When Mom or Dad wades back in the dating pool
September 29th, 2011
07:34 AM ET

When Mom or Dad wades back in the dating pool

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

When my mother’s long-term boyfriend passed away, I was worried that she might be wary of taking another chance on romance. So when I learned that she’d rekindled an old flame and had fallen in love again, I felt relieved.

I was happy that she had found a partner and companion - someone to go on dinner and movie dates with, to take to family functions, and yes, even to enjoy physical intimacy with again.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about one parent dating again after the other parent has died, however. In fact, many people feel confused, disappointed, and even angry when Mom or Dad steps back into the dating scene.

Like it or not, these adult children find themselves thrown back into unhealthy childhood dynamics: They may feel hurt and even abandoned by their parent’s actions but are powerless to do anything about them.

There are many reasons why you might disagree with a parent’s decision to begin dating after his or her spouse has passed away - and they’re all legitimate emotions. Maybe you worry that your mother hasn’t fully grieved the death of her husband, or you feel betrayed that your father has started looking for a new partner.

“My mother started seeing a new man just eight months after my dad died,” Kate told me. “Doesn’t it take a full year to work through grief? At the time, I felt like it was disrespectful to my father’s memory, and to me and my siblings.”

It’s also natural to feel protective of your widowed parent.

“My father was crushed when my mother passed away,” said Mark. “He got started on online dating and I was really protective of him. What if nothing works out? I just didn’t want to see him get his heart broken again.”

Some adult children are worried about how a new relationship will affect their own financial standing in the family.

“Sure,” Patty told me of her mom’s recent dive back into the dating pool. “I want my mom to be happy, but how do I know that her suitors don’t have ulterior motives? I’m concerned that she’ll jump into another marriage and her second husband will take advantage of her financially.”

Others are even more blunt. “Look,” said Jeff. “My brother and I had been there for my father our whole lives. Then he started seeing a much younger woman. I didn’t want her to replace us in his will.”

These are all valid concerns, but should you voice them to your surviving parent? I recommend proceeding with caution. Your mother or father likely knows that this can be a thorny issue and may initiate a conversation about it. They may want your approval, but they certainly don’t need it.

Giving a parent a guilt trip about dating again isn’t going to help either of you. Instead, deal with the issue in a healthier way, by working through your thoughts before you address things with your parent:

Recognize the differences. We all grieve differently. Although you may still find yourself devastated long after a parent’s death, your surviving parent may well have worked through this or her emotions already, especially if it involved a lengthy period of caregiving before your other parent died. It’s fine to express your own sad feelings to your parent, but don’t place your own expectations of grief on them.

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine that own your spouse has passed away (sadly, this will likely someday be the case). Would you want others to simply label you a “widow” or “widower”? Would you want to be alone for the rest of your life? How would you feel if a loved one told you that you shouldn’t want to enjoy companionship or intimacy?

Give your parent credit for enduring a major stressful life change, and understand that they deserve happiness, too - whether that comes in the form of friendship, casual dating, sexual intimacy, a committed relationship, or a marriage. Whether your parent experiences heartbreak again can’t be avoided. Risk always accompanies love.

Don’t make it about money. It can be difficult to bite your tongue when you suspect your parent may be making poor financial decisions. If you think they are truly being taken advantage of, speak up - gently.

When it comes to their will, however, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself. Your parent’s money is your parent’s money, and an inheritance is a gift, not an entitlement.

Plunging back into the dating pool after the death of a spouse can be tough for anyone. Help make it easier for your parent by giving them support and understanding, not grief.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.