Chapter 5: Dating & Your Children
Dr. Lori Thomas
Introducing A New Partner to Your Children
Dating, in general, can be an exciting and, at times, daunting activity. Dating after a divorce adds another level of complexity. Dating and spending time with someone we like can make us feel alive again. We can’t help but feel attractive and desirable. This will likely be a welcomed feeling as the end of marriage typically leads to feelings of loss, failure, and maybe even a lower sense of self.
Now, when you add children to the equation, it can seem as though you might never get to experience the positive . Many people avoid dating until their children are much older because they don’t want to deal with the challenges and emotions. Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be encouraged, regardless of your child’s age, to at least consider taking the leap.
When it comes to discussing dating with your children, there are no hard and fast rules. It all depends on the age and developmental stage of your child. Overall, the key thing to keep in mind is exercising discretion as well as being thoughtful and intentional with all your decisions.
The Early Dating Stages
Trial and Error
When a parent is just starting to reacclimate to dating, it may not be necessary to sit down with children, regardless of age, to tell them that they are planning to start dating. In this early stage, when a parent is trying to figure out what dating is and may well be seeing a few people, casually, it is best to manage what is likely to be a dating blooper reel without involving your children. In some cases, an older child or a precocious younger child may ask or encourage you to get a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Even if your child initiates such a conversation, you should not assume that this means your child is ready for all the intimate details of your dating life. Discretion is the name of the game here. In this stage, only give them the information needed to answer their questions (e.g., “Yes, I am dating. When, and if, there is something that I think is appropriate to share, I will share it with you.”)
Exercising discretion about who you date may also be relevant. For example, it may not be best to start dating someone in your child’s close orbit (e.g., a teacher, their friends’ parents, or a coach). If possible, try to avoid dating someone with whom your child has close contact, with whom your co-parent knows, or with whom your child has met previously. If this is not possible (as I have heard it said, the heart wants what it wants), then you may have to modify when and what you tell your child about your dating. Children are like little sensors and tend to be aware of things despite a parent’s best effort to keep it a secret.
Even if it feels like it is just you and your child against the world because your co-parent has not been actively involved in your child’s life, it is still important to maintain a healthy boundary so that your child is not involved in adult matters. This is true regardless of your child’s age (e.g., even adult children living on their own may not be ready!). You need to get to the point where your child is emotionally ready to hear you talking about how happy you are with a person who is not their other parent.
During both the early and later stages of dating, be mindful and intentional about your dating life. If you are sharing custody time with your former partner, one good strategy is to arrange dates during your co-parent’s custodial time. If you do not have the benefit of a shared custody schedule, then you may want to arrange dates at a time when your child is engaged in an activity (e.g., a play date with a friend). You may have to get creative and go on dates during non-traditional times (e.g., a lunch date or a coffee date in the morning).
In-home dates while your child is asleep may be an attractive option, but probably is not the best strategy. Children may not be fully asleep or may wake while you and your potential partner are enjoying your time together. Your child waking up and hearing an unknown voice or seeing an unknown person may be alarming or at the very least, confusing, no matter the age of your child. Even older children may have strong and critical opinions about you inviting someone they do not know over to their home. Depending on the age and specific sensitivities of your child, they may associate their going to sleep with unknown things happening in the home and could develop sleeping issues.
Someone Special is Emerging
Some time has passed, you have been on a few first dates, and you realize that there is one person you would like to spend more time with. It is natural that you are going to want to see or speak with this person as much as possible. Additionally, it may not feel possible or desirable to only speak to this person after your child has gone to bed or during your co-parent’s parenting time.
When it becomes clear that you may be spending more time with one person, you may take advantage of certain opportunities to let your child know that you have an active social life. For example, if your child returns from your co-parent’s parenting time and asks what you did while they were gone, you may begin to mention that you hung out with your friend [insert name here]. If the child inquires who that person is, you can let them know that you have a new friend who you like to spend time with. If your child asks you if the person is a boyfriend or girlfriend, you can answer honestly but not with a lot of details. For example, you may say, “Not yet, we are just getting to know each other.” If the child asks if your co-parent knows, you may say, “I have not told them, but it does not mean that you can’t.”
Remember though, once you mention this person’s name, you have to be aware that your co-parent may also hear about it. You have to be ready to go public with the fact that you’re dating. It puts your child in a very difficult position if you tell them about your new friend but then ask them to keep it a secret from your co-parent. While some secrets can be a fun thing to share with your child, more weighty secrets can negatively impact your child (e.g., make them feel physically or emotionally unwell due to feelings of guilt or anxiety).
Having someone special in your life again will likely be exciting for a variety of reasons. Depending on how things ended with your co-parent, it may restore your faith in people and in relationships. You may feel accomplished in finding someone who seems to have all of the missing qualities that your former spouse did not. You may benefit from some of the wonderful feelings associated with an unexpected rush of Oxytocin (“the love hormone”) in your system. You may want to share this person, who makes you feel so great, with everyone including your children.
