What is the proper level of affection in front of children?
July 14, 2010 6:36 PM   Subscribe

I am a childless woman dating a man with children and I need some advice.

We are both in our late 40s and divorced. I've never had children, never wanted children and he has two older teenagers from his long term marriage. His kids are cool. I like them. He, on the other hand, gets really weird when he's around them with me. We've been living together for 7 months and his kids rarely come over because he doesn't invite them. When we are together with his kids for dinner or some other activity, he won't touch me, kiss me or call me by any term of endearment. It freaks me out because he's usually pretty touchy feely. He will flinch if I touch him and will actually move away from me. In fact at lunch today with one of his children, he escorted me to another room to kiss me goodbye because I had to leave early.

Is this normal parent/child behavior? My parents were always affectionate around me, so I'm thinking this is odd. He says his ex-wife hated physical contact, but he seems to be showing sypmtoms of this around his children.

When I ask him, he gets defensive. He doesn't want to make his children uncomfortable. I tell him, "but your behavior makes me uncomfortable."

I need some unbiased opinions here. Should I get over myself?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can imagine that he sincerely believes that showing physical affection to someone 'not their mother' might make them really uncomfortable, which, to my mind, might be true or it might not -- it's impossible to say without knowing them.

I think that if you could really convince him otherwise, it might make a difference. You're probably not close enough to them to just ask the kids, but maybe he could?
posted by amtho at 6:40 PM on July 14, 2010

He probably just doesn't want the kids to get their hopes up re: New Mom.

He doesn't want to make his children uncomfortable. I tell him, "but your behavior makes me uncomfortable."

Guess whose comfort is more important.

Also: No one likes watching their parent(s) being touchy-feely, because it is weird and gross.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:40 PM on July 14, 2010 [16 favorites]

It sounds like he's being a little weird, because by the time kids are teenagers, they know that they weren't dropped off by a stork. I'm sure that his kids have some definition of "normal" in their own minds. Why doesn't he just ask them? Or is he projecting through his kids? Is he normally affectionate to you in front of other people?
posted by bolognius maximus at 6:42 PM on July 14, 2010

It seems to me that there are probably a few factors at work here.

If his ex-wife did hate physical contact, he probably still hasn't broken some of the habits that came from that. Likewise, his kids wouldn't be used to seeing their father acting that way with a woman, which leads to the second factor - he's probably overcompensating because you're not their mother. I feel like movies and TV have made people think that every step-parent is terrible, and that children always hate interlopers. This isn't always the case, especially when the children are older teenagers, but that's probably the impression he has.

That said, your boyfriend's behavior isn't great, but it's something you're going to have to deal with, I think. No offense, but his relationship with his children should come first, and if he feels like kissing or touching in front of them will freak them out (whether or not it actually will), it's probably best to just let him think that.

With that in mind, I do think you should discuss this with him a little more. Point out to him that flinching and moving away from your touch probably makes his kids feel MORE awkward than if he just went along with him. Mention that they're teenagers - they're older and mature and can probably handle a kiss here or there.

Another route is to show him that, yes, the boys do feel comfortable around you, and yes, you do get along with them. Don't go overboard with this (it'll come off as creepy), but plan a surprise dinner for the four of you (plus girlfriends if either kid has them - it'll decrease the tension, seriously), or, if his birthday is coming up, plan him a surprise party or something. Say "yeah, I called your kids and they were a huge help." I'm eighteen, and if my parents were split up and either parent's significant other came to me with a request like that, I know I'd be totally cool with it, so I don't think you have to worry about the kids being weirded out either.

Of course, I don't have much experience with this sort of situation, but that's what I'd do. Hope it helps, and good luck.
posted by JimBennett at 6:48 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

My parents were always affectionate around me, so I'm thinking this is odd.

First of all, your environment when you were growing up is not necessarily the one right way to do things.

Second of all, notice you said your parents were affectionate around you. Your parents.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:48 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

He probably just doesn't want the kids to get their hopes up re: New Mom.

