Boyfriend? What's a boyfriend?
January 15, 2013 2:16 PM   Subscribe

How to introduce boyfriend to son after a divorce. Personal experiences as the girlfriend, boyfriend, or the child? Advice?

I'm 43 and have been separated/divorced since April 2011. I started dating someone in September 2011. It started very casual but, more than a year later, is exclusive and serious.

Up until recently, my son didn't know my boyfriend existed because our custody is 50/50 so I only have my son every other weekend and 2 or 3 nights during the week; thus, I confined my dating life to the times my son wasn't around. However, in September 2012, I introduced my boyfriend to my son but not with the label "boyfriend." My son and I often do things with other families (including other single parents) so it wasn't unusual that we'd be going to the movies or to the museum with another father and son (his son is 11). When around the kids, my boyfriend and I act as friends -- not as partners. However, we are serious enough that I would like to hold my boyfriend's hand and give him a kiss on the cheek when we are together. I'd like my son to know that he is, in fact, my boyfriend. I fully intend to be with this man for the foreseeable future but I do not intend to ever re-marry so waiting until we are engaged is not an option. Has anyone had a similar experience either as the one doing the introductions, the one being introduced or the child of a divorce being introduced to a boyfriend or girlfriend? Any suggestions on the best way to do this?

A few other facts. First, there will be no sleepovers even after my boyfriend is introduced as such. That will not happen while my son lives in my house. Second, although my son's dad left us for another woman, that quickly broke up and he has not dated anyone seriously since.
posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
How old is your son?
posted by itesser at 2:18 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is really difficult to give you good advice without knowing how old your son is.

When my mom started dating again, my siblings and I were all varying in ages and we all took it differently. It really depends on how old he is and how much he still depends on you.
posted by cyml at 2:21 PM on January 15, 2013

Response by poster: My son is 8-years-old.
posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad at 2:22 PM on January 15, 2013

I think you can gradually add the level of PDA you're comfortable with, as you're comfortable with it.

Your son is no idiot, I'm pretty sure that he's figured out that your boyfriend is a special person in your life.

No need to sit down and have a heavy conversation, just include your boyfriend and his son in more activities. I'm pretty sure your son would think such a conversation awkward and weird. If your son asks about your relationship, be honest. "Yes, Jeff is my boyfriend. What do you think about that?"

You may want to re-think a lot of your very determined statements. You may not now feel like you want your boyfriend to sleep over while your son is in the house, and you may not want to re-marry, however, as your relationship deepens and grows with your boyfriend, you may change your mind. It's okay. You're allowed to handle this however you want. And what you're adamant about today, might feel different in a few years.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:29 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And just in case it comes up, my son was not aware of the "other woman" my ex left us for. At the time my ex left, I had my son 100% of the time so he was unaware of the circumstances relating to his dad's absence. After my ex and his girlfriend broke up about 6 weeks after he moved out of the house, he began having visits and overnights with our son and now have the 50/50 custody situation that currently exists. Accordingly, my son isn't aware of any significant others in either his mom's or his dad's life since he never knew about the original circumstances relating to our breakup. (I don't mean to make this so clinical -- the whole thing was horrible and sad. Just wanted to point out that this would be the first introduction of either a boyfriend or a girlfriend.) And, yes, I recognize what I think today regarding sleepovers could change. It already has by the mere fact that I have a serious relationship -- something I never thought I would have again. However, at this particular moment, I cannot imagine the awkwardness that would ensue so I have to take these things as they come.
posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad at 2:31 PM on January 15, 2013

If Dr. Laura isn't a trigger for you, read on: You seem to have done everything down the line just as Dr. Laura would say -- you know she would now say no intros unless you were about to announce a wedding date or at least seriously considering it (based on how well he & the sprout get along, for instance.)

You've done well not to introduce another man into your son's life who might or might not be a part of his life tomorrow. Best of luck and best wishes to all 4 of you.
posted by Infinity_8 at 2:31 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

From my own experience (more on which in a second), the first thing I'll say is DON'T KEEP IT A SECRET.

It sounds like you've at least introduced them, and that your son is aware there is someone in your life. This is good. If he's older than 10-12, he probably also has a hint that this person is in your life in a romantic capacity.

Frankly, I don't think you need to put a ban on sleepovers, For All Time. I mean, if your son is 4 or 5 and still wakes up in the night and has no concept of privacy, sure. But eventually your son is going to be old enough to understand adult relationships, and it's not going to ruin his life if your serious long term boyfriend sleeps over. Don't have random dudes over for hookups, and definitely plan it so that, nights that your son is at your place, he gets all the quality time in the world. But at a certain point, you might get serious enough with someone that he becomes a part of your family, and I don't think you should be shy about that transition.

