The Dr. Laura Contradiction: No Sex, Dating or Marriage for Divorced Parents Until Children Turn 18

The Dr. Laura Contradiction: No Sex, Dating or Marriage for Divorced Parents Until Children Turn 18

Can Children Be Happy when Their Divorced Parents Are Miserable?

In Nora Ephron’s movie “This is Your Life,” the boyfriend of guilt ridden divorced mother Dottie attempts to reassure her with what seems like a logical truism: “Kids are happy when their mother is happy.” Dottie disagrees: “You give kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy and they choose suicide in the next room.”

So who’s right? In Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s worldview, Dottie is correct. Dr. Laura has repeatedly told divorced mothers and fathers who call in to her radio show that after their divorce they should not have sex, date or marry until their children turn 18.

While it is obviously not a good idea for divorced parents to parade various dates through the house and invite them to sleep over while the children are home, I can envision more moderate scenarios that would not be deleterious to children’s well-being. For instance, going out on a date while the children are being cared for by their other parent would not harm the children in any way, especially if divorced parents have the wisdom to postpone introducing their children to a girlfriend or boyfriend until a relationship has ripened into something deeper than a casual romance.

By not being permitted to date, have sex or marry until their children are grown, divorced parents give their children the not-so-subliminal message that if they make one mistake and marry the wrong person, they will pay for it for many years. This could paralyze young adults into never getting married, fearful they will have to live in celibate prison until their hair turns white should their marriage partner turn out to be Mr. or Miss Wrong.

What’s especially ironic is that in Dr. Laura’s universe, children are supposed to be the sun to their parent’s earth, with everything revolving around the children and their needs. Even one or two hours of child care by Mr. Rogers himself could be ruinous for a child’s emotional health. Yet as soon as the child turns 18, gets married and gets divorced, all bets are off. That same child’s happiness is of no concern; all that matters is that his or her children are happy.

As the parent of two adult daughters, I would feel immensely sad if they were doomed to parental servitude as the result of a poor marital choice. Adults or not, they will always be my children and I want them to be happy, too. I trust them to use good judgment to pursue their own happiness while simultaneously meeting the needs of their children…

Sex and romance are among the perks of being an adult, and to defer these pleasures until one is middle-aged seems to be an unnecessary sacrifice. Children are far more resilient than Dr. Laura gives them credit for. If the atmosphere in a household is loving, caring and respectful–and children are not ignored or given short shrift–is it a crime for both parents and children to be happy?

In the best case scenario, a divorced parent will find a more suitable mate and be able to model a healthy relationship for his or her children. Children who previously witnessed only their parents’ dysfunctional relationship will then have an emotionally healthier model with which to venture out in the world. In a real world example, a friend of mine who had three sons re-married when her boys were school aged. While still maintaining a close relationship with their father, they also bonded with their step-father, a more responsible and loving mate to their mother who modeled how a good husband behaves.

Perhaps one caveat to this, about which Dr. Laura may be correct, is when parents add a new baby to the mix. Children can feel rootless when their parents start another family with their new spouse and perceive they do not belong to this new nuclear family. I know a family in which two boys lived with their divorced father who had remarried and had a baby daughter with his new wife. To even a casual observer, the baby girl seemed to be the apple of her parents’ eye; the sons became male Cinderellas, second-tier children whose needs were not as important as the child the new parental unit had together. Not surprisingly, both sons opted to move back in with their biological mother.

Except in such cases where parents are happy at their children’s expense–and this can happen in even two-parent settings that contain at least one narcissistic parent—it is logical that children are happier when their parents are happy. Just as flight attendants advise parents to put on their own oxygen masks first, parents need to be happy with their own lives to be the cheerful and loving people their children wish them to be. Further, when children of divorced parents finally leave home, they do not have to feel sad or guilty about abandoning a parent who has sacrificed his or her freedom for them. They can enjoy their new adult lives more fully, without worrying about the bereft parent whom they left behind.

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