When Adult Children Say, “Don’t!”

Stanley Kissel, Ph.D., a retired clinical psychologist, was an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at Monroe County Community College, Nazareth College and the University of Rochester. Dr. Kissel has authored five psychology books and conducted workshops throughout the United States. He is on the board of the National Widowers’ Organization.

When a widower finds happiness in his first new relationship, hopefully his adult children will be supportive. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. I recently saw the movie version of “Middle of the Night,’ an adaption of an early Paddy Chayefsky tevevision drama. The movie tells the story of the budding relationship between a 56 year old widower and a 24 year old divorcee. It details the consequences of what happens when family interferes in the couple’s romance and plans for marriage.

Watching the movie reminded me of one of the major conflicts which often face men who have lost their wives and then find happiness and purpose in their lives again in a new relationship.

The initial reaction of adult children to their widowed father’s new found love interest is often negative. While one might expect that grown children would be happy that their Dad has started to move beyond his grief, surprisingly they often behave with animosity instead. Both sons and daughters are equally prone to react negatively to the introduction of a new woman in their father’s life. Why is this so?

A number of reasons come to mind and all of them have to do with fear on the part of the children that they will lose something they hold dear. It could be an inheritance, the love and affection of their father, or the role of feeling needed. When the father’s love interest is much younger than he is, the children may also question the young woman’s motives and have difficulty coming to terms with those of their Dad.

Money and the Well-meaning Child.

While money might not be the root of all evil, it is not at all uncommon for it to cause irrational behavior. Adult children may fear losing a portion or all of an inheritance. Their concerns can center also on their mother’s possessions, such as jewelry or furs, and any other items they may consider valuable. “That woman is just interested in your money,” or” Why do you want to spend all of your money on her?” are likely expressions of such fears. I’m sure you can think of other zingers that can be thrown at the widower. In this instance his children will be motivated by the fear of losing an inheritance that they think should be rightfully theirs. While children may believe that they are reacting in the best interests of their Dad, their fears can often blur sensible thinking and trigger strong emotions. I know of a family where the widowed father became ill shortly following his remarriage. His new wife nursed him devotedly for 12 years until he passed away. From the moment they met her, his adult children were convinced she was only after his money. His will left her only a pittance, while most of his wealth went to his family. Nevertheless, his children continued to maintain that she was only after his money!

Loss of Love

The fear of losing affection and love is more often than not strongly associated with the widower’s daughter. The closer the ties between them, the more likely the fear of loss will undermine a daughter’s attitude toward the new relationship. The expression of concern will be more subtle than in the case where the fears are primarily based on financial loss. This is partly because it is difficult for the daughter to face her own need to maintain the ongoing relationship with Dad. Positive and encouraging remarks will come with a ‘but’. Here are some examples.

  • “She really is a tidy housekeeper, but not as good as Mom.”
  • “You seem to be gaining weight since going out with her. You know that isn’t healthy for you, Dad”
  • “I’m glad you’re going out and having a good time again, but we don’t get together as much as we used to.”
  • “I think she’s a lovely woman, but isn’t it soon after we lost Mom to start a new relationship?”

Loss of Being Needed

This fear of course is rather paradoxical. Taking care of a widowed father can be a full time job that might work for an unmarried daughter who might be content moving in with Dad to take care of his domestic needs. A married daughter with a family is quite different. She can exhibit the strongest opposition to her father dating. The Sunday dinners or afternoon visits may go by the boards as well as the need for her weekly delivery of frozen dinners for his freezer. He may hear her say, “I notice how much you enjoy it when she cooks for you. Have you been unhappy with the meals I’ve been preparing for you?” Fears of being displaced as the “main woman” can quickly give way to the feeling of not being needed and then to not being loved. In one family I know, when their widowed father remarried and moved out of the area, his children were distraught. It took a long time for his daughter to forgive him and begin to accept his new life.

And Then There is Sex!

Whatever age, whether a 15 year old teenage girl or a 50 year old married son, thinking of Dad having sex with a woman is a pause that is anything but refreshing. Whether it was Mom or is now some other woman, it is anxiety provoking. A new woman in Dad’s life will stimulate sexual thoughts in the minds of grown children, but they are unlikely to express those thoughts. When it comes to their parents, sex for procreation was acceptable, sex for pleasure is not. Since their widowed father is usually not expected to start a new family, as far as an adult child is concerned, sex is taboo. They may cloak their fears in the belief that the stress of sexual activity will tax Dad’s heart. More than likely, it is taxing their ability to realize that Dad is sexually active.

Solving the Dilemma

To be aware is to be forewarned. Saner minds must prevail. The widower who has found a new and loving relationship must be the one to squelch the negativity in his grown children. He can reassure his children that they will not be losing anything, but instead the family will be gaining a wonderful new addition.

As the parent, it is up to the father to discuss any misconceptions and to keep the channels of communication open. It is very difficult to choose between a continuing respectful and loving relationship with children and nourishing a new relationship of one’s own. It is the task of the widower and his new found love to take the lead in helping his adult children with their worries. Help them to see that moving on from grief into a loving relationship is a positive step for him.

Actions will speak louder than words. Make occasional lunch or dinner dates with adult children, at times as a family and other times with each of the children separately. The children need to be reassured that they will not lose any of their inheritance.

The new couple should make the effort to participate in all family functions so that the children can become accustomed to accepting them as a couple. If she and the daughter are in the kitchen together preparing a meal, at least early in the relationship she should be asked to take a back seat to the daughter. It will be reassuring to the daughter and begin to cement a relationship between the two of them.

As the children were growing up, the wise parent was guided by the principle “The best interests of a child should prevail.” With some extra sensitivity and some extra effort, a widowed father can help his adult children to be guided by, “The best interests of Dad should prevail.”