By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 42-year-old divorcee, just back in the dating world and using dating apps. I have two young children, who live with me. I mentioned them in my profile at first, but I didn’t get many replies, so I took them out. Is it OK not to disclose them there? And if I go out with a guy, when do I have to tell him? I’d like to wait till we build a bit of a relationship.—More Than A Mom
A: When men say they “love surprises,” they mean the sort involving an impromptu striptease, not where you wait till the sixth date to tell them that, no, that child seat actually isn’t for your terrier.
Having kids shapes how you live. It isn’t like some weird hobby you occasionally do on weekends, like roadkill taxidermy or yurt bedazzling. And sorry—even if you’re far prettier in person than in your profile photos, being “striking” is just a figure of speech; it’s unlikely to cause a concussive brain injury in a man, leading to big personality changes that give him a sudden longing to stepdaddy up.
Not disclosing that you have kids until a guy is emotionally attached to you is what evolutionary psychologist David Buss calls “strategic interference”—using tactics (including scammy ones) to try to get another person to go against their evolved interests. For example, it is not in a man’s genetic interest to invest time, effort and resources into another man’s children, which is why men evolved to prefer women who do not already have children, as opposed to saying, “Well, she’s got 12 kids … I’ll take experience over 20-something hotitude any day!”
Our emotions are our internal police force. They evolved to protect and serve—protecting us from allowing things that don’t serve our interest. Your hiding that you have kids will make guys angry, including those who’d be interested in you, kids and all. The problem goes to character. If you’re dishonest about this, what else will you be dishonest about?
The right thing to do in online dating is to give men who will ultimately reject you the info they need to do that right away—keeping them from wasting their time and yours. (Otherwise, it’s like seeking a new accountant by interviewing plumbers.) Being honest will narrow your pool—down to those who are actual possibilities for you, like divorced dads who’d be open to Brady Bunch-ing. There are also a few kid-loving guys out there who never got around to having any and would find it a plus that you have some ready-made. All the better if some other guy’s on the hook for the kids’ private school, Ivy League educations and wintering in rehab on St. Barts.
Q: I’ve been dating a widow for two years, and I feel inadequate compared with her dead husband, whom she always describes in glowing terms. He liked to dance; I don’t. He cooked; I don’t. He didn’t drink; I do. I understand that she was very happy with her late husband, but this constant comparison with him is wearing on me.—Mr. Boyfriend
A: It’s always exciting to see a man rebound after a serious setback—except when you’re the new guy in his widow’s life and the setback is that he was cremated three years ago.
As for why your girlfriend keeps inviting the Ghost of Husband Past into your lives, consider that thoughts—like those glowing ones about him—are driven by emotions. And consider that emotions aren’t just internal states; they also act as signals—a form of person-to-person advertising. For example, research by social psych grad student Bo Winegard and his colleagues finds that grief seems to be, among other things, a kind of broadcasting of a person’s “proclivity to form devoted bonds with others.” (In other words, “Trust me! I love deeply!”)
As for what your girlfriend’s signaling with all this late-husband reflux, maybe she’s telling you to back off—maybe because she fears another big loss. Maybe she wants you to try harder at something—which isn’t helpful if it’s being somebody else entirely. Or maybe she just misses her late hubby (or feels guilty for being happy with you) and this is her way of keeping him around—in some form.
Ask her—in the most non-snarly, loving way—what she’s trying to communicate to you when she waxes on about him. Tell her it hurts your feelings, giving you the message that you’re failing her somehow. Maybe she’ll start appreciating what she has instead of being so focused on what she buried. (Date night shouldn’t involve your waving goodbye to your girlfriend as she goes off with a picnic dinner to the cemetery.)