The "kids" are older teenagers, who are in all probability sexually active themselves. The "kids" are likely more that familiar with the concepts of adult sexuality. They are also old enough to understand the concept of 'dad has a new girlfriend who is not mom'. These are not toddlers. They may not like seeing adult intimacy, but seriously, you are all part of the same household, and it's not like you're having sex in front of them. You need to talk directly to him about this. What is appropriate is as much your call as it is his in your own relationship. He doesn't take the trump because they're his kids.
posted by kch at 6:49 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I ask him, he gets defensive. He doesn't want to make his children uncomfortable. I tell him, "but your behavior makes me uncomfortable."

You will never, ever win an argument, about anything, using this approach.
posted by telegraph at 6:50 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am very affectionate with my sweetheart in front of my teenagers. That's because everyone is comfortable with it. I've asked my kids whether it's ok with them, followed up privately whenever someone's made a comment or given me a look that might possibly indicate discomfort, etc. But that's the kind of relationship I already had with my kids before getting involved with this guy --- open & touchy-feely with lots of terms of endearment. It doesn't sound like your partner has that kind of relationship with his kids.

I think in your situation you need to work with your partner to find the (ever-changing) line between where your needs meet his children's needs. The kids' needs trump yours to a certain extent, but it could be that your partner doesn't really know what his kids' needs are since it's a new situation for everyone. The more he can communicate openly with his kids, the better. It sounds pretty sad that he doesn't invite his kids over more often. It's not like they don't know you have a relationship -- you live together.
posted by headnsouth at 6:51 PM on July 14, 2010

As a stranger on the internet, it's hard to opine on this situation (especially because you've given yours and his perspectives, but not the childrens') but as a person who used to be a teenager with divorced parents I can tell you that it's probably greatly appreciated by his kids that he's not all touchy-feely with you when they're around. Not only was it gross when my dad was affectionate with the step-lady, it pissed me right off.

I wouldn't go so far as to say you need to get over yourself, but you should take some time contemplating the idea of family w/children and how that's affected by divorce. Even if you're unable to empathize with the situation, you may be able to better sympathize with what your boyfriend and his children are going through. Those teenagers may very well hold a lot of resentment, and your dude may just be trying to shield you from that. By going along with your partner's preferences for interaction with you when his children are around, you respect him and you respect his children.
posted by carsonb at 6:58 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

(I guess I should have also said, in addition to "get their hopes up," "and/or be put off by your usurpation of their mother's position.")
posted by Sys Rq at 6:59 PM on July 14, 2010

how long were him and his exwife together? how long were they separated/divorced before you came along? are you his first serious relationship after the marriage? how did the kids take the divorce? how do the kids treat you?

i think at a time when you aren't stressed and aren't upset by this and he has some time to talk you need to sit him down and have a discussion that goes like "we're serious enough with each other to be living together and i want to discuss us as a family and how your children factor into that". i'd leave the touchy-feely thing alone for now and tackle the "We've been living together for 7 months and his kids rarely come over because he doesn't invite them." issue.

it seems from your description that he's trying to hide his home life from his kids and that's not fair to them.

also: this? "When I ask him, he gets defensive. He doesn't want to make his children uncomfortable. I tell him, "but your behavior makes me uncomfortable." - his children's comfort is more important than yours in this case. he's been their father his entire life and you're the new kid on the block. if you can't accept that as the way it'll always be, then you're wasting your time with him.

having said that - it would be worth trying to figure out, and trying to bring him along for the figuring out - if it's really the kids that are uncomfortable or if it's him. i've noticed with my dad and stepmom that it seems sometimes he talks to her more like he used to talk to my mom when us kids are around - old habits die hard.
posted by nadawi at 7:00 PM on July 14, 2010

He doesn't want to make his children uncomfortable. I tell him, "but your behavior makes me uncomfortable."

Yeah, to build on what telegraph says above, this pits you directly against his kids and forces him to choose. That's not an issue you want to force with him because you will likely lose. (Unless, of course, he's a total dick like my father. In that case, he chooses you but he's a dick.)
posted by carsonb at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

his kids rarely come over because he doesn't invite them.

