One of the most common questions divorced parents ask me is: When should I be introducing a new partner to my children? My best answer is to take your time dating after divorce and don’t introduce your new love to your kids if you are dating casually. While it’s normal to seek solace, companionship, and a sexual relationship after a breakup, it’s crucial to take it slow so you can assess whether this relationship is casual or might be permanent.
The number-one thing to keep in mind when deciding when to introduce a new partner to your kids is timing after your divorce. What’s the hurry? Even if both of you are in love and seem to have a lot in common, breakups are common and kids get caught in the crossfire. Next, the setting and length of the first introduction is crucial to success. Meeting in an informal setting may help your kids feel more relaxed. Rather than planning a long visit, it’s best to have a brief, casual meeting with few expectations.
Another important consideration when introducing your kids to a new love interest is their age. Truth be told, younger children (under age 10) may feel confused, angry, or sad because they tend to be possessive of their parents. Renowned researcher Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., who conducted a 20-year study of children of divorce, concluded that most children find their parent’s courtship behaviors confusing and strange.
On the other hand, adolescents may appear more accepting of your new partner than younger children, but they may still perceive that person as a threat to your relationship. Dr. Ahrons also found that teenagers may find open affection between their parent and a partner troubling – so go easy on physical contact in front of them. Do you want your teenager to model their behavior after you? If so, you owe it to yourself and your kids to build new relationships thoughtfully.
Introducing a New Partner Can Be Painful If the Kids Are Hoping Their Parents Will Reconcile
I’ve witnessed many new relationships go sour when a partner is introduced to children too quickly. It can cause anguish for everyone – especially children who are probably holding on to the idea that their parents will eventually get back together. It may take time for your children to accept a new person in their life.
For example, Caroline, a 36-year-old teacher, described her new partner Kevin as thoughtful, affectionate, and a great match for her. They had been dating for a little over two months and she was head over heels in love with him. But she began questioning their relationship when her daughter Baylie, age eight, starting complaining about Kevin coming over – especially when his nine-year-old son, Ryan, came along for the visit. She didn’t understand why Baylie didn’t share her enthusiasm for Kevin because he was so perfect for their family.
As Caroline spoke, disappointment was apparent in her voice: “Kevin’s just so ideal for our family and I can really be myself with him. He has a son and is a great dad. I figured that Baylie would like him because he’s a lot of fun and I was blindsided when she started complaining about him.”
During our second session, I asked Caroline if she had thought through any disadvantages of introducing her daughter Baylie to Kevin so soon. She paused and said “not really” and so I asked her to write down a list of pros and cons for her homework assignment. When Caroline arrived for her next session, she reported that she was having second thoughts about whether she had rushed into including Kevin in so many activities with Baylie, and she realized that Baylie was seeing him as a rival for her attention.
Be sure to be careful about sleepovers with your partner when you have children living with you. It’s not wise to plan an overnight with your new love interest in your home right away because it can increase rivalry between them and your kids. If you co-parent, it should be easy to spend an overnight with them when your children are with your ex. Having your new partner spent the night should only be an option once you are fairly sure that your relationship is permanent or you are engaged.
Let your children know that you have an abundance of love to go around. It’s crucial that you assure your kids that your partner will not replace their other parent or change your relationship with them. Don’t be surprised if your children reject your new partner at first. Some kids express anger or defiance and may even threaten to move out – or go to live with their other parent full-time. Adopt realistic expectations about your children’s acceptance of your new partner. Just because you are enthralled with this person, it doesn’t mean that your kids will share your enthusiasm.
Wait Until Your Kids Have Healed from the Divorce Before Introducing Your New Partner
In sum, the key to successful parenting post-divorce is helping your kids heal from your breakup, and introducing them to a new love too soon might complicate, delay, or damage this process. You can simply tell your kids that you’re going out with a new friend and that’s enough information. Consider the amount of time since your divorce, the age of your children, and the level of commitment to your partner. Waiting on introducing a new partner to your kids will pay off for everyone in the long run.
This article first appeared on DivorceMag.com