Post-Divorce Dating With Children: The When
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.
When is a good time to start dating after separating from your partner?
Not Before the Divorce Is Final
To avoid the likelihood of a "rebound relationship," patience is the name of the game. There is usually no good reason to date before a divorce is final, particularly if you have children. If they find out, it will be confusing to the children. Believe me, children are already confused enough when their parents have decided to go their separate ways.
From a legal perspective, sexual activity with a non-spouse while you're married is adultery, which is a fault-based ground for divorce in Tennessee. Even if you don't have sex with the new person, romantic involvement could be considered inappropriate marital conduct, which is another fault-based ground for divorce.
While dating may not have a significant effect on child custody (assuming the dating partner is not a dangerous person and you're not, for instance, having sex in the presence of the children), it could affect property division (if the court finds that you've dissipated marital assets by spending money on your honey) and/or alimony determinations (since marital fault is one factor courts consider when determining alimony awards).
From a more practical perspective, dating before the divorce is final can complicate the resolution of the divorce process because it builds resentment and a sense of betrayal in the other spouse. While adultery may not have a large degree of impact on what each spouse is entitled to in the divorce, it feels terribly unjust to the faithful spouse and may lead to the divorce process taking longer and being more expensive than it otherwise might have been. This is in part due to internal feelings of fundamental fairness, but also has something to do with the pop culture notion of "taking him to the cleaners."
It is often a difficult task for a lawyer to explain to his or her client the relative legal unimportance of adultery in most divorce proceedings, while simultaneously reinforcing the client's feelings that the client has been morally wronged. Divorce has a similar impact on mental health to a death in the family, and dating during divorce intensifies the grieving process and emotional pain of the other spouse. Part of the job of good divorce attorneys is to help their clients think practically, logically, financially, and less emotionally about the terms of the divorce, thereby reducing the length and cost of the litigation. By dating someone else during the divorce proceedings, you may be reinforcing your spouse's tendency to feel emotionally about the divorce rather than think logically, and thereby, you may be unintentionally sabotaging your own efforts at obtaining a quick, fair resolution to your divorce at the lowest cost possible.
Furthermore, if a relationship is worth pursuing, it can survive being on hold for the 60-90 days it takes to get an uncontested divorce, or even the year or longer it can take to get a contested divorce. The patience necessary to wait on a good thing will demonstrate that your potential significant other has the patience necessary to serve as a stepparent over the long haul, if you decide to remarry. Stepparenting is incredibly difficult for lots of reasons. First of all, the children involved aren't biologically yours. You don't have the same natural affection that biological parents have for their children, at least at first. Also, if you haven't been involved with the children from birth and don't have biological children of your own, you're at a parenting disadvantage.
I have a 4 year old daughter. When I became a mother, I had no clue how to parent a 4 year old. Thankfully, nobody came to the hospital and handed me a 4 year old. I parented a newborn, a 1 year old, a 2 year old, a 3 year old, and now a 4 year old. In other words, I grew in my parenting skills right along with my child. Contrast that with a stepparent who comes into a child's life at the age of 4. I would imagine the feeling is very similar to being thrown into the deep end of a pool and told to swim. It is overwhelming and requires lots of patience, acceptance, and calm.
Dating can lead to eventual marriage; this is obvious to the average person, although newly divorced people often swear they will never marry again. If you do remarry, you want your new spouse to be accepting of and loving toward your children, no matter how your children might react to your new marriage. (By the way, children often do not react to remarriage in an ideal fashion. It is often emotionally challenging to them to see their parents move on into new relationships, which results in anger, alienation of or emotional competition with the new stepparent, poor performance in school, defiant behavior, and so on. It takes a strong, patient person and a strong new marriage relationship to survive this adjustment period.)
By waiting to date, you are cultivating the patience in yourself and your partner that will be important in establishing a healthy and stable new marriage. Second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages, and the last thing you want is to introduce a new trusted person into your children's lives, only to have that person divorce you soon after. Talk about confusing for a kid!
Give Yourself Time to Grieve
It's been my experience that on an emotional level, people often process divorce similar to the way they would process a death in the family. Anyone who has ever taken an intro to psychology course has heard of the Kübler-Ross model of the "five stages of grief" when dealing with the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. People often go through a process similar to this when dealing with divorce. This makes sense. Divorce, after all, is a death in a way: a death of a marriage, a death of a dream, etc.
Grieving takes time. It is a process, and until a person has worked through the process and come out on the other side of acceptance, he or she may not be able to handle the pressures of a new relationship in a healthy way. It is my experience that relationships which begin too soon after a divorce are usually "rebound" relationships. The recently-divorced person is often dating to fill the time, or fill the emotional void left in the absence of the other person. This is not fair to the recently-divorced person or to the new partner. We deserve to be loved for who we are, not for what voids we can fill in the other person. Codependency is not a healthy relationship pattern.
Each person takes a different amount of time to grieve a divorce. For some, their grieving was complete years ago, but the divorce is just now being finalized due to financial reasons or having "stayed together for the kids" as long as they possibly could. For others, the grieving process could take months or even years after the divorce is final, depending on the cause of the divorce, the length of the marriage, and psychological factors.
Dating doesn't heal the pain of a divorce. Don't date for revenge. Date when you are ready to date for its own sake, because you like the person and not because you feel lonely and empty. This will increase the chances that you'll have an emotionally healthy relationship with your new partner, which is exactly the kind of relationship you want to model for your children when you get ready for them to meet your new partner.
Okay, so that's dating. What about remarriage?
As I stated earlier, second and subsequent marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages. Science tells us that the initial, obsessive, passionate phase of a relationship doesn't last forever and wears off after a couple of years, calming down into what we call "companionate love." However fun it may be, the passionate phase of a relationship is not conducive to responsible decisionmaking. When we are passionately in love, we often cannot see the flaws in our partners that we would see when cooler heads prevail. Therefore, to minimize the risk of another divorce, I suggest dating someone for at least two years before getting married.
I also suggest, if possible, introducing your future spouse to your children at least six months before you get married. (I will address how long to date before introducing a new romantic interest to your children in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that "immediately" is the incorrect answer.) This gives you the opportunity to watch their interactions and determine whether remarriage is in the best interests of your children.