Post-Divorce Dating With Children: How and When to Tell the Kids
So you're getting divorced, or you're already divorced, and you have children. You've started thinking about the future and how you might like to start dating at some point, but you're wondering how long to wait before you start dating, how to meet someone, how to know the other person is safe, how to balance your own wants and needs with those of your children, how to tell your children you're dating again, and how and when to introduce your children to your new significant other. This blog series explores those questions and more, not from a legal perspective so much as from a practical and emotional perspective
How should I talk to my children about dating again?
Many children of divorce harbor a secret (or not-so-secret) fantasy that their parents will reconcile and remarry. A parent dating shatters this fantasy more quickly and thoroughly than practically anything else. Be sensitive to your child's feelings about this.
The news that a parent is dating can be upsetting to a child for other reasons. The child may fear that the dating partner is going to become more important to the parent than the child is, or that the parent will expect the dating partner to replace the other parent in the child's heart...neither of which should be true for parents and children with emotionally healthy relationships. Reassure your child and most of all, be willing to listen to his or her concerns.
Tell the Other Parent First
The healthiest way to have the conversation with your children is to have the conversation with your ex first, if possible. Allowing your ex to have input on what you tell the children, as well as when and how, shows your ex the respect he or she deserves as the other parent of your child and may give you insights into how your child will react. After all, no one knows your children better than their parents.
This also serves an important function from the child's perspective. "Leave kids out of adult issues" is a motto that is usually worth following. The child should never have to be the one who tells your ex that you are dating.
Can you imagine how awkward that is for the child? Do you talk about it, do you not talk about it, will the other parent be jealous or disappointed, how do you act about it (sad/happy/indifferent) in front of the other parent, should you keep it a secret, etc? Your children will breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that mom or dad already knows you are dating again.
Don't Expect Love at First Sight
You shouldn't pressure your kids to like your significant other, or your significant other to like your kids. That's unhealthy. Relationships develop over time. Let them sort out their feelings naturally without your pressuring or expectations. Tell them that the new person is not going to replace their mother or father and that although you like him or her very much, you know it might take time for your children to get used to the idea and that's perfectly okay.
The Story of Sue and Joe
Story time, with details changed to protect the not-so-wise: a friend of mine, let's call her Sue, met a man named Joe at the gym. They went on three dates over the course of two weeks, after which Sue announced to her children (ages 9 and 4) that they were all moving in together and Joe was going to be their "new daddy." Joe himself had a child, who was not super happy about losing his own bedroom to share with Sue's 9 year old son.
So three weeks after meeting Joe, Sue and her kids moved into Joe's house. This required Sue's children to change schools in the middle of the school year. Joe's son and Sue's son, who were close in age, fought constantly over toys, attention, and bedroom space. Sue's 4 year old daughter seemed to get lost in the rough and tumble of a house full of boys.
Sue's ex was dumbfounded by the news and very unhappy. He and Sue had agreed to raise their children with Christian principles and he did not think very highly of Sue living together out of wedlock with a man she just met while their children looked on. Sue's ex was also furious that Sue had told the children to call the new man "Daddy Joe" and told them they were getting a new daddy. They already HAD a daddy!
As a result of his anger and frustration, Sue's ex said and did some things in front of the kids that he probably shouldn't have, such as calling Sue derogatory names, suggesting she was promiscuous, and so on. Several of those things could have gotten him in trouble in court if Sue had chosen to pursue contempt charges, but more importantly, these weren't healthy things for the children to hear.
Fortunately for Sue's ex, and unfortunately for Sue, the relationship between Sue and Joe did not last. They broke up about two months after moving in together. Sue and the kids moved back into their old apartment complex closer to Sue's ex, which required the kids to change schools again in the middle of the school year.
The kids were sad, particularly her 9 year old son, with whom Joe shared an interest in baseball. The children were a lot more skeptical of and hostile toward Sue's future boyfriends, including the man she eventually married, because of the "false alarm" that had been Joe.
Now, Sue is not a bad person. Joe is not a bad person. But just because two people are fundamentally decent people does not mean they need to be in a relationship with each other. Sue and Joe owed it to their kids to give dating more of a trial run before involving their kids - and you owe it to your kids, too.
So, when should my children meet my significant other?
Wait Until It's at Least a Little Serious Before Introducing Your New Dating Partner
I've suggested this before, but I want to repeat my recommendation that you date while the children are with the other parent, especially if you are early on in a relationship. Why?
- It saves you babysitting money;
- You don't have to worry about being home in time to take care of your kids' needs; and
- It insulates your kids from your romantic life.
Your children don't need to know every time you go out on a casual date with someone. That has no effect on their lives whatsoever, and it can be confusing if you then break up with that person or never get past the first date. You don't want your kids forming attachments to people who may not stick around. Dating is trial and error. Wait to introduce your kids to someone after it becomes less trial and less error.
A good timeframe probably comes after about six months of dating. That is a decent amount of time to get a sense for what kind of person you're dealing with and whether the relationship is going anywhere.
Ideally, this would also be at least one year after your divorce is finalized. That gives your children time to grieve your marriage before introducing the drama of a new relationship.
Don't Wait Too Late
I've placed a lot of emphasis on not introducing a new person too quickly. However, the opposite mistake is also possible. The following are examples of waiting too long to tell your children about your new partner, all of which I have actually seen happen in real life:
- After you have married your new significant other. "Hey kids, meet your new stepmom!" is not a sentence that should exist in the English language. Just trust me.
- Less than 6 months before you plan to get married. Give your kids time to get used to the idea.
- Less than a month prior to moving in with your partner.
- After you have already gotten pregnant by your partner (if you can help it).
If I could develop a rule on this, I guess it would be that if your new relationship is going to have a major effect on your children's lives, they deserve to know about it...but if the relationship is new or not serious, they deserve not to have to worry about it.
The bottom line is that you know your kids best, of course, and you're capable of using your own best judgment...but having seen hundreds of divorced people navigate new relationships, I've had the opportunity to see what works and what doesn't, which is what I'm trying to share with you via this blog series. If you put your children's concerns and best interests first, it will all work itself out.