
Caitlin Devan, a 35-year-old mom of two from Lake Wylie, South Carolina, experienced this when, several years after her mom passed away, her dad expressed interest in finding a companion again. “It’s tough because you do have a lot of mixed emotions,” she explains. “You don’t just grieve once when someone dies, you grieve hundreds of times over little moments. And I felt like I had to grieve losing a parent again because before he was dating, we filled one another’s time. We talked every day on the phone. And then, I had to learn how to share my time again with someone else.”
If you’ve found yourself in the same boat, read on for dating and psychology experts’ thoughts on the emotions your loved one’s new chapter might bring up, as well as tips for coping.
What feelings you may have (or “may come up”) when an aging parent starts dating
Seeing your parent start dating or begin a new relationship could bring up a bevy of complicated emotions and concerns. A few of the most common, according to experts, may include:
Renewed grief: “It’s perfectly natural for adult children to grieve the loss of the previous family unit once one or both parents begin dating,” says Harrison.
Worry that you’ll grow apart from your parent: “There is often a fear of forgotten memories and/or losing closeness with the dating parent,” acknowledges Harrison.
Fear that they’ll get hurt emotionally: Harrison notes that you might also fear that your parent will choose the wrong partner and get hurt. “There is often concern that the new love interest may take advantage of mom or dad,” she notes.
Devan can attest to this one as well. “You get really protective of your parent who is about to date again,” she notes. In her case, her dad was with her mom for years, and then there were five years he was by himself, during which Devan was assuring him that he could be happy on his own. “You’re building that up, and the next day they’re dating someone,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Don’t crush my dad. Please don’t let him hurt again.’”
Fear that they’ll get hurt financially: It’s common for adult children to wonder if their parent’s safety or financial security may be threatened, says Harrison.
Dana McNeil, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Relationship Place in San Diego, adds, “Some adult children see their elderly parents starting to have cognitive or physical challenges and wonder why a new partner would be willing to take on those challenges in their life. The children often conclude this new person may have ulterior motives, especially if a parent is financially well off.”
Anxiety about role reversal: “Many adult children are concerned their parents will overshare about their dating life or adopt a friendship role with their adult child(ren), as opposed to a parental role,” notes Harrison.
Fear that they’re not caring for their emotional well-being: You might also worry that your parent is rushing into a new relationship as a way of avoiding dealing with the end of their prior relationship, says McNeil. “Sometimes they feel this rush feels disrespectful to the relationship that has ended because it creates a vibe that the prior relationship was not meaningful enough to warrant a respectful amount of mourning or reflection,” she notes.
What’s behind all these complicated feelings
When it comes to identifying the trigger for all this fear and anxiety, Harrison points to uncertainty and fear of the unknown as the usual suspects. “A change in the family unit can be difficult for children of all ages, as they’re forced to let go of the previous family dynamic,” she says. “It can be incredibly difficult to accept a ‘new normal.’”
McNeil adds that as an adult, you might cognitively know that your parent is entitled to their own life and that you want them to be happy. But you might still harbor a childlike belief that they should be available to you when you need them and should possess a selfless approach to their own lives.
“The sudden introduction of a new unknown entity in a parent’s life creates a required shift in the son’s or daughter’s paradigm about who their parents are,” she notes. “Not only are they parents, but they are also people who are more dimensional and have their own needs and desires that the adult child hadn’t burdened themselves with giving space to in their previously established parent-child relationship. In other words, it may feel creepy no matter how old we are to consider our parents having sex, flirting, experiencing desire or conducting themselves like lovesick teenagers in our presence.”
The best ways to cope, according to experts
From journaling to initiating specific types of conversations, here are experts’ favorite tools for working through that mixed bag of challenging emotions.
Reflect on your own and/or with a therapist
Harrison advises that adult children take the necessary time to work through their initial emotions before prompting a conversation with their parent. “I’ve found journaling can be an effective tool, as sometimes it’s easier to sift through difficult emotions on paper than in our heads,” she notes. “I also recommend counseling for anyone struggling to accept their parent’s new lifestyle and/or the new family dynamic.”
Strive to be curious vs. furious
It’s important to begin to accept the new situation and work on being curious versus furious, says McNeil. The key to doing this: Ask why a new relationship feels important to your parent.
“When possible, an adult child should find ways to validate how a parent feels and avoid minimizing their emotions,” she says. “Make a solid attempt to have some empathy for what this time in their parent’s life must feel like. Imagine how it must feel to be in the later stages of life, knowing they are likely facing illness or other related challenges alone. While it is incredible to have the love of children, grandchildren and extended family, those relationships do not replace the love and companionship of a romantic relationship especially as we age and spend more time as a retired person.”
Talk to your parent
Harrison says she wholeheartedly believes that open, honest, non-confrontational communication is the key to working through any difficult emotions you might be experiencing.
Also, bear in mind that sharing your concerns and worries is best done in a loving way that doesn’t include any ultimatums or threats of removing yourself from your parent’s life if they don’t agree with you, says McNeil. “As much as possible, use ‘I’ statements to talk about the behaviors you see your parent doing and describe the situation that is leading to your concern,” she recommends. “This is going to be much easier for a parent to hear and will less likely lead to a situation that feels like a criticism is being launched.”
A few topics you might want to cover:
Safe dating tips: Because anxieties often arise when adult children are concerned about their parent’s safety, covering all the basics of dating safely can set everyone’s minds at ease, says Harrison.
Your parent’s financial security: If your fears are related to your parent being taken advantage of financially, open up about this, and make any necessary arrangements to ensure their resources remain safe and sound, says Harrison.
Boundaries: It’s key for both you and your parent to set clear boundaries regarding the parent’s dating life and your involvement, says Harrison. This will ensure neither of you overstep or even understep. For instance, you might assume your parent would prefer to spend Sunday afternoons one-on-one with their new partner, but they would actually prefer that you join them.
Prioritize time together
While your parent might have new commitments like online speed dating events or coffee dates with a potential match, Harrison recommends making a point to find time to connect. She explains that it’s important to spend time together to maintain the familial unit as it will serve as a reassurance that the relationship you share with your parent isn’t getting lost in the shuffle.
Then, if your parent finds a new partner, try to spend a mix of one-on-one time with your parent as well as time with both your parent and their new love, she recommends.
Think about the end goal
Devan found that focusing on what she ultimately wanted for her dad helped her navigate bumps that came up as he began a new chapter of his love life. “My end goal was for my dad to live fully and to live happily,” she says. “I had to keep my eye on that goal and realize that he had to get there however he was going to get there. For him, that meant having a companion, to know he was not spending the rest of his life by himself and that he could still make wonderful, beautiful memories with the rest of his time on earth.”