You’ve met someone really nice and you’re starting to think he/she may just be the “one”. There’s just one little problem (or maybe more) if you’re divorced and upwards of mid 30 – the children. If we’re dating while raising children, we have to integrate and balance the responsibilities of parenthood and take into consideration the attitudes and perception of the children – and it’s not easy! Here are a few tips:
- Don’t involve children in adult relationships they may too immature to understand. Not every relationship is going to last, so spare your children unnecessary exposure to short-term flings. It can be heartbreaking for your children when they’re no longer around, particularly those dealing with post-divorce parental alienation – they may become attached quickly and intensely. Be sure the new person in your life is there for the long-term before introducing your children.
- Test the waters – talk to your children about dating first. Ask them how they feel about you dating. Explain that just as children need time with other children, adults need time with other adults. Tell them that even though they’re the most important people in your life, you’re going to start dating so you can have the companionship and enjoyment of someone your own age. Don’t expect them to be happy about it – they probably won’t be, for various reasons: they may have become over-attached and used to being the primary focus of your life, so may not want to share you with a new partner. They may still be harbouring the fantasy of their parents reuniting and your dating puts an end to that dream. They may have suffered multiple losses due to the divorce and feelings of abandonment and insecurity could resurface again. They’re likely to view your dating as a threat to their own personal time and experience with you.
- When you feel a relationship is solid and it’s time to involve the children, make the introduction casual, friendly and preferably somewhere fun for the kids. The focus should be on an activity not “getting to know each other better.” Consider an outing to watch cricket or go to a concert, golf (if you don’t play, you can drive the cart) or ten pin bowling. Lower expectations about your child’s acceptance of your partner and be prepared for resistance and even hostility, understanding that just because you love a new partner, doesn’t mean your child will. The only stipulation at the first meeting is for the child to show basic good manners and friendliness. Liking and even loving may come over time.
- Depending on the age and maturity of the child, encourage your children to be open, ask questions and talk about feelings. Don’t seek their approval of your new partner because this can encourage manipulation and ultimately gives kids an unhealthy sense of responsibility for the relationship. Emphasise your continued unconditional love and commitment to them and always follow through on promises about “alone” time and other family and social obligations. At the same time, don’t minimise the importance of your new love interest, or when your child eventually discovers you’re in love, they may feel that you’ve broken their trust and betrayed them – just when trust and reassurance are most needed. Be attentive to their reactions as you introduce your new partner into the family – kids can be very perceptive!
- Once children have been introduced to your new love interest, limit time you and your partner spend with them as a group. Gradually increase time together as your partner and children get to know each other and feel more comfortable around each other. If your new partner has kids they’ll also appreciate a slow transition towards togetherness. Resist plunging into a busy instant family mode where everyone is always together and the children are forced to spend time with each other.
- Be sure to spend regular “alone” time with your children, without your new partner, to reassure them that they’re still very important to you. Time spent exclusively focused on them reduces their anxiety about being displaced as well as jealousy due to another important person taking time and attention. Children need to be reminded that even though you’re dating they are your top priority. Alone time creates an opportunity for you to talk and to listen.
- Set boundaries around physical displays of affection in front of children. These should be limited, especially around teenagers, who are often embarrassed by the reality of their parent’s sexuality. Overnights with dates should be confined to nights when the children are out of the house; remember you are a role model for the kids, so be mindful of your sexual behaviour.
- Never say bad things about your former spouse to your child, especially in front of your new boyfriend/girlfriend. They will always remain the father/ mother of your child, so talk about them respectfully or your child may become resentful and angry with you. Also, never criticise your child in front of your new partner – it’ll just make them feel insecure and less important than your new flame.
- It may take time, but it is possible to merge your family and your partner’s family together peacefully and harmoniously. Try to spend some time with children from both sides of the relationship together doing enjoyable activities. This will help to build relationships and create a sense of family for everyone. While your children might not think of your significant other as their parent, they can still have a deep respect and love for them over time. Emphasise to your kids that you’re not trying to replace their biological mother or father, but that you’re just trying to include new people you love and care for in all of your lives. It can turn out wonderfully if everyone is willing to make the effort.
Handling children with sensitivity and compassion and ensuring you set reasonable boundaries could mean the difference between an unhappy experience for everyone concerned and a successful dating life that is satisfying for you and your partner and manageable for the children.