While this new person may indeed be broadcast worthy, when you are dating while parenting, being more intentional and mindful about how you begin to incorporate this person into your life is key (e.g., consider the impact of introducing this person to your children).
In deciding whether you are ready to have this person meet your children, ask yourself questions like:
- Is this person and I on the same page about our future goals for this relationship?
- Do I see this as a long-term relationship, or am I just getting back out there?
- Do I have a history of falling in love quickly only to have it burn out just as quickly?
- Are my children having difficulty with adjusting after the divorce/separation (e.g., behaviorally, academically, socially)?
- Are my children emotionally ready to see me with a new partner? And, if not, what steps do I need to take to prepare them before I introduce them to my new partner?
- How do I feel about my prior spouse learning that I am dating?
- Are there other important people that should meet this person (e.g., my close friends, my religious leader, my family) before I introduce them to my children? If this individual has not passed the friend and/or family test, I suggest doing this before you introduce them to your children.
But what if you don’t have any friends or family close by? Maybe you moved to this area because of your former spouse’s work and now are remaining here so that your kids can have both parents nearby. I have had many clients in the difficult situation of living away from close friends, family, or other trusted supporters. The good news is that the COVID-19 pandemic has really shown us that we can stay meaningfully connected to our friends and family virtually. You may wish to schedule a virtual game night or other virtual events so that your friends and family can meet your new partner and give you their feedback. Because let’s face it–our friends and family usually see things in our new partner that we do not.
The Later Dating Stages
I Think This One is a Keeper
Now, you might be at the stage where it is becoming pretty clear that you and your new partner have something special. You have met each other’s friends and possibly each other’s family. Your conversations are beginning to be more future oriented, and it just feels right.
This can be a good time to introduce your children to your new partner. I am not sure how helpful it is to set a specific time frame to introduce your children to your new partner. Every relationship moves at a different pace. It may be best to develop some guiding principles or questions that you use to reflect on whether the timing is right:
- Check in with yourself and your trusted friends and family.
- Be intentional and thoughtful about what you do next.
- Consider the individual personality and needs of your children as you think about this upcoming meeting.
- Make sure that you and your partner are on the same page about the expectations of the meeting
Try to put your partner at ease. Let them know that they don’t have to try too hard to make your children like them at this first meeting. This is especially important when dealing with older children or teens. As a clinician who works with children, I typically hear kids remark about adults who try too hard, usually said with a tone of exasperation and the occasional eye roll.
Introducing A New Partner to Your Children
Where Should Your Children Meet Your Partner?
Although there is no specific location that I typically recommend for the first meeting, there are definitely places to avoid. One such place is your home. This is especially true if you have remained in the marital home. This is one time where the home field advantage may not apply. Though you might be tempted to think that the meeting should happen at home because that is where your children are most comfortable, it is likely to add to any mixed feelings your child may already have about you dating. Their home is a safe place, they may not be ready to have someone new in their space. Children may feel protective of their home. It holds many memories for them, both positive and negative, and this just probably is not the place to have them meet a new person. Additionally, having the initial meeting occur at a sporting event or extracurricular activity your child engages in may seem like a good option, because it is public, allows for a casual meeting, and your child is comfortable there. However, these are also places where your co-parent might show up, making for an awkward scene.
It is best that the initial meeting occurs in a neutral space. Perhaps a park that you don’t usually go to or trying out a new activity zone. Think of a meeting place that might become a pleasant memory connected with this new partner. You can also ask your children about where they think may be a good place to meet your new friend. This will likely set the stage for the best possible outcome.
When should the meeting happen?
Consider your child’s age when planning this meeting. Plan for times when your child is likely to be well rested. Try to make sure that the meeting time does not interfere with existing activities, such as extracurriculars or sporting events. The best meeting time is when your child can feel their best, get an opportunity to do something that they like, and when their anxiety is in a manageable range.
What should you tell your child about the meeting?
You should tell them enough so that they have information about the reason for the meeting including the where, the when, and the how. Mention that you and your friend have been hanging out together a lot and that the two of you really like each other. Tell them that because they are already an important part of your life and your friend is becoming an important part of your life, you think it is time that they met.
Who should be at the meeting?
This, too, is dependent on the age and sensitivity of your child. However, generally speaking, if the other factors are considered, and a good place and time are chosen, the “who” is likely just you, your new partner, and your child or children.
Why is it important to consider preparing your co-parent that you have a new partner?
While letting the other party know that you are dating seriously may be the last thing you want to do, here is a reason to seriously consider it – to make it less awkward and stressful for your children. One strategy of good co-parenting is healthy communication. Even if you are not on the best terms with your co-parent, a quick note in family wizard and/or other messaging platform to say something like, “Hi, I don’t want you to hear this from the kids first, so I am letting you know ahead of time that I have been dating a new person. I talked to the kids during my custodial time about meeting my partner. If you have any questions about this, I am happy to answer them.” Letting your co-parent know about the plan helps prepare them for the event and gives them the chance to support the process and your kids should they have anxiety or concerns about the meeting.