My parents split up when I was in high school, and most of my experience of Parents Date People Now was in my teens and twenties. I always felt vaguely insulted when I could tell they were in relationships but they refused to talk openly about it. That said, when you're 17, you have an extremely finely tuned sense of what it looks like when someone is dating someone. So my experience of this is pretty specific to being older.

The worst thing that happened was when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. My dad told everyone in our family that he was evacuating to a town in Mississippi. Then the storm turned at the last minute and hit Mississippi hard. Nobody could get in touch with him for days. I was starting to be really worried that he'd run into trouble on the road, or stopped somewhere he thought was safe that was hit badly by the storm (this also happened to other people I knew who I was able to get in touch with). A week went by. No word, and all anyone knew was that he'd been headed into the worst of the storm. I was starting to get my head around the idea that my dad might be dead.

And then he called. It turned out that he'd decided to evacuate to Dallas, instead, with his new girlfriend. He didn't tell anyone this because he wasn't ready for us to know about the girlfriend. I was angry with him for months. It's still one of the most hurtful things my father ever did to me.

It doesn't sound like you're going to do something like this to your son, but just for future reference NEVER DO THIS TO YOUR SON.

(FWIW, my mom and stepdad moved in together a couple years before getting married, sharing custody of all of us kids. People in our town were scandalized, but it was really the best way to transition into our new family.)
posted by Sara C. at 2:33 PM on January 15, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know who Dr Laura is, but I would say that this was bad advice.

'Hey son, guess what, I'm getting married! Your whole life is about to change and you had no idea I was sneaking around behind your back all this time. Isn't that GREAT!'

Be honest!!! An 8 year old is very smart. My daughter is 7 and I have a new partner after her step father passed away. I said it like this.. 'You know my friend A? Well I really like him and he likes us a lot too, so we have become boyfriend and girlfirend. I'm really happy about it, what about you?' She told me that she already knew and that she was happy and that was that.

I think honestly is the best policy here. Tell him you're really happy and that you love him and care for him and want him to be happy too. Just mention it in the car or other non confrontational point and then move on.
posted by Youremyworld at 2:42 PM on January 15, 2013 [23 favorites]

Don't sneak around behind your kid's back, because you'll teach them the lesson that it's okay to sneak around behind your back. Just be honest and don't ever choose your partner over your kid (which is what my mom did--she always went along with what my step-dad wanted even if it disappointed me or hurt my feelings).
posted by greta simone at 2:59 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents divorced when I was a year old. My mom dated quite a bit and in fact remarried twice by the time I was 10. So my experience is based from the child's POV.

I would not wait until you're ready to announce an engagement (or, since you don't want to remarry, whatever the equivalent would be, such as moving in together). I would have been horribly blindsided and I can't imagine springing something like that on a child. All of a sudden, there is a new person in your life to, in his POV, compete for your attention and affection. I think you need to ease into these things.

Since your son already knows him and, I assume, likes him well enough, that's step 1 taken care of. You know you're serious and you know that you have a good shot of being together for the foreseeable future, so I think it's time to level with your son and explain that BF is your boyfriend now, and explain that you care for each other very much. If he is confused as to what that means, you might explain that he might see you guys holding hands, or hugging, and that BF will be in his life more than he was before.

There are kids who will be happy or at least not too fazed. I was the type of kid who felt really upset at my mom dating, but then again I met every guy she dated, which was really stressful and unnecessary. Be gentle when you talk to him and be open to the fact that the gamut of emotions can vary a lot from kid to kid. And also expect that he may have more questions down the road that might not arise during your first talk.

You sound like you are very sensitive to his well-being in regards to this situation and are really looking out for him, so I think you will do just fine :) Answer his questions in an honest and age appropriate way, and reassure him that he is still first in your life. And maybe keep the PDA really PG and sporadic at first to give him time to adjust (I mean, I know you're not going to be making out in front of him but you know what I mean!). Good luck!
posted by DrGirlfriend at 3:03 PM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think now would be a great time. :)

I was a bit older than your son (12) when my parents divorced and my dad - being a man of a certain type and generation that struggles without a woman in his life - picked up with someone in a very full-on way literally weeks after he moved out. They are going strong nearly 20 years later, but that was terrible.