This was where I started being a little "huh?" about this question. Do they have a custody arrangement or some other deal worked out, or is this all informal? Seems like part of getting you all used to being with each other might be having something a bit more routine, not just special events. I'm a divorced non-kid having woman dating a guy with a teenager. We don't live together. We're affectionate and somewhat snuggly. The teenager will sometimes be like "awwwww grosssss" and we'll make a big funny deal about moving away because his sensitive eyes can't handle the real world and it's a big amusing joke with the three of us. This is true when the kid is around, when he's not around and when we're with other family members, mine and his. It's just how we are. I am huggy with his son as well (though not snuggly).

I too would feel very strange if he were acting very differently around me when the kids were around because I would feel that it's creating a weird dichtomy, for him. Either "I can't be myself when the kids are around" or "When I'm with you I'm not myself" Both probably need to be addressed. And it's worth pointing out that you are not casually dating. You share a household and his household should be available and open to his kids too [I don't know if older teenagers means out of school or not, but I'm still not getting why they don't live with him at least sometimes].

So, you've had your first conversation about this. I don't think you need to get over yourself, but clearly you have to have more conversations. Normal is usually defined by the people who are talking about whatever it is. I think it's pretty important to know if, in fact, he's making his kids uncomfortable [my guess is no, but who knows, maybe there's some drama there involving his split from their mom?]. And, if not, what's going on and how are you guys going to as a couple move through it. For what it's worth my folks were like the opposite of affectionate and I grew up into someone who is snuggly and whatever, so I don't think this is really about what is normal in the world, it's what's normal between the two of you and why and how that changes.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Having been in the same sort of situation (twice, actually), he may feel that either he or his children are not yet ready to have "that talk" about how you fit into the whole family dynamic. Honestly, rather than intruding on the delicate dance of a formerly-intact family by raising the subject with your boyfriend (or, God forbid, his children), I think the best thing you can do is work at establishing your own relationship with the kids. Show interest in them as people, rather than as your boyfriend's children. In my experience, this is vastly easier because you don't have any first-hand experience as a parent, so it's easier to create an adult-adult type of relationship than a quasiparent-child relationship. I'm confident that they will appreciate and welcome it, and it's really the best thing you can do to decrease the weirdness factor for everyone concerned.
posted by DrGail at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

How open is he to discussing this? Because there are two issues here: 1) does what he's doing make sense or not? (maybe so, maybe not, seemingly not, but we don't have the full picture here) and 2) how to address that successfully.

When people freeze up in relation to touching, I consider that an issue that is best handled by giving them space.
posted by salvia at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2010

You are both in your late 40's. You should be old enough to respect his personal style, and not try to force the issue too much.
posted by ovvl at 8:06 PM on July 14, 2010

Are you crazy about your guy? Because I'm not, based on your description of him. It's nice that his kids like you, but are you really looking for an insta-family? If I were you, I'd keep looking.
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:19 PM on July 14, 2010

Are the kids cool with you? If they are, then it sounds like he might be acting a little weird.
posted by Gilbert at 8:21 PM on July 14, 2010

If they only come over rarely, and his behavior makes you uncomfortable, make yourself scarce.

They get more alone time with dad, you don't have to deal with weird eeek-don't-touch-me stuff.

You live together, you can kiss him any time they're not over.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:33 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

He's a compartmentalizer. That is to say, all of the aspects of his life (work, kids, you, whatever else he does/likes/gets involved with) stay in their own separate compartments of his mind and life, and get taken out of the compartments, experienced, and put back in the spaces separately. He is not the kind of person who takes out all the blocks at once, throws them together and watches to see what kinds of shapes they'll make when they combine.

How do I know this? I am your boyfriend (obviously not literally, nor is my situation the same, but it rings really true). I don't have any children, so I can't speak to that specifically, but I can give you the gist of the thought process.

