- Waiting until children are ready to meet a new partner improves the chances that the new relationship will succeed.
- When introducing their children to a new partner, parents should typically wait until the relationship is strong and has lasted 9-12 months.
- The integration should be gradual. Start with a brief meeting in a neutral place. Let your ex-spouse know ahead of time.
Nine-year-old Tina (not her real name) confides that her dad has a new girlfriend, Lucy, and that she came over for dinner last night. “Lucy sat in my chair, I’m always next to Daddy, and he didn’t tell her it was my seat.” Tina sobs as she relates this to me.
Jenny, who’s 14, tells me that meeting Mom’s new boyfriend was “annoying.” “He tries too hard to be funny, and watching them snuggle on the couch was gross,” she says.
Jon, 16, says he retreated to his room and blasted the music his dad hates when his dad calls him out to meet the new girlfriend. “No way am I ready for that,” he says angrily. He refuses to leave his room.
After a divorce, it is normal to want to date, explore new relationships or find a new love. You might want to show yourself that you’re still attractive or worthy of loving attention. You may think you are ready to “move on.”
The problem is that your children generally aren’t ready to move on, nor are they ready for you to reconstruct the family with a new partner.
How will you know when your children are ready?
The research tells us that waiting until they are ready improves the chances of your new relationship’s success. If your kids aren’t ready they may sabotage the relationship or reject the new partner (or you). If they feel jealous or threatened by the attention you are giving a new love, they may act out behaviorally or shut down, depressed.
When drafting parenting plans with divorcing parents, I often suggest waiting until the new relationship has been a committed relationship of at least 9-12 months duration, after the divorce is over. Many parents resist this recommendation. I explain that this gives everyone time to adjust to a new parenting schedule and the children have the time to grieve the loss of the family as they knew it. Furthermore, if your new relationship doesn’t work out, it will be another loss for your kids, especially if they have become attached to your new partner.
Most dating relationships end before 9-12 months, so exposing your kids to a new love early on means your children risk experiencing one loss after another. Over time, the losses can affect your children’s future mental health and wellbeing, success in relationships, and your relationship with them.
Parents say to me:
- “It’s too hard to only see my new partner during my off-duty time.”
- “I want to share my joy with my children.”
- “Janice really wants to meet my kids, and I want to see how she likes them before we go further…”
- “I just know my kids will love him. He’s so different from their dad.”
- “I know my kids want to see me happy, and I want to show them what a real loving relationship is supposed to look like.”
Why these justifications won’t work
“It’s too hard to only see my new partner during my off-duty time.” Your kids didn’t choose the divorce. They are probably seeing less of you now than before the marriage ended. Seeing less of you now means your time with them is precious. It is important to focus on your kids when you are “on duty” without the distraction of a new partner. Depending on your parenting time schedule, you can use your off-duty time for dating and cultivating a new relationship. Eventually, when you are certain that the new partner will stay in your life, you can begin to cautiously integrate the new relationship with the children.
“I want to share my joy with my children.” After bringing her new girlfriend home to the children, Amanda tells me this was wishful thinking. “Your children will never be as joyful about your new love as you are,” she says. Kids are naturally more concerned with how the changes will impact them.
“Janice really wants to meet my kids, and I want to see how she likes them before we go further…” It’s important that your new partner and your children get along. It’s also important that your new partner understands that your children are your highest priority. (Your children should feel that from you too.) While developing your new relationship, read a few books together about blending families and stepparenting. Take time to be sure that your relationship is rock solid and then take more time to prepare yourselves and the kids for the introduction, after being certain that your children are ready.
“I just know my kids will love him. He’s so different from their dad.” Your new partner will never take the place of their other parent. At best, hope that your new partner will be similar to a favorite aunt or uncle. If your new partner believes that they will be replacing the other parent, the boundaries will be crossed and your kids will reject them. The job of a parent includes tough things, such as discipline, and your new partner should never cross into that territory, except in the case of a real emergency.
In tears, Pam tells me that her ex’s new wife took their daughter shopping for her first bra. “This is a mother’s job!” cried Pam. The stepmother had crossed a boundary into the territory of a parent. As a result, Pam and her ex had months of conflict, which upset their daughter, who, caught in the middle, rejected her stepmother.
“I know my kids want to see me happy, and I want to show them what a real loving relationship is supposed to look like.” It is true that kids would rather have happy parents than unhappy parents. At the same time, long after the divorce, most children continue to yearn for their parents to be together, even when they know their parents weren’t happy together. In fact, it may take years for your children to accept that you are happier with another partner.
So, waiting to introduce your kids to someone new is important. Once your kids are ready, your new relationship is long-term and stable, then you can begin the process.
How to introduce your new partner
Kate has let her ex know that she plans to introduce Jake to the children. When the children later tell their dad about Jake, he says, “Yep, Mom told me about him. How was it?” He’s very glad he knew about the meeting in advance. Kate then tells her children that she’d like them to meet the man she has been dating. She gives them time to ask questions and listens carefully to see if they are ready for this next step before setting up the first introduction.
Start with a brief meeting in a neutral place. When Kate introduces Jake to her children, they meet at an ice cream parlor. It’s a treat for the children, and the meeting lasts less than an hour. Kate has spoken with Jake about “no physical affection in front of the kids” and she is careful to sit between her children, while Jake sits across from them in the booth. Jake’s presence is light and easy: He doesn’t ask too many questions or try to force the kids to talk.
The next week, Kate and Jake meet at a skatepark. Jake has brought his skateboard and the children bring their scooters. Again, the focus is on enjoying an hour or two together. Kate has packed a snack and they picnic on the grass.
Another week later, Kate invites Jake to lunch at the home. This is a step up in “intimacy” when Jake sits at the family table. He is careful to ask where to sit so as not to displace one of the children. After lunch, 8-year-old Jasper asks Jake if he’d like to play a video game with him. Kate sees this as a sign that Jasper is accepting Jake.
In between visits, Kate observes her kids’ reactions to meeting Jake. She checks in with her ex in case the children have shared their feelings about Jake with him. She knows that going slow and ensuring the children’s comfort is important. Over the next few months, Jake spends more time with Kate and the children. The children exchange glances when they see Kate and Jake hug. It’s a reminder to Kate to continue to adjust the pace to her children’s responses. It is several more months before Jake will stay overnight.
Before Jason brings Victoria to meet his children, they talk about slowly moving up “levels of intimacy.” Jason explains that watching a rom-com with his teenage daughter is a step up in intimacy from sharing dinner, and then braiding his daughter’s hair is another step up. Reading a bedtime story to the 5-year-old on the couch is less intimate than reading him a story while tucking him into bed. Giving a child a bath or a toddler a bottle are bigger steps up levels of intimacy.
If your children are showing signs that the changes are troubling, consider family counseling to support their adjustment to the new relationship.
Introducing your new relationship at the right time and in a well thought out way can seem laborious. However, the reward is that you get to watch the relationship blossom between your new partner and your children. When you are successful, you will have years to enjoy your expanded family.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022