By Jacob Allen
All newly divorced people must consider how soon they want to begin dating and what they are looking for in a new mate. For a parent who is dating after divorce, a profoundly important aspect of a dating partner’s qualities is how he or she relates to children.
Qualities that will likely be important include the dating partner’s:
- Willingness to defer his or her own needs when the children’s needs should come first. The decision to have children is primary in a parent’s life, and once that decision is made, the responsibility for raising those children exceeds all others. While the decision to establish a new intimate relationship is important to a parent, and perhaps ultimately even to the children, the needs of that relationship and of the individual adults are often secondary to children’s needs. A dating partner must be able to respect the decision the parent made when he or she chose to have children, and the responsibilities and sacrifice that derive from that decision.
- Willingness to be introduced into the children’s lives slowly. As difficult as a divorce may be, the parents are losing only a partner, which, in the end, can always be replaced. The children are losing the only primary family they will ever have. Substitute parents may enter their lives, but that collection of family that nurtured them during their most vulnerable formative years can never be replaced. Because it destroys what children perceive as their primary source of love and safety, divorce may leave them fearful or even cynical about adults, marriage and family. As a result, if one or both of their parents begin a series of short, unimportant relationships, and the children are aware of these relationships, what little faith the children have left in loving family relationships may be all but destroyed. Because of their divorce, therefore, the parents have an increased responsibility to nurture the children’s ability to believe in and form their own loving relationships when they become adults. Dating partners must recognize their own responsibility to the children in this regard. If the children are to view marriage as positive and loving, they will learn it from their parents’ post-divorce relationships. Because of this importance, therefore, introducing such a relationship to the children must be done very carefully and slowly, and in a manner that lets the children know that the parent takes the relationship and the importance of the relationship to the children seriously.
- Ability to relate to children generally. Adults have varying abilities to relate to children. It can be seen in whether they can talk to children in an age-appropriate manner, about age-appropriate topics, respectfully without being patronizing, in how they interact with children in activities, and how they use their power in adult/child relationships. Positive use of this power is seen in an adult’s complimenting a child on his or her behaviors and abilities. Misuse may be seen if an adult belittles or denigrates a child.
- Willingness to accept the children as they are. The dating partner should not expect the children to adopt the dating partner’s likes and dislikes, but rather, be willing to explore the children’s interests. Shared activities between the children and the newcomer can be an important bonding experience.
- Patience with the children’s resistance to a new parental relationship. A child’s willingness to accept a parent’s choice for a dating partner will likely be affected by that child’s relationship with the parent of the potential dating partner’s gender. From the child’s point of view, the dating partner may be contributing to the disaster that is the divorce for that child. If the child has a strong relationship with the parent of the dating partner’s gender, integrating the dating partner into that child’s life may be difficult. The child may resort to being rude or interfering with the parent and dating partner’s relationship. At such a point, the dating partner must accept his or her role as an adult, and be patient with the child’s regressed behavior. While such behavior need not be accepted, any disciplinary response should come from the parent, and not the dating partner. The dating partner’s response should likely be limited to letting the child know how the child’s behavior makes the dating partner feel, and why he or she feels that way.
- Comfort in leaving the disciplining of the children to the biological parent. Children are more likely to understand the need for rules, limits and consequences when enforced within a long-term relationship, and not from a “newcomer.” To ensure stability, the parent needs to continue using past rules and ways of enforcing them.
- Willingness to accept limits to the affection the parent is comfortable expressing in the children’s presence. Physical affection is an important indicator of the nature of a relationship. While adults may be comfortable with physical affection soon after divorce, their children may not. The adults must be sensitive to the children’s needs for time to heal from the divorce. At the same time, it is important that once a new relationship has been established with which the children are comfortable, the dating partner is also comfortable expressing affection around the children, who will benefit from seeing their parent treated well by another adult.
- Willingness to let the parent determine how to relate to the other parent regarding their children. Raising children is difficult and is made even more difficult by divorce. Relating to a former spouse may also be difficult. If children are to learn that their parents still love and care for them despite the divorce, the most important task their parents have is to finish raising their children as cooperatively as possible. Interjecting useful opinions about the raising of other people’s children is far beyond the skill of most people. Considering the emotional baggage of having a post-divorce relationship with one of the parents, a dating partner is even less likely to be accepted by either parent as having an appropriate role in affecting how the parents relate in raising their children. A dating partner must recognize the effect this might have on the children and refrain from making the process more difficult.
- Supports the parent’s parenting style. Differing parenting styles often contributes to divorce. In selecting a dating partner, a parent should observe carefully how well his or her parenting style integrates with the manner in which the dating partner relates to the children.
- Flexible to the vagaries of raising children. Parenting requires a recognition that events will not always go as planned. A dating partner should be able to tolerate the frustrations that arise from not being able to rely on rigid schedules and plans.
- Understands the sadness of being separated from one’s children. Because of split parenting schedules, divorce means the parents will likely be spending less time with their children than before the divorce. A dating partner needs to understand the parent’s sadness that results from this, and the fact that the dating partner, and his or her relationship with the parent, cannot make up for it.
- Willingness to accept children’s differences. If the dating partner has his or her own children, there may be a great temptation to compare the children of the two families. To avoid friction between the dating parents, either the children will need to be very much alike, which is unlikely, or the parents must be willing to accept each other’s children’s differences.
- Willingness to participate in family established rituals. Birthdays, holidays, and contact with extended family are important opportunities to reassure children that, despite the divorce, they still have sources of love and safety, and that there still is a family to support them. A dating partner should be able to integrate into these activities. If the dating partner also has children, it is essential that both sets of children maintain their rituals. While this can be tricky, it might mean being creative or spending some rituals apart for the first years.
- Ability to model appropriate adult behavior. Children will learn a great deal from a dating partner. Every aspect of this person’s personality, his or her ability to express love, show kindness, admit mistakes, express anger, ask forgiveness, and avoid inappropriate behaviors, will influence the children. Any doubts the parent has in his or her own relationship with the dating partner will have a parallel with the children’s relationship with this person. Choosing a mate for oneself is difficult enough, choosing a new parent for one’s children is even more so.
While dating and ultimately recommitting to a new relationship can help a divorced parent regain energy and self-esteem, it may have pitfalls that can exacerbate the pain of the divorce for the children. It is important to keep the children’s needs and emotions foremost. If the potential new mate understands these dangers and is able to help the divorced parent through these difficulties, the relationship can be one that eases the pain of the divorce for everyone.