How Do Divorced Mothers Manage New Relationships?

Mothers have two potentially competing needs: the mother's desire for adult companionship and the child's desire for parental attention and affection.
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When should I begin dating? Should I remarry? Will remarrying harm or benefit my children? How should my needs for intimacy be balanced with the welfare of my children? What should I do if my kids don't like my new dating partner?

These are all questions that divorced mothers find themselves asking, but few scientists have studied how mothers answer them. Edward Anderson and Shannon Greene at the University of Texas at Austin provide a first glimpse into divorced mothers' thought process. In an article titled, "'My Child and I Are a Package Deal': Balancing Adult and Child Concerns in Repartnering After Divorce," Anderson and Greene followed over 300 mothers for two years after they filed for divorce. All of the mothers had a child who was in elementary school.

The key goal of this study was to understand mothers' adult-oriented versus child-oriented view on re-partnering. As the scientists note, mothers have two potentially competing needs: the mother's desire for adult companionship and the child's desire for parental attention and affection. Anderson and Greene ask, "Do parents believe that they and their child are 'package deal' ...or, in contrast, do parents expect that their child can adapt and should accommodate to parental wishes...?" In other words, do mothers have a child-oriented or an adult-oriented view of re-partnering?

So how did the actual re-partnering change over the two-year process for these mothers? Immediately following the divorce filing, about 45 percent of the mothers were already in a relationship with a new partner, 26 percent were interested in dating, and 29 percent were not interested in dating. Two years later, 86 percent reported some dating experience, 71 percent had a serious relationship, and 24 percent reported the break-up of a serious relationship.

How many mothers reported an adult- versus a child-oriented view of dating? Immediately after filing for divorce, almost two-thirds of mothers reported a strong child-orientation toward dating or repartnering. More specifically, 91 percent of the mothers indicated that she and her child were a "package deal" when it came to dating, and 65 percent reported that they would not marry someone their child disliked. However, only 37 percent said they would stop seeing someone that their child disliked. Fewer than 18 percent indicated that they would let their child talk them into giving up a relationship with a person the child didn't like. Over the two-year period after divorce there was little change in mothers' orientation, with only a slight increase in a more adult-oriented view and a less child-oriented view.

There were some differences between mothers. Older, more educated and working mothers tended to have a more adult-oriented view of dating and re-partnering. Ethnicity, income and length of separation did not have a significant effect of these attitudes. Mothers who were more adult-focused said they had less rapport with their children and spent less time in joint activities with their children than mothers who had a more child-oriented view.

Anderson and Greene also asked about how mothers managed the dating relationships. In other words, how do mothers deal with their children's knowledge about their dating activities? As you might guess, more child-oriented mothers were more actively engaged in management of these dating relationships, meaning, they were more hands-on in helping their child and the dating partner get along -- starting conversations, resolving disagreements, involving them in joint activities and so forth. Almost half of the mothers reported never doing any active management, one-fifth engaged in some management and about one-tenth did a lot of this type of activity. Interestingly, child-oriented mothers became more active managers when their child did not like their new partner and adult-oriented mothers became more active when their new partners did not like their children.

There are important limitations to this study, however. First, there is little other research about this issue so we don't know if this sample of mothers is like most divorced mothers. The scientists developed a new measure of "adult- versus child-orientation" in regards to new relationships. Most likely this measure and these ideas will be better refined and better measured in the future.

In the meantime, this study points to a significant gap in our educational and clinical assistance to divorcing parents. As the authors of this study note, there are few programs that help parents navigate these re-partnering issues except when they get to the stepfamily stage. Clearly, more attention should be paid to these issues by both scientists and helping professionals.

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