Divorce, Kids, and Dating
by Valerie J. Botter
Inevitably, after separation and divorce, most of us venture out and begin new romantic relationships. Sometimes a new relationship begins at the end of a marriage that was emotionally barren. Dating and new relationships can be complicated, but appropriately integrating children into a new relationship is even more of a challenge. When is the right time to introduce the kids?
From what I have observed, most people introduce the children to their dating partners far too soon after the new relationship begins. Whether this is because a primary parent does not have sufficient free time to date when the children are with the other parent, or it occurs because of the loneliness that many of us feel as single parents, kids usually get involved with their parents’ new partners way too soon. Some fathers feel unsure about how to spend blocks of time with their children without a woman present; some mothers are anxious to quickly introduce a “better role model” to their children and have the family that wasn’t possible with the children’s father. Neither situation serves the child’s need for time to adjust to family changes.
Children of all ages, including teens, experience tremendous loss and change with divorce. Divorce is an adult concept that is difficult for children to grasp. Children must begin the process of living in two houses, often have to change schools, and they also must learn the complex task of remembering what can and cannot be spoken about in either home. Children and teens need time to adjust and make their own way forward.
One of the biggest risks of introducing a new partner too early is that the relationship will end and the child will experience another loss. I recommend that a parent date for at least four to six months before involving the child in that new relationship. Children bond easily, and may fantasize that the parent will marry the new partner. After all, this is the model of relationship that the child knew before the divorce. Also, children need one-on-one time with each parent following separation. Since new romantic relationships require an investment of time, that need will compete with the needs of the children. As a result, children can sometimes feel neglected and jealousy may arise.
Another potential problem is that the child will talk about a parent’s new partner with the other parent, who in turn will become visibly angry and/or jealous. This will expose the child to unnecessary conflict between the parents and possibly make the child feel that he or she has done something wrong and is now in trouble. From a practical standpoint, if divorce negotiations are pending, the non-dating parent’s emotions about the new relationship may interfere with settlement negotiations. Moreover, if custody or parenting schedule issues are unresolved, the non-dating parent might seek to demonstrate that the other parent’s introduction of a new partner is not in the children’s best interests and should result in a change of custody or a parenting schedule change. Finally, if the new partner has children, the demands of those children can further reduce the child’s needed time with his or her biological parent.
I was stunned when a client reported to me that her new partner was coming over in the middle of the night and leaving before her young children were awake. What if her child woke up during the night to find his mother? Can you imagine his experience finding her in bed with a strange man? Think about role modeling for your children. When they become teenagers, how will you be able to teach them about responsibility and appropriate sexual activity if their childhood included a stream of your lovers that spent the night?
If we focus on our children’s needs following a separation or divorce, we will hopefully slow down and keep our perspective as new relationships bloom. Children are a blessing at this time, keeping it “real” and helping us resist the adolescent urge to plunge head first into a new love that blots out all of the hurt from the failed marriage. Enjoy your children, take your time before beginning a new relationship, and wait before you involve your kids in that new romance.
Email Valerie or call 413-586-8651.