How do you conduct your sex life after a divorce if you have children in the home? How you lead your private life is a model for what your children may do when they become teens and feel the full heat of sexual desire.
In the movie, "Stepmom," a child tells her mother (after visiting her father) that dad and his new girlfriend have sex in the shower and that she screams. "How do you know she screams?" asks the astonished mother. "Because we live in the same state," says her daughter.
Many moms and dads become single again after years or decades of marriage and wonder how they can start to have a personal life. Sometimes they start dating again but forget about the effect of adult intimacy on children.
"You have to be very delicate about introducing a new love into your life after a divorce," says Rita M. DeMaria, PhD, president of the Relationship Center in Spring House, Pennsylvania. "First and foremost, you must think about the message you're sending young children. Have you told them that sex outside of marriage is wrong? If so, you may come across as a hypocrite."
Moreover, the older the children, the greater their disdain if new lovers start sleeping over "too soon" after the divorce. Some single parents even resort to secretive behavior, making sure a lover is out of the house by the time the children are up and about. Needless to say, family experts suggest a few more truthful and careful approaches.
"If a single parent conducts a series of one-night stands, he or she will probably raise a child that will be sexually promiscuous at a young age," says Lois V. Nightingale, PhD, director of the Nightingale Counseling Center in Yorba Linda, California. "Modeling is the most powerful parenting tool known."
"It's very important to spend quality time, one-on-one with your child for as long as it takes to allow the youngster to get their feet under them and understand the dynamics and emotions of moving between two households," says Patricia J. McWhorter, PhD, a licensed psychologist in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of
Cry of Our Native Soul
, a book nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. "The very first order of business for a divorced parent is to let the kids know that mom or dad loves them unconditionally, is still there for them 100%, and will always take care of them."
When a child feels secure in all the various post-divorce arrangements, it becomes easier to accept a new person into the circle. However, if the child is unsure about mom or dad's affection, he will feel threatened, or that he is competing for dad or mom's time and attention. The ugly effects of jealousy will then proceed to make domestic life anything but tranquil.
When a new love interest does start to bloom, move slowly. "Moving slowly in a relationship lets your child gradually get used to a new person," explains Dr. McWhorter. Even under the best of circumstances, acceptance of an outsider is tough for a child. And that's doubly true when a parent and child only see each other on weekends. If you try to share your child's time with a new love right away, the level of resentment is likely to skyrocket.
In addition, your child's safety comes foremost, and you need to make sure there is zero chance your new partner is inclined toward any type of abuse. "One of the most common forms of child sexual abuse occurs after a single mother has a new boyfriend move into her home," warns Dr. McWhorter.
Another danger involves jumping in too quickly with a new love and allowing the children to become attached to the newcomer. But then there's a chance that the love affair won't work out, because the adults didn't take the time to court and really get to know each other.
"I frequently see in my practice single parents who are spending a lot of time with a new boyfriend or girlfriend," says Dr. DeMaria. "But there is far too much friction between the children and the new lover. That's usually because the new person tries to act like a substitute parent right away. The best way for a new person to get acquainted with the children is to just be a friend first. Leave parenting to the parent and try to get to know the kids before sleeping over."
Dr. Nightingale suggests dating a person who is playful, lighthearted, and fun with the children. One who is willing to be introduced into the lives of the children slowly and who enjoys a healthy mix of adult-only and child-included activities. This person is probably a good catch if he or she shows respect and adoration for you with your children and respects the boundaries that you set.
Yet another complicating factor is the degree of hostility between the divorcing couple. If bitterness is high and the parents are fighting with little effort put into co-parenting new lovers are likely to receive a constant cold shoulder from the children.
When a new love does start spending the night, experts recommend answering children's questions completely but offering no additional information about what goes on in the bedroom. For teens, some experts say it might be a good idea to add that you are practicing safe sex. "The new relationships that work best with children in the home are committed relationships," says Dr. DeMaria.
Here's a sobering thought from the experts: it usually takes about two years for the new love to get to know the child. It can take five years before a "blended" family operates smoothly, with affection and respect all around. When the time comes, tell the children you are in a special relationship with somebody who is important in your life. And that he or she may stay overnight once in a while.