If you are a parent that has recently divorced or separated, odds are you will eventually start dating again. Some of you may have started dating a little on the early side, possibly leading to being separated or divorced; but that is another topic. Others swear they will never, ever date or get remarried; although statistically that is less likely.
When you have school age children, introducing new significant others to your child/children is an area that deserves some careful consideration and planning. While you may understandably be excited about your new connection and want your kids to meet him or her, go ahead and put the brakes on while you consider some things before potentially wandering into what can turn into a minefield. Mishandling these issues can quickly harm what may have been a good parenting relationship between you and your former partner.
If you have been in a rocky relationship for years, it’s understandable to feel excited about the prospect of new adult relationships, and you may be eager to rediscover the positive feelings of warmth and support that a healthy romantic relationship brings. Uncoupling takes time, however, and relationships started on the rebound do not typically work out for a host of reasons. Of course, you aren’t eighteen or twenty any longer (probably) and things are more complicated. When starting to date someone new, remind yourself to also look at things from your children’s perspective. This can be difficult when your heart is “all a flutter” and you are sporting those new rose-colored glasses that accompany new romantic relationships.
Be a Turtle, Not a Cougar or a Racehorse
If you remember nothing else from this article, recall these three words: TAKE IT SLOW. First, not everyone you date needs to meet your kids. It’s true – your kids don’t need to know about someone you are casually dating. Yes, you will be tempted to introduce your new friend to your kids sooner, but remember the three words above, and just proceed slowly – like a turtle.
How Long to Wait Before Introducing My Children?
The short answer is probably longer than you might expect. There is no specific guideline, although some experts suggest that even before casual introductions occur that at least several months should pass so you are feeling confident that your new relationship has potential to be serious. You could consider checking with your family law attorney and/or mental health professional for additional guidance and feedback. Don’t forget to review your Separation Agreement (also known as a Divorce Agreement here in Massachusetts) because some agreements contain language about introducing significant others to children, and you would not want to run afoul of a previous agreement that is also a judgment of the court.
Make introductions gradually. The first time your kids meet your special friend should not be at breakfast after an impromptu sleep-over. It seems like this should go without saying, but you might be surprised how many times an angry parent (the other parent, and perhaps one without a new boyfriend or girlfriend) calls us to report hearing about such circumstances from their children.
Consider introducing your children to your new person only after you believe the new relationship is important enough that your children should be involved; and then wait a little longer. Although understandable, some parents tend to move a little too fast in in this area. As a divorce and family law professional, I see how NOT handing this situation correctly can cause problems down the road for everyone involved – you, your kids, your new partner, and the children’s other parent (your ex). Don’t forget about the other parent when venturing into these murky waters.
Think Like A Barbecue Champion!
If you don’t want to be like a turtle, you can pretend you are a BBQ expert. If you like to cook (or even just eat) BBQ, especially anything smoked, you may recognize the saying “low and slow” which is a reference to the low cooking temperature and lengthy time you should cook the meat. For “low” – think about the intensity of the early meetings between your children and your dating partner. Start with low-intensity, casual meetings. The first meeting can even appear to be spontaneous and not staged and should occur at a public place. Perhaps you are out shopping and run into your new boyfriend… “Oh! Hello Jerry! I’d like you to meet my children, Hilary and Carlton.” Have a little small talk, and then move on. Perhaps consider some not so chance meeting like this after at least several months of dating.
Slow relates to the gradual pace of increasing time your children are exposed to your new somewhat significant other. Perhaps after a brief casual meeting in public, your children are re-introduced to your new interest and you acknowledge that you have been seeing them, perhaps sharing information that the person is someone special you have been spending time with. Of course, your language should be appropriate for the age of your children, but you definitely do not need to share many details. You may then spend a few hours together, maybe out for lunch or socializing with others in a less-intense group activity. Note that this can actually be more difficult when you have older children.
After more time passes, think 6-8 months for a ballpark, you could consider inviting your new friend to your home when the children are home, perhaps to have dinner with your kids, and/or watch a movie, play a game, etc. If you have teenagers, prepare for the possibility of eye-rolling at this suggestion, but the point is eventually you can start involving your new friend in some family-type activities. Still, no sleepovers are suggested by most experts at this point if the children will be around.
The final introduction phase is when you tell your children in advance that Jerry is going to be spending time with you (and them) this weekend, for example, and staying over. The gradual steps you have taken should make this step less likely to create backlash. Be respectful of your children, and don’t force older kids to spend too much time with Jerry this first weekend. Keep their routines the same if they have activities to get to, etc. Timeline for this step is frequently nine to twelve months of serious dating with a level of commitment about the relationship. The work is really just beginning at this point.
What and When to Tell Your Ex?
My professional experience leads me to suggest that you should tell your ex that you are seeing someone before you make a more formal intro of your kids to your new dating partner. First, your kids are going to mention it to their other parent unless they are unable to speak, so you might as well transmit the information accurately on your own. It is better that the other parent learns this from you, as opposed to being blurted out at an awkward place or time by a child. “Daddy’s new girlfriend was taking a shower at our house” is not what you want the child’s other parent to hear. You do not have to share many details, just that you have been seeing someone and it is getting more serious, and you plan on introducing this person to the children and then you are all going out for lunch, or something similar. Do not overreact to follow-up questions. You would likely want to know some general information about someone that will be spending time with your children.
Hearing this information is oftentimes emotional for the other parent. He or she will wonder if this person is a good person to be around THEIR kids, or if they are an escaped serial killer that you met online, dresses as a scary clown several times each week, and drives an old van that has “Free Candy” spray-painted on the side. Providing a little background about the person might be helpful. As time goes on, some parents are comfortable meeting your new friend, which can make sense as you all may be at the same event supporting your child at a soccer game in the not-too-distant future. Remember, this is more about the kids than the adults.
Beware of Potential (hopefully temporary) Fallout
Despite your best efforts to be a turtle-like BBQ champion, navigating this introduction with your ex can be stressful and increase conflict. The other parent may have concerns about feeling they are being replaced, or that you are damaging the kids and rushing into things. Of course, you know you did not rush as you followed the tips in this article. What was cooperative with the parent in the past may become less so. Routine communications can become strained, and your ex may lash out at you. Don’t overreact. Give your ex time to adjust to the news – but if your parenting relationship continues to suffer (as your kids will pay the price) then you may want to consider professional help, such as a family therapist, divorce and family mediator, or parenting coach or coordinator.
Impact on Your Children
Falling in love impacts brain chemistry, and this intoxicating effect may impair your judgment somewhat. You might even miss signals that your children need more time to adapt to these significant changes. It is important that you still have plenty of time with your children alone, as in without your new significant other involved. Kids need to see you as their parent and know that you are focused on them, and not primarily as someone’s new significant other. When it is your parenting time, focus on your children. Don’t go on a date and just bring your children. They will know. Make time for them.
Hopefully your new romantic partner will understand the importance of these things and give you the time and support you need to parent and support your children during a time of transitions. If not, then your children are much less likely to accept this new person into their own lives. Children will find it easier to welcome a new person when they feel secure, are comfortable with their parenting relationship with each parent one on one, and they have made the initial adjustments after accepting their parents are divorced or separated are not getting back together.
Finally, these are some of the initial issues and things to consider. There are plenty more topics and situations that can be tricky to navigate when it comes to new significant others and parenting. If you need assistance, do not hesitate to get in touch.