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Dating After Divorce: Introducing Your Children to a New Partner

Blonde toddler boy shaking hands with dark-haired middle-aged man
 

Your relationship with your children’s other parent has ended. It may not have been an easy transition. Perhaps you have felt some combination of hurt, anger, depression, relief, guilt, uncertainty, or hopefulness.

Maybe you’ve taken the time to address your feelings and are ready to think about getting into a new relationship, or maybe you left your relationship in order to begin again with a new partner. It was not an easy decision to leave and change the life your children grew up with. There have been many logistical issues and emotions to deal with as you have organized new living arrangements.

Children have many feelings about their parents’ divorce. They may not understand why it happened. They may wonder if the divorce was their fault. They may worry that, if their parents can stop loving each other, then how hard would it be for either parent to stop loving them? For children, there is often a strong desire for a reconciliation between you and their other parent. Your children may perceive a new person in your life as someone who could not only interrupt that reconciliation, but  interfere with your time with your them as well.

Below are some general considerations for how to introduce a new significant relationship to your children. This is not an exhaustive list and cannot cover all the possible variables that may be true about your life.

Give your children time to adjust to their new situation. Sometimes parents try to take care of their own feelings of loss by dating shortly after beginning to live apart, but this is one of those times when considering the needs of your children should be a priority. It may take a year or more before your children have a chance to settle into and become comfortable with all the changes divorce has brought. This may also be a good choice for you. Waiting to date gives you the opportunity to move through any feelings of loss, anger, or fear that can be helped by attention and time.

Don’t expose your children to people you are dating until you have a pretty good sense of the relationship’s potential. There are, of course, no guarantees. However, having your children develop relationships with people who may not be in your lives for long is not only emotionally difficult for them, but could also potentially impact how they develop their own relationships later in life.

Be honest with your children about when you are getting ready to start dating. This is, of course, age-sensitive. Don’t give your children control over when you start to venture into that world, but in general, let them know your intentions and ask for their feelings about it.

Let your children know that your new relationship will not take time away from them. Meet new people when they are with their other parent. Children are able to understand that adults need time with other adults, just like they need time with other children.

Reassure them that you will not bring someone into the family unless you feel comfortable that they can fit in. Once you are ready to have your children meet your new partner, don’t surprise them by having the person show up unexpectedly at an event. Talk with your children and arrange an event that is not focused solely on dialogue—for example, avoid having the first meeting be at a dinner. Your children should have the room to go and do other things besides interact. If your new partner will be in your life, there will be ample opportunity for more direct interactions.

Before telling your children, let your ex-partner know. It can be difficult for the other parent to get that news. It may also be difficult for the children if they are unsure whether it is okay to tell the other parent or unprepared for an emotional reaction. Your children need not have the burden of being an intentional or unintentional messenger.

Children are often open to new adults in their lives. Some may be resistant to anyone who appears to be taking the place of a parent. However, in general, when someone is friendly, pays attention to them, and doesn’t try to be a disciplinarian, many children can form an attachment to a new partner as they spend more and more time with that person.

Take some time to think through the needs of your children. It is certainly possible to start new relationships and help your children make the adjustments to the changes that come. Be open, honest, and clear about what your children can handle at their age. Do not give them power over your decisions. In the long run, children are very resilient, especially when their feelings are considered and they are given only the information they are able to understand.

© Copyright 2010 by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Maggie January 26th, 2010 at 5:26 AM #1

    I like this because too many times parents think about the things that are best for them but not their kids. And to me those two things go hand in hand whether the parents choose to see it that way or not.

  • Taylor January 26th, 2010 at 10:21 AM #2

    A parent dating after separation from the original spouse can be very hard a situation for a kid to deal with…they often show withdrawal symptoms and their academics can suffer as well…it is important to make the child understand about what is actually happening and answer any questions that the child may have honestly.

