In an age where divorce is prevalent and blended families are becoming the new norm, divorced parents entering the dating realm find themselves faced with additional concerns, namely, children. Dating while parenting involves a delicate balancing act. While no one suggests that parents invite every date to meet their children, perhaps there will come a time when a dating partner merits an introduction. How can you be certain it’s the right time?
The first few years following a divorce are typically a difficult and stressful period for most children and their parents as they transition from one family unit to separate family units. However, in terms of a timeline for moving past divorce and onto dating or remarriage, there is no steadfast rule. It is a personal decision that must be managed with consequences taken into consideration for the individual family. But specific factors can help lead to a better understanding of whether your children are prepared for your and their entry into a new relationship.
1. Have your children had sufficient time to adjust to the divorce?
Just as adults need time to experience the grief of losing the marriage, so do the children. After all, the parents saw divorce coming. The children likely did not. They may have experienced fighting and tension in the household but probably were not aware that the end result would be divorce. In addition, though the word divorce is bandied about frequently in today’s society, children may not grasp the effect of divorce or what it entails.
Because of their ages and maturity levels, children cannot process complex emotions as can adults. When a divorce shifts the living circumstances, children may feel as though they have lost control of their lives. Due to the challenges dealing with the divorce, children may be anxious or apprehensive about any additional changes in their lives, which they may see as precipitating further loss of control.
I have seen firsthand the effect that a swift introduction to a new partner has on a family. When divorced dad Ray moved his new girlfriend into his home mere months after filing for divorce from his wife of 16 years, his two children were upset and confused. The children, who spent equal time with mom and dad, suddenly chose to stay with their mother more frequently. This caused Ray to force togetherness between the children and his new partner. He thought that if they knew her better, they would like her. However, it wasn’t a matter of whether they liked her. They weren’t ready for the new relationship because they hadn’t had time to process their parents’ divorce. Ultimately, the tension and arguments caused by this sudden upheaval in the children’s lives caused the demise of the new relationship as well as trust issues between Ray and his children.
The ages of children may affect their views on dating and remarriage. Older children have their own ways of showing you that they are prepared for you to move on to a new relationship. Do they ask when you are going to date again? Do they seek to set you up on dates? Do they feel guilty about not spending enough time with you? Questions such as these indicate an understanding on the part of the child that the parent may have a need for adult companionship.
2. Attachment level of kids.
Not every relationship necessitates meeting your children. You may be enjoying a lively social life without feeling the need to involve your children. Even after you have determined that your dating partner is a significant person in your life, you will need to consider the trajectory of the relationship before introducing your children. Children are vulnerable to attachment to adults in a familial setting. Depending upon the age and attachment level of your children, it may take longer to reach the introductory stage. Often, younger children develop tight-knit bonds with a parent’s dating partners and become confused and hurt when that adult is missing from their lives.
After dating five years, television personality Jenny McCarthy and actor Jim Carrey ended their relationship in 2010. In 2012, Jenny publicly called out Jim for “abandoning” her then 10-year-old son with whom he had developed a close relationship. Jim’s version of events differed stating that he felt he was doing what was in the best interest of Jenny’s son. No matter your point of view, children do get attached. Ending a relationship, even without marriage involved, can cause grief and pain for children as well.
When discussing any relationship with children, it is important to express your needs in terms that they can understand. All children understand a need for friends and that may be the best avenue as you make initial introductions. Tell them that you need friends just as they do. Explain that having friends enables you to explore more social activities. This will open the door to social interactions with other adults without opening the door to full on commitment.
In addition, it’s important for children to understand that they will only have one mother and one father. The dating relationship that you are involved in should not bring pressure with it for the children. By explaining that other adults in the picture do not equate to additional parents, you will ensure that your child feels no pressure to become attached to your partner as they would to a stepfather or stepmother.
3. What are the goals of the relationship? Is marriage in your future?
Approximately, one-half to two-thirds of those who divorce will remarry. If you are contemplating or planning marriage with a partner, it is necessary to get your children involved. You are no longer involved in just a dating relationship but will be creating a family unit with your new partner and your children. Proceed cautiously. Your children will sense the level of commitment involved but the same rules will apply.
Remember, though you are excited about the new relationship, children fear that priorities will shift from them to the new relationship/marriage and they often do. Keep focus on parenting despite this euphoric time in your personal relationship. You may want to spend every waking moment with your new love, however, it is likely that your children are not interested in the same amount of interaction. While it is necessary to initiate bonding to ensure family success, the new partner should not be involved in each and every interaction between parent and child.
When my husband and I were dating and even into our early married years, I encouraged him to spend time alone with his children. I did not want them to feel slighted. I also made references to him as “their dad” so they could still take ownership of a relationship with their father that didn’t involve me. As time progressed, the specific times set aside for parent/child interaction dwindled because it became clear that those distinctions were unnecessary as trust grew between my stepchildren and me.
It is estimated that families typically re-stabilize parenting practices and pre-transition levels of children’s behaviors about two years following divorce and five years following remarriage. While it is understandable that adult needs must be taken into consideration during the dating process, it falls to parents to protect the emotional stability of the children. Still, success in dating and remarriage can be yours. Be mindful, remain conscientious and proceed slowly.