How can you manage any reluctance or anxiety your child expresses?
Answer any questions your child may have in an age-appropriate manner. Reassure your child that you will be there with them and that you understand it may take some time before they feel comfortable with your new friend.
What if your co-parent introduced a new partner to your child?
You may learn from your child that your co-parent has a new person in their life. It is normal to have a range of feelings about this new information. On the one hand, if you are the one that ended the relationship, you may feel relieved that your co-parent is taking this step. It may signal to you that things are normalizing for that parent and that this will improve your co-parent relationship.
On the other hand, if you are the parent for whom the separation/divorce was a surprise, or unwanted, you may feel betrayed that your former partner has moved on so quickly and you have not; dismayed that your former partner has already started dating when the ink is barely dry on your divorce; and/or suspicious that your former partner may have ended your relationship to start a new one with this person.
Regardless of what your feelings are about this new relationship, it is important to take a deep breath and remember that your children are looking to you to figure out how they should feel about this person. Whether you think so or not, your children, even the older ones, are observing you and gauging your reactions and then mirroring them, to some extent.
You may have fears about this person replacing you as a parent. This is a typical feeling parents may have when the child is younger and/or if the parent believes that this new partner is spending much more time with your child than your co-parent is. Remember, you are your child’s parent, the one who has been there with them to celebrate special moments and comfort them when things were challenging. They trust you and love you. I know this may be especially difficult to remember when you have teens or tweens who may be going through an angsty phase where you are not cool and nothing you do is right. But remember, if this person is going to be in your child’s life for the long haul, you want your children to feel comfortable in that person’s presence, have a bond with that person, and for that other person to love your child.
Give your child permission to like the other person. You want to, through your actions and words, communicate to your child that it is okay to give the other person a fair chance and to like them. If your child senses that you do not like the other person and/or that you don’t want them to like the person, they may determine that they need to keep any of the positive and/or negative experiences with that person a secret. By giving them permission to like the other person, you are also giving them permission to talk to you openly about their experiences. The more open they are, the more you might hear about problems that you may be able to help them solve in relationship to the other person. Even if you cannot help them solve problems that arise, you may be able to support them and let your co-parent know what is going on.
You may be thinking, “I don’t know this person. How can I give my child permission to like them?” Well, one way to get to know this person is through your child’s eyes. You will be more likely to get a realistic picture of your co-parent’s new partner if your child knows that you are not threatened by the new relationship. There are ways to communicate your openness. If your co-parent has given you a heads up that they are going to be introducing your child to their new partner, you may want to initiate the topic with the child by saying, “I know you are going to be meeting your other parent’s new friend. I hope you plan on keeping an open mind about them,” or, “I know you are going to be meeting your other parent’s new friend this week. It’s good that you have a chance to get to know them. Do you have any feelings or thoughts you want to share about it?” Then give them time to respond as newer research suggests that adults typically do not give children enough time to respond after a question. You may also give them the green light to talk about it at another time if they don’t have anything to share at that time. If you learn about it for the first time from your child, respond as neutrally as you can in the moment. It may be something like, “Oh, how did it go? It’s good that you had the opportunity to get to know them.” Try to remember that your tone of voice and facial expressions matter when communicating about your co-parent’s new partner. Try to avoid critical or judgmental statements like, “Oh really, that soon,” or, “Your co-parent did not tell me that was happening,” etc.
Final Tips for Dating While Parenting
Remember it is important that both parents show that they are open to discussing the topic of a new partner. This allows your child to feel comfortable talking about their experiences with your new partner or your co-parent’s new partner:
- Your child cannot be your confidant and/or wing person when it comes to dating.
- Don’t express so much interest in your co-parent’s new relationship that the child feels like you are wanting them to spy on your co-parent.
- Don’t pressure your child to like the new partner right off the bat. Just keep reminding them to be open. Also remind them that sometimes it takes a while to get to know someone.
- Don’t criticize your co-parent’s dating choices. Be mindful that even if you are not currently dating, you may be soon.
- Do have discretion about what you post on social media about your dating life and/or your child’s interaction with the new partner. Remember that you may be friends on social media with the parents of your child’s friends. And, unfortunately, once it is out there, you do not get to control what other people share with their children. You don’t want your child being asked questions about your relationship by their school friends, particularly when you may share details on social media that you don’t share with your children. Also, if the relationship is new, and you haven’t introduced your dating partner and your child yet, you don’t want your child to find out you are dating from another source.
- Do remind friends and family that no matter how much they love this new partner, they should not make comments comparing them to your relationship with your child’s other parent.
- Consider talking with a mental health professional as you charter this course in your life.
While it is impossible to anticipate and plan for all situations that may arise when dating and introducing a child to a new partner, there are concepts to always keep in mind: intentionality, openness, and respectful boundaries. Following these three tenets allows for your child to have the best possible experience and gives you the best shot at a successful relationship.
You can learn more about Dr. Lori Thomas and her work at Wynns Family Psychology on their website.
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