My mum started dating several months after, in a much more casual fashion. That was much easier to take even though in many ways her relationship and boyfriend was less serious and frankly less a good person and less interested in me than my dad's girfriend.

Things that bothered me at the time: My father throwing out his habits of an entire lifetime (at least, my entire lifetime) for new ones that seemed bizarre or contradicted the old ones (they were his girlfriend's habits) and then pretending that he had always done them (examples: No reading at the table at any meals ever; dinner by candlelight only; cloth napkins with dinners; setting the table for every meal including breakfast. I seem obsessed with meals, these are just what I remember because it was something that was highly routined and completely disrupted).

My father's completely transparent emotional dependence and interest in his new partner (she was absolutely the most important thing in his life, and he didn't give a shit about anything else - including us. This resulted in some truly bizarre rationalisations about what he thought would be "best for us" so that he could effectively have his cake and eat it, too). As an adult I totally understand and forgive; as a kid it was hurtful and infuriating to see how quickly we were 'discarded'.

Forced attempts to make partner and I become best friends overnight.

Getting partner involved in intra-family arguments between me and parent, siblings, etc etc. That was the worst; because I felt at the time - rightly - this person is not family, and they did not have the right or the context to intervene. Having them attempt to "parent" me was awkward, and profoundly irritating.

tl;dr: Giving a strong impression that everything about the old life - including me and my only conception of a family - was basically negative in one way or another, and everything new (me optional) was better.

Things they did that I liked:

Spending time with all of us, including partner, together doing activities.

Still spending 1-1 time with me as a parent; no 1-1 time with partner (too full on).

Giving me the sense I was still a huge priority - if not the biggest in their lives (my parents kinda dropped the ball on this one, to be honest, in both terms of giving me that sense and actually making me a priority also. Affected my brother more than me in a very much negative sense).

Letting partner and I connect over shared interests and activities, but not forcing it.

Not outsourcing parenting to partner.

Introducing partner to "our" traditions, and involving me in developing new ones where they needed to be developed.

Not making me spend too much time with step-siblings (we didn't have a lot in common, but were much older than yours).

Not having constant status updates about how important relationship is etc (dad did this, it sucked; mum did not).

Best of luck, I think you've definitely waited long enough.
posted by smoke at 3:20 PM on January 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

Treat your son with the respect you would expect. Don´t hide things. If he asks questions be honest in reply. There is no need to rush things just carry on carrying on. Don't embarrass him or your friend's son by going into deep clinches in front of them; holding hands and the occasional friendly kiss is fine. They (the kids) will probably be happy that you are happy and this in return should make all your relationships better. Get to know your partner's son as well as if he isn't your friend then problems can and will arise. The two boys will talk about their parent´s interactions anyway.
It sounds as if you are closing a chapter of your life and opening a new one. Enjoy.
posted by adamvasco at 3:23 PM on January 15, 2013

Former child in this position's perspective:

-No secrets. Secrets bad. Secrets hurt worse the longer they're kept. Son will eventually have to know about dad's affair, when he's older- don't add mom's secret boyfriend on top of it.
-Don't make an embarrassing big deal of it.
-Much better for boyfriend to never ever assume fatherly authority, especially not punishment, but also no special male bonding time, or real emotional intimacy until you have a wedding date and have invited everyone. My mom was desperate to "play family" beforehand- do not do this. Do not involve your son in your decision to marry or not. No temporary father figures until it's official.
posted by quincunx at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

'You know my friend A? Well I really like him and he likes us a lot too, so we have become boyfriend and girlfirend. I'm really happy about it, what about you?'

I love Youremyworld's wording of this. It's an age-appropriate way to talk about the nature of your relationship and to let your son know what's going on. I'd also add to make sure that you really listen to the answer to the last question and give him a chance to fully express his feelings. Whether he says "that's great!" or "I don't want you to be boyfriend and girlfriend," validate the fact that he's allowed to have his own feelings and that it's a bit of an adjustment. Give him a chance to ask questions. Also, since you seem really committed, in a great way, to maintaining stability in his life, you might also add that this doesn't change anything about his central place in your life or about how the two of you are going to live from now on. In other words, make it clear that telling him is about wanting to share something that makes you happy, not about announcing a big change in his life.

