With nearly 50% of all marriages ending in divorce, today’s family is often bi-located, consisting of two adults who live in separate homes and children who spend equal or partial time in each. For the children, “family” is synonymous with “parents,” even if those parents are no longer in the same household.
After taking some time to heal from the emotional tumult of divorce, adults usually have a desire to date and possibly even remarry. Children, meanwhile, may hold onto the fantasy of their parents getting back together for years after the initial separation.
Because of this differing agenda between parent and child, tension can arise when mom or dad has a new boyfriend or girlfriend. So it is important to consider several factors when making the decision to introduce a new significant other to your children.
As a parent, you can start by telling your children:
- The divorce is not your fault
- The divorce is not your choice
- Your father/mother and I are not getting back together
- We love you and will take care of you, no matter what
Watch for the response. Many children will say, “I know, I know,” while secretly believing that they did, in fact, cause the divorce. This is because children are self-referencing: they believe themselves to be the cause of everything.
Children don’t need to know why you divorced. Barring abuse, untreated substance addiction, severe mental health issues, or other child-endangering factors, your children still need to spend time with, love, and respect both parents, even if one has been acting less than lovely or trustworthy. This means they need to be shielded from explanations like, “your dad is a lazy bum” or “your mom is crazy.” They need a fuzzy explanation, such as, “we just can’t get along, and we will both be happier in separate homes.” If they ask for more information, you can always play the “I’ll tell you more when you are older” card.
The introduction of a boyfriend or a girlfriend should happen within a stage of the relationship that is neither too soon after meeting, nor too close to a more formal step, such as living together. There are many variables to consider in terms of timing. Being a conscientious parent means waiting until you know your boy/girlfriend well enough to warrant including him or her in your child’s life. How much time is enough before you introduce your child to your new love interest?
First and foremost, look at what is happening in your children’s lives. Most kids are emotionally resilient enough to adapt to one major change per year. A major change may be parental separation, a move, starting school, changing schools, a graduation from one type of school to another (elementary to junior high, for example), a frightening medical event in the immediate family, a major loss, a close friend moving away, or the death of a close grandparent.
Often the financial reality of divorce means that the lower-wage-earning parent may need to move to a more affordable location. If they have primary custody and the children are school-aged, this means the children are enduring three massive changes at once: separation of parents, a move to a new home, and a transition to a new school district. If your children are experiencing all of this, it is advisable not to consider introducing a love interest for well over a year, so that your children can adjust to the many unwanted changes that have already taken place. Next, consider your typical dating behavior before you married. If you tended to cycle through lovers, wait at least a year before you involve your children, so as not to encourage an attachment that will be transitory.
If you are the sole parent (your former partner is not involved or is minimally involved) wait at least a year and even then proceed with extreme caution. This is because children with only one parent crave a second parent and may emotionally attach to mom’s or dad’s significant other immediately. While this can be heartwarming for you and your partner, it means trouble if or when a break-up happens. If your child is bonded with your boyfriend/girlfriend and you break up, your child re-experiences the loss of a parent figure.
On the other hand, there are several factors that can increase stability for children and help them make transitions, including having two actively involved parents who tend to be monogamous with their significant others. It helps, too, if those parents maintain a stable lifestyle in terms of employment, residential location, and health. If the children are attending the same school post-divorce that they were attending pre-divorce, as well, then you can be a little bit more flexible with introduction schedules.
It’s also good to know how your significant other handles disagreements, arguments, or feeling upset, before this person meets your children—just so there are no surprises in front of the kids. A good rule of thumb is to wait until after six months of exclusive dating with frequent contact before introducing to your children.
The ideal scenario is to let your child know you are dating someone, invite them to ask you questions about the person you are dating, and ask them when they would like to meet your boyfriend or girlfriend. This gives your child fair warning, as well as a sense of personal power and control over a situation that they did not choose and may not want.
Prior to meeting your children, talk with your boyfriend/girlfriend about the role he or she imagines having in your children’s lives. The most appropriate role for your boyfriend or girlfriend to have in your children’s lives is that of loving witness. In this role, your significant other can talk with, play with, and get to know your children.
Be wary of encouraging or allowing your significant other to discipline your children, as this can have a negative impact on the mental health of your children, as well as the intimacy of your relationship. At least in the early stages, this person’s role is to connect with your kids, not raise them to be responsible adults. Even if the other parent is absent or not exemplifying model behavior, it is important to avoid exporting parental responsibilities onto someone so new to the family.
When children are introduced to your significant other, focus on making them as comfortable as possible. Refrain from romantic physical contact with your boyfriend or girlfriend during the first 6-12 times together; after that you can act more natural. Over the long term, it helps for children to see light physical affection between adults, so they regard it as a natural gesture of love.
There may be competition between your significant other and your children when all are together, since they are each accustomed to holding your attention exclusively. Jealousy is a normal reaction when the family constellation changes. For instance, when a child is born, an older sibling often feels jealous and resentful. Issues of competition and jealousy can be helped by spending individual time with your children without your significant other so that they feel important.
Occasionally, children may act out from this envy and make threats. Seek professional help if your child makes suicidal statements, as these are indicators of problems adjusting to your new situation.
Protecting your adult connection with your significant other is important for your emotional well-being and the good of the relationship. It’s beneficial for all parties to establish a date night or time exclusively for your significant other. However, making your children’s needs your overall priority will help your children grow up healthy and emotionally resilient. If you are dating someone who doesn’t have children, that person may not be able to understand this. A qualified therapist who works with blended family issues can help address this gap.
Remember that your child did not participate in your romantic selection process. Children are not used to the idea that the components of a family are changeable. Even years later, many children still harbor fantasies about mom and dad getting back together. Because it is normal for children to retain a level of distress long after the divorce is final, it’s important to examine and resolve any of your own guilt surrounding the divorce. Parents who have guilt issues surrounding the divorce may tend to compensate by giving in to children’s demands in order to feel better. In turn, those children have difficult developing the ability to compromise and to get along with others. If you find yourself saying “no” and then being coerced into saying “yes,” attend a parenting class in your community. The Love and Logic program is especially helpful for this type of pattern.
Balancing the work and joys of parenting, as well as the work and joys of adult romance, is no small feat. It takes time, effort, and the willingness to make a new start. And yet, love in all forms is the most meaningful, healing, and expanding, exciting part of life. So why is love so much work?
Because it’s worth it.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti, LICSW, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington
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