  • Dionne S. January 26th, 2010 at 9:26 PM #3

    I don’t see why you need to let your ex-partner know you may have a new significant other at all and certainly not before the kids do. If you wanted them to know about your life, you’d still be with them.

    And why not let the kids see how the parent reacts to the news? It would probably show them why you split up in the first place. I wouldn’t burden the kids with having to hide it but I’d sure tell the kids before I’d tell the ex.

  • Dylan January 26th, 2010 at 9:49 PM #4

    “But, in general, without giving your children control over when you start to venture into that world, let them know your intentions and ask for their feelings about it.”

    Which is great if they don’t care you’ll be dating. How do you handle it if they say they don’t want you to?

  • Sandra January 27th, 2010 at 5:42 AM #5

    Recently went thru a divorce and now remarriage. Can’t say the boys are happy about all of this but I have a right to a life too. Their step dad provides for them and takes care of us, is never mean to them. So I had to make a choice to be happy and I did.

  • Jim January 27th, 2010 at 11:32 PM #6

    Thanks for the article, Shendl. You mentioned letting the children know when you begin dating is age-sensitive. What age is it acceptable to do that with?

  • Shendl Tuchman February 12th, 2010 at 1:11 PM #7

    I want to thank everyone for their comments and questions. There is certainly not a one size fits all rule for any of these decisions. However, in general, how the children are “escorted” by their divorced parents through the changes (i.e. new home, new school, new friends, new partners, etc.) makes a huge difference. Children don’t get divorced, parents do. The fewer changes a child experiences, the easier the transition is. We do know that the major ingredient in a healthier divorce is the absence of conflict. When I do co-parenting therapy, the focus is on how they take the burden of any aspect of the divorce off their children. This would include subjecting children to the tensions between parents when they move on to new relationships, not whether they move on to new relationships. I would not say the intent is to let your ex-partner know about a new partner as much as it is to not have the children have to deal with what may be overwhelming and hurtful to them when they feel they are the cause of hurt to a parent. Children will always have their own relationship with each parent and will learn over and over again who that parent is and how they cope or don’t cope with any particular situation. But it will be their own relationship with each parent. Not one where they are stuck between two parents who they may want to love without guilt but who have ongoing tensions. When parents decide to end their marriage and move on, they have the opportunity to repair some of the emotional damage they experienced while in a relationship that could not work. When those tensions and ill-feelings continue, the children end up having to find ways to negotiate between their warring parents, affecting their relationship with both. I do know there are some relationships where this is not possible, that communication between parents is difficult at best. To this I would say, simply do the best you can to protect your children from that conflict. One way is to not engage when feeling provoked and the other is to not provoke. It most often takes two to have a conflict.

    When children say they don’t want you to date when you broach the subject, it often helps to understand why they don’t want you to date and to address the concerns they have, one by one. Sometimes their concerns are well-founded and you get to think about how to mitigate the impact on them. But they don’t get to tell you that you can’t. If the concern is that it seems so fast and they just want to have you to themselves for a while longer, you may want to consider whether this makes sense to you or if they are saying something that seems to be about something else. This is not the same as being told you can’t date. It is a caring parent making a decision based on as much information as they can accumulate. If the concern is that they aren’t ready to have a strange person around, talk with them about what might make it easier. Often children just want to be considered and accommodated to some degree. However, they often think in terms of black and white. It is either yes or no. You have an opportunity to bring a bit of gray into their thinking.

    Age-sensitivity is a moving target. Children will usually let you know what they are capable of understanding. Watch their verbal language, their body language and other signs of emotional expression. Clearly, a two-year-old is not prepared to have that conversation. Much of this is on a need-to-know basis. Pay attention to the questions your children ask and the types of conversations they are interested in having with you. You can keep a relationship private for some time if you do not have the children all the time. When they go to the other parent, you have the opportunity to explore new relationships without taking anything away from the children. When a relationship becomes serious and it is time to introduce him/her to your family, you are the expert in what you believe your child can handle or understand at their age. You know the language that works best.

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