It sounds like you're a great mom who has given this a lot of thought. Best of luck to you and your son.
posted by decathecting at 4:01 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

'You know my friend A? Well I really like him and he likes us a lot too, so we have become boyfriend and girlfirend. I'm really happy about it, what about you?'
I love this too. My parents divorced when I was about 2, and both my parents went onto other relationships, some serious, some very serious, some not. I really wish either parent has ONCE said this. Instead, I met my mother's second husband pretty much right before they got married (and he turned out out to be a horrible person anyway, but let's just say that it happened way too fast and was a really confusing experience for me/my brother, especially since he had children of his own). I have met most of my mom's subsequent partners the same way, where it was right on the cusp of the person moving on, or something major. With my dad, it was usually way too casual -- no explanation of why this lady was hanging around so much, or it being obvious to me, as I got older, that my dad uses women like some folks use hand sanitizer.

Point being, I think you've done great so far. This wasn't clear to me from your question, but have you and your boyfriend hung out together with the kids as just the four of you, yet? I think I would do this a few times, first.
posted by sm1tten at 4:55 PM on January 15, 2013

decathecting covered my urge to make sure you re-inforce that son is still ultra important.

But yes, 8 year olds are fairly perceptive, if maybe not wise. He needs to know what is going on, and you have to tell him :)
posted by Jacen at 9:03 PM on January 15, 2013

Smoke's experience is so close to mine I had to double-check he wasn't my brother. Lucky, because I don't have a brother.

If I had the godly power of modlydom, his answer would be in a meta-gospel. Or a tattoo on a hippy in Sanskrit. Or in some Instagramed photo of writing in the sand with foot prints walking in to the distance.
posted by taff at 9:34 PM on January 15, 2013

Former child in this position's perspective:

-No secrets. Secrets bad. Secrets hurt worse the longer they're kept. Son will eventually have to know about dad's affair, when he's older- don't add mom's secret boyfriend on top of it.
-Don't make an embarrassing big deal of it.
-Much better for boyfriend to never ever assume fatherly authority, especially not punishment, but also no special male bonding time, or real emotional intimacy until you have a wedding date and have invited everyone. My mom was desperate to "play family" beforehand- do not do this. Do not involve your son in your decision to marry or not. No temporary father figures until it's official.

I agree with almost all of this, except the part about the affair. That is not any of the kid's business. If the dad reveals his failings to your son at some point, fine. But no matter how well intentioned it is, telling him about the infidelity is a sort of dumping on the kid.

But I agree with the rest. Don't make a big deal about it, just introduce PDA kinds of things slowly and naturally.

And yeah, "new dad" needs to tread very carefully with that role. He should never try to take over any parenting roles. His role is more like uncle. Positive manly role model- sure. Don't take any shit- sure. But all parental authority needs to originate with you and your ex.
posted by gjc at 4:12 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've been with this man for over a year. Your son needs to know that the fact that you are a single mother doesn't mean you don't get to fall in love and be happy just like everyone else :).

I'm in your boat. I'm single but have had to navigate the waters of introducing a man into our household. My son's father and I were never married so that makes it easier, maybe, but it's still a nerve wracking thing.

You've gotten good advice here and I too think it's unfair to keep your son too much in the dark about your relationship. Parents do a wonderful service to their children when they model realistic, rational, adult, healthy relationships. Let him in and let him know that you care about this man (explain the difference of your care for the boyfriend and your love for him, if you feel it's necessary).

First, there will be no sleepovers even after my boyfriend is introduced as such. That will not happen while my son lives in my house.

Personally I think this is a little extreme but if that's your view, that's your view. You can have your boyfriend stay the night and still be an adult about it. You waited a year to introduce the man and I'd just carefully monitor how your son is handling it. If he seems okay and says as such, I'd say it's okay.

Also, yes to everything said about appropriate boundaries between boyfriend / son / discipline. It doesn't seem like this is of concern to you but that was / is something I'm always overly cognizant of. My son should respect any boyfriend I have like he would any other adult but (and maybe I'm weird) the second a man attempts to play the daddy role he's leaving our place. Like, immediately.

Also, also! You can do this and involve your son and it can be awesome! I've had two serious boyfriends during my son's 8 years on this planet. I waited at least 6 months to introduce both to my son and frequently spoke to him about how he felt about this person. He dealt with my relationships beautifully because, I think, he felt like he had a say and always knew that no matter what, he came first. School functions, homework, and things like bedtime (even when my boyfriend was staying over) were still things he did with mom, always, and occasionally dates were even canceled so this routine could stay. We did have times when mommy and boyfriend went out together but honestly, for the most part, my son and his were involved. I am a package deal as was my boyfriend and our time together mirrored that.

I think you're navigating this just as you should. Kudos :).
posted by youandiandaflame at 4:45 PM on January 16, 2013

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