Questions about love and sex in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org (queries can also be sent anonymously using this form). Questions may be edited for clarity and length, and may appear either in print or online.
My significant other died six months ago from a long-term illness. In our 25 years together we had a 25-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son. During that time he had an illegitimate son that is also 21 years old, just a few months older than my son. I didn’t even meet this son until he was 15 years old. After my significant other’s death he began living with me and my son. About a month ago I developed a sexual relationship with my significant other’s son. My children have now disowned me calling the relationship disgusting, a poor decision, and inappropriate. The way I see it, other than the age gap of 25 years, we are both single, both adults, we are not related, I didn’t raise him, I didn’t even meet him until he was 15 years old and I was never actually married to his dad therefore I was never an actual step-mom. Do you think my children are correct in their perception of this relationship and if so, for what reasons?
Dear All My Children,
I think you’re asking the wrong questions here. I can dig into what you’re actually asking in a minute, but first I want to ask you: Does it matter? That is, if your relationships with your children are valuable to you, then (as long as their reasoning isn’t racist or in some other way independently unethical) does it really matter whether they are “right” or “wrong” in their discomfort? I’m not saying you have to bow to their every whim (many a relationship has been maintained against the wishes of friends and relatives), but is being right, in-and-of itself, more important to you than your connection to them?
Here’s the other thing that jumps out at me: Your framing of what’s going on with this younger man. Never once do you say that you’ve fallen in love. Nowhere do you use the terms “dating,” or “seeing each other.” You refer only to a sexual relationship. Is this sex you’re having worth drawing a line in the sand that could mean losing your children?
Those are the questions I think you should ponder. But on to the ones you asked me. My bottom line in most things is that grown-ass adults (which includes both you and your playmate) are free to make what choices they please with one another. However, it isn’t hard to see why your children are given pause by these circumstances. You didn’t raise this man, it’s true—but you’re being entirely disingenuous when you argue from a semantic standpoint when it comes to step-parenting. It doesn’t matter whether you were legally his step-parent by marriage, just as your relationship with his father wasn’t at all diminished by the lack of formal recognition. You say you didn’t parent him, per se, and I see no reason to disbelieve you. But why even bring up a technicality?
Likewise, saying you “didn’t even meet him until he was 15” is hair splitting, and ignores how extremely impressionable a 15-year-old can be. You were the woman his father chose to build a life with, instead of his mother. That’s a pretty strong imprint to leave on a kid. Even if there is nothing untoward behind your choice to be with him, you are almost certainly taking advantage of a power over him you might not even realize you have. You may not have parented him then, but if he were your child, what advice would you give him about choosing this relationship with you? Do you think he is in a healthy place?
I encourage you to seriously consider what the various relationships in your life mean to you. Examine each one carefully. Remember that all four of you are still in a place of active grief right now: While that doesn’t invalidate the choices you make, it does inform them. Live gently.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.