Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern of serial romantic relationships among friends who are dating online. They meet, and a few months later, introduce their new partner to their kids. When it works out, the kids benefit from having more adults in their lives. But what happens, as so often does, when the relationship breaks down? How do we help kids through these transitions and avoid instability?
For the answer, I turned to Dr. Kristen Hadfield, a post-doctoral fellow I supervise at the Resilience Research Centre who has been doing research in the US, Ireland and Canada on mothers, stepparents and kids. Here’s what she says we know.
First, parents are cycling in and out of romantic relationships at a higher rate than ever before. All those online dating sites are doing what they were intended to do. While there are no firm statistics on the number of lifetime partners of parents, we know that almost a third of live births are to single women and that their children are more likely than other kids to have a half-sibling by age 10. Fifty percent of these kids are also likely to experience three or more changes in who’s parenting them before the age of 5, and a third will experience another change between the ages of 6 and 12. Whether we want to admit it or not, children are going to experience instability as their parents go in search of romantic partners.
Parents who get into these relationships may have very different expectations for how things should be than the men and women who they’re bringing home. For example, Hadfield found that custodial parents wanted their new partners to take on a parenting role with their children, as well as being the parent's romantic partner. Parents figured that a new adult in the home would help them put some much needed distance between the family and the last romantic partner who was there, whether that person was the children’s biological parent or not. Second, parents expected a new romantic partner to help firm up the hierarchy in the family, putting the children back in their place and mom or dad back to being less of a child’s friend and more a parent with rules and expectations.
Strangely, Hadfield found that very few of the people she interviewed talked about money as the main reason for having a live in romantic partner. The only time it came up was in the US where mothers told Hadfield they sometimes didn’t invite their lovers to live with them and their children because it would do nothing but add one more mouth to feed.
After the Relationship Ends: What do we Tell the Kids?
The problem, of course, is what to do after the relationship breaks up? While most parents tend to cut off ties with their former lovers, it’s seldom that simple for the kids. After all, they didn’t choose to break up and can become very upset when they lose contact with another caregiver, especially if they had begun to like having that person around. It’s even worse if the child’s parent says disparaging things about her or his ex-lover. Hadfield figures that no matter how difficult it can seem, it is likely better for kids to still have contact with their parents’ romantic partners even after the romance ends. Of course, this all depends on the strength of the relationship, the age of the child, and dozens of other factors. In general, though, if the kid and the ex-partner were close, then parents should do what they can to make it easy for their child to stay connected. In truth, most ex-lovers are not going to want the contact. But for those who do, and feel connected, a few visits, birthday cards, and texts could make the transition a lot smoother for everyone involved.
The Next Relationship
And what about the next relationship? As far as entering new romantic relationships when you’re a parent, there seem to be two competing ideas about how to handle telling the kids. Many parents prefer not to tell their children about their new relationship until it becomes more serious, usually after a few months. That’s normally my advice too, but it seems kids in Hadfield’s study didn’t like being lied to and sometimes resented their parent’s new lover when they were finally introduced. After all, older children especially can feel like they have a close relationship with their custodial parent and might feel betrayed that something as big as a new love interest wasn’t shared. Kids, Hadfield says, may actually mistrust the new partner more if they feel like he or she was the reason their parent lied.
As if that’s not complicated enough, parents are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Telling kids about a new romantic partner doesn’t guarantee that kids aren’t going to be resentful either. Being dumped with a babysitter rather than snuggling up to watch Friday night movies with mom can make kids blame the new love interest for robbing them of their parent’s attention.
So which is better? Tell, or don’t tell? Like Hadfield, I’d be inclined to suggest that despite the risks, parents shouldn’t talk with their kids about every date they go on. Online dating has made it easier to meet people, but that doesn’t mean kids should be subjected to the instability that an active dating life brings with it. The fact is, kids don’t really want to meet all those new partners, even if they say they do. Wait instead until the relationship is getting serious. That seems to be the best time to share what’s happening.
Then what? If you’re fortunate enough to go from dating to moving in together and forming a blended family, what role should the new stepparent play? As I mentioned earlier, custodial parents often want the stepparent to be a real parent with responsibilities for the kids. Most of the evidence suggests doing otherwise, especially if the child is over the age of 6. There’s no firm rules here, and a lot will depend on the reasons for the original family breakdown, and if there have been other stepparents in the child’s life. Children, however, seem to like consistency and that means whatever rules they’ve been living with before their stepparent showed up should be the same rules they keep having to follow. The worse thing a romantic partner can try and do is parent a child who doesn’t want them to be there.
In situations like that, it may be best for the new partner to think of themself more as the child’s uncle or aunt. A friendly, supportive person who occasionally holds children to account for what they do. If that feels too weird, then at least realize that as a new person in the home, it's the adult who needs to adapt to the house rules rather than expecting the rules to adapt to them.
The Best Transitions are the Least Disruptive Ones
Let’s face it, the calmer we make these transitions, the better the situation will be for everyone involved. Hadfield reminds us that research shows that during periods of transition in a parent’s relationship, stress increases harsh parenting. Furthermore, when kids experience instability at home, they are far more likely to drop out of school, marry much too early, and among men, to father children that they don’t look after. That doesn’t mean parents in bad relationships should put the needs of their children before their own. It just means we need as adults to create as much stability as we can for kids over time. There are plenty of ways of helping children remain connected to other parent-figures even after relationships break down. As parents, our role is to create the right conditions for those relationships to be helpful rather letting them become another source of stress in a child’s life.