Guest Post by Shannon Rios Paulsen, LMFT
The issue of dating arises in every session of “Co-Parenting After Divorce” I facilitate. After working with thousands of families, I have come to believe that dating and remarrying are among the biggest risk factors for children of divorce. Statistically, children of divorce are two-and-a-half times more likely to have adjustment and achievement issues than children from intact families. Dating and stepfamilies DO impact children. It is true that a new partner can sometimes impact children positively, but it is also true that this aspect of their parents’ divorce can cause stress and challenges for children.
My view is that parents must do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the divorce on their children. This was not something your children chose. This article will help you successfully navigate the divorce-after-dating process. There is also a list of questions at the end of this article to ask yourself before you introduce a new person to your children.
I once worked with one child whose mom told me that she was not introducing her boyfriend to her children as a boyfriend, only as a friend. Guess what, mom and dad? You have raised really intelligent children. Kids know. They know intuitively if something is going on between two adults that is more than friendship. When in session with me, this is how the 7-year-old boy reacted to meeting his mom’s “friend”:
“What if my mom marries this guy? What if they get a divorce and we have to go through this again? What about my dad? He will be alone.”
This child had only been aware of his parents’ final decision to divorce for four or five months, and yet he was already confronted with one of his greatest fears.
When you consider dating after a divorce, and especially before you introduce your child or children to a new partner, there are important considerations you should make first.
Take Time for Yourself First
Children’s adjustment to the divorce situation is directly related to the parents’ adjustment. Be sure to do your “adjusting work.” That may mean counseling and/or coaching to look at what happened in your divorce. Healthy parents create healthy children.
For myself, after breaking up from a long-time relationship, I initially blamed the other person. However, when I really took time with myself alone, I was able to acknowledge and see my role in the relationship’s dysfunction.
The statistics tell us that the failure rate of second marriages is higher than first marriages. If we do not assess our role in the past breakup, we are likely to choose another partner who will not honor our needs and will not be a good candidate for remarriage. As you can imagine, it can be devastating for children to have to go through this loss process twice.
Take Time With Your Children
It is common that parents want to introduce a new dating partner to children. However, your children need and want quality time with you — especially if you share custody with their other parent. Quality time with you one-on-one is most important for that first year while children adjust to the divorce.
When you invite someone you are dating to spend time with you and your children, it doesn’t honor your children’s time with you. They need your full attention during this transition in their lives. If a new partner is there, your attention will undoubtedly be distracted, and your children will notice. When you introduce another person to them, it also increases the level of anxiety for children, as in the example of the 7-year-old above.
My guideline is to wait 12 months after your children know about the divorce AND you are not living in the same home with your co-parent before you date. Anytime you start dating (after the initial 12 months have passed), I recommend waiting three to six months before you introduce someone new to your kids. You want to try to be sure this person will stay around. It is not fair to introduce others or their children to your kids before you really know if this relationship will last. Again, dating may be fun for you, but especially initially, it is NOT fun for your kids. Also remember that you may have been ready for the divorce/separation long before you told your children. Your children have only started to process this (and deal with the grief process) once they have been told and believe this is really going to happen (once you move out).
Ensure This Is a Relationship You Believe Will Last
There are things you can do to ensure this relationship is one you consider solid for the future. First, ask yourself if this person is someone you can see yourself creating a future with. Can you see this person with your children in the long term? Does this person adequately fulfill your needs, wants and desires in a relationship? Is this person stable enough to bring your family into their life and maintain balance? Is this person stable enough to effectively deal with the added stress of a stepfamily? Ask your new partner if they want the relationship to continue into the future.
What is This Partner’s Location or Future Location?
It is vital for children to grow up near both parents, when possible. This is the best way to ensure that both parents spend adequate time with their children. Consider where the new partner lives or where they want to live in the future. Will this be near your children’s other parent? If your relationship with your co-parent is not healthy, will this new person support staying in the same area with your co-parent, even if it may be easier to move away from them?
Ensure This is a Healthy Person for Your Children
First consider: Is this person completely healthy for you? Do you feel calm with them? Do they compliment you, or do you spend a lot of time arguing and being upset with them? Have you seen this person with other children? Does this person express a true interest in children? Have you asked them how they feel about being a possible stepparent for your children? Will this person be respectful of your former spouse in front of your children? These questions should all be answered before you introduce a new person to your children. If you can’t answer them positively, then it is not time to introduce this person to your children. Your children deserve the best, and the best is that you are clear on all these issues prior to introducing them to a new partner.
Find Out if This New Person Wants More Children
It may seem early to discuss this, but it is very important. You need to decide if YOU want more children or if you want to focus on the children you already have, as well as what your partner wants. I have seen things become challenging once a new child enters the picture.
Discuss Blending Families (If Your Partner Has Kids)
I truly believe after working with so many families that we, as a society, underestimate the amount of work it takes to blend families. We think we can easily bond to another person’s child or that they will easily bond to us. In many cases, this is not true. It will take continuous work to blend two parenting styles and children from two different families. If you think being married to one person is hard, think about all the following dynamics: you and your partner’s kids (especially teenagers), you and your kids’ co-parent, your new partner and your kids, your new partner and your co-parent. Then add in any children you may decide to have together. All these personality dynamics can be a challenge. It gets more interesting than you could ever imagine very quickly.
Children are our future. Let’s all agree to treat them with the love, respect and caring that they deserve, especially during the divorce process. This includes taking care of yourself, making sure that you spend quality one-on-one time with your children, and ensuring that all potential dating partners will be good role models for your children.
Shannon R. Rios Paulsen LMFT, MS, coaches parents to successfully navigate the divorce and parenting process in the best interest of their children. She has 15 years’ experience coaching thousands of parents in the divorce, conflict and court process. She has written two books on children and divorce, “The 7 Fatal Mistakes Divorced and Separated Parents Make: Strategies for Raising Healthy Children of Divorce” and “Conflict & Healthy Children of Divorce in 10 Simple Steps: Strategies for Raising Healthy Children of Divorce.” Both books are available on Amazon.com. For further information/coaching, please contact Shannon Rios Paulsen at 720-515-3212 or Shannon.firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.healthychildrenofdivorce.com.
Questions to Ask Prior to Introducing Your Children to Your Dating Partner
- Does this person like children?
- Have I seen this person positively interact with children?
- Do I believe this person would be a positive role model for my child?
- Would I want this person to be a potential influence in my child’s life?
- Have I dated this person for at least six months or feel fully committed to this person and they to me?
- Is this a person I could see myself committing to long term?
- Have I had a discussion with this person about our possible future together?
- Do I know that this person would agree to be a part of my family with my children?
- Does this dating partner approve of and understand my current relationship/situation with my child’s other parent?
- Does my dating partner know and understand that I am always a parent first?
- If I live in the same city as my child’s other parent, does the person I am dating want to stay in the same location or live in this location?
- Have I been divorced for at least one year, or have I spent time officially separated from my child’s other parent (and my children have known about the divorce) for at least one year?
- Do I truly believe in my heart that my child or children are emotionally ready to be introduced to someone else?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, you are not yet ready to introduce your child to the person you are dating. Take your time; it is important to proceed with confidence in your choices. Always remember that you are a parent first. Your children thank you for putting them first.