This will sound weird, but hopefully it will help. A compartmental thinker tends to have a "separate" personality for each situation they may find themselves in. It's not Multiple Personality Disorder, but it is a different set of mores, standards and responses to (for instance) your parents and your best friend. Of course, everyone would respond to these two situations slightly differently, but compartmentalizers have a much harder time reconciling the two. It's like, "Well, should I be who I really am around my friend? Or my parents? which response/deportment/whatever do I use?" It's not as pathological as I'm probably making it sound, at least for me it's not. But it is a real, um, condition? trait? I don't at all consider myself pathological or that abnormal, but I do notice that I have a bit of a struggle bringing my worlds together, as it were. That's why, as I say, I take out the blocks one at a time, experience the hell out of them, then usually put them back before I get the next one out.

Anyway, that's the deal with your boyfriend. There are a variety of answers as far as how you should deal with it. As ovvl says above, "You are both in your late 40's. You should be old enough to respect his personal style, and not try to force the issue too much.". That's pretty right-on, because it IS his personal style and it may not change, ever. But we're not the easiest people to get close to, either. And that may be something that he's going to need to work on. I've made serious efforts when I knew that my mindset was afflicting people, and if he cares for you as he should, he will be willing to do the same if the subject is broached considerately.

NO: "What the bloody fuck, boyfriend! Why won't you kiss me when your children are there? Am I the dirt beneath your shoes??"

Possibly better: "Boyfriend, I realize that it can be extremely difficult to balance your role as a father with your role as a boyfriend. Is there anything I can do to make it easier? Is there any particular role that you would like me to take on in regard to the children? How can I make this a more positive experience for everyone concerned?"

This DOES NOT mean that you should commit yourself to things that you don't feel comfortable with! What is does mean is that, without accusing him, you are showing him that you empathize with his discomfort and are showing that you're willing to do your part to alleviate it (which, from your question, sounds like a fair assumption). Let it go from there, and remember it's not because he thinks you're an unfit companion for teens or whatever. He just has roles that he doesn't switch between as fluidly as a lot of people do. Good luck!
posted by deep thought sunstar at 9:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

I was a teenager whose parent were divorced. My mom never was in a relationship after but my dad got remarried a year or two after the divorce. At some point I got introduced to his new wife (who incidentally turned out to be a great person with whom I have been on great terms ever since).

But let me tell you it was weird at first. Not in a too bad a way, but it was a definite source of uneasiness for me. I thank my dad and his wife for not being affectionate in front of me. It would have been distinctly uncomfortable for me even though I was in my late teens and, basically, a young adult with a degree of self-awareness. Who knows where my relationship with my dad would end up otherwise.

I think that this is not something you, as a divorced parent, want to introduce into your relationship with your children. Especially if your new partner is so new to the whole equation. To me his behavior actually needs no particular explanation. But, I suppose it may not be so obvious to someone who has not experienced parents splitting up.

So, I am afraid, this is something you might have to learn to accept. And honestly I am not sure why you even have an issue with it. To me it seems like a pretty normal thing to do for a parent and, on it's own, is not indicative of an issue in your relationship.

And, of course, I do not know either of you, so maybe you have some other issues that make this a sore spot.
posted by MajorTom at 9:47 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I grew up with parents who were quite affectionate with each other until their marriage fell apart. So, yeah, OK, I'm used to the idea that people can be intimate and such in front of other people and that's fine.

I was also an older teenager when my mom and stepdad got together, and have only known them together as an adult who knows where babies come from and all that. And I've always been very comfortable having him in my life, never felt threatened by some kind of scary "New Dad" situation.

However, it still kind of icks me out when my mom and stepdad get all makey outey in front of me. I feel like I'm seeing something I'm not supposed to be seeing. This is probably exacerbated by the fact that they're empty nesters these days used to having the house to themselves.

So I kinda get where your boyfriend is coming from.

On the other hand, I am totally fine with either parent touching, hugging, using pet names, or holding hands with their respective partner.

I feel like your husband is probably not comfortable with the arrangement yet and doesn't know how to act. If there is a vastly different level of physical demonstrativeness between the two of you and him and his ex, that probably complicates matters. Tell him how you feel and all, but the bottom line is that he has to negotiate this in his own way and settle on what works for him and his kids.
posted by Sara C. at 11:17 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am uncomfortable being physical with my girlfriend around my children because I associate that behavior with sex, and am pretty sure they aren't interested in seeing that. I understand some people are more physically affectionate and don't consider it sexual, but this varies a lot between different people. I didn't grow up religious or anything.

Is this a deal-breaker? Do you actually need him pawing you and calling you pet names when his kids are around? Why? I may be offbase here, but it seems to me you place way more value on these kinds of public displays of affection than they really deserve and feel like him denying you that has some meaning other than "oh shit my kids are here, time to straighten up." I doubt his children are judging you based on how physical he is with you in their company.
posted by cj_ at 12:14 AM on July 15, 2010

You don't say how long you've been together - seven months living together, how long before that? His discomfort being affectionate in front of his kids is not about his relationship with you. It's about his relationship with his kids. If his wife hated physical contact, then his kids aren't used to seeing it, and he is not used to showing it around them. His behaviour in front of his kids is far more entrenched than his behaviour with you. The showing of affection is the new behaviour, so he's still getting used to it, and if the kids don't come around much, he's not getting much practice. Show him patience and support and eventually, you'll be able to touch his arm as you pass, and everyone may relax enough that he'll just reflexively call you 'Hon" one day in front of his kids. As odd as it sounds, it's really not at all about you, so there's no need to be uncomfortable. Just give it time. It'll happen.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:01 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another child of divorced parents here who appreciated that my dad wasn't touchy-feely with my step-mom when I was a teenager. I didn't need to see that sort of evidence of their sexual attraction to each other.

And, I don't think there's anything wrong or weird about having different standards for how and when you show affection depending on the situation. Do you want or expect him to be touchy-feely at the company holiday party in front of his boss? What about in front of his or your parents? At church (if you're into that sort of thing)? What if you're at the kid's high school graduation and the ex is there?

He doesn't want to make his children uncomfortable. I tell him, "but your behavior makes me uncomfortable."

If he's flinching when you try to touch him around his kids, then he's uncomfortable too.
posted by Mavri at 8:06 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you guys considered counseling? The kind where there's an unbiased, knowledgeable party who can hear both sides and help find common ground/compromise/understanding in the two different reaction sets?

I think this is a slightly more complicated issue than can be answered by unknowns picking apart the actions and feelings of other unknowns. Your feelings aren't invalid, really, just complicated by a relationship value that goes well beyond those of even the most dedicated partners. Getting impartial advice from a professional who can talk to both of you and defuse any mines along the way is likely to be an invaluable help for all of you.
posted by batmonkey at 8:48 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Might this be more of an awareness that his kids are undergoing their own sexual awakening, and this makes him uncomfortable?
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:42 PM on July 15, 2010

If this really bothers you I think you should try to talk to him about it, but be gentle. He's obviously incredibly sensitive about this issue, probably even more so than his kids... And when you do get around to actually showing your affection, you should probably start out small like holding hands.
posted by HStern at 12:50 AM on July 18, 2010

True, some people "compartmentalize" their lives more than others. A good search term for this is "Self-monitoring". Although it refers to a theory that hasn't necessarily been proven, it is a good term to describe a certain kind of person.

OP, you might be a bit of a lower self-monitor (as am I). When you're dating someone who self-monitors more, it can be confusing and a little hurtful. Why is he acting differently? Is he embarrassed about you? And then he gets uncomfortable and tells you to cut it out, but you're just doing what you always do! Etc.

But try not to take it too personally. This type of person just cares a lot more about being (what they perceive as) appropriate for the situation. It's not a reflection on you, your relationship, how much he likes you, how much he respects you, how much he wants to canoodle with you otherwise, or anything like that.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:23 AM on July 18, 2010

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