How to Date When You Have Kids
Navigating new romantic relationships when your kids are tweens or teens.
Posted Dec 30, 2019
Matt could hardly wait to introduce Amelia, whom he’d been dating for six weeks, to his 12-year-old daughter, Megan. Matt was sure Megan would love Amelia, who was, at age 28, a popular middle school history teacher in a nearby town and coach of that school’s girls’ soccer team.
Megan didn’t seem very enthusiastic about meeting Amelia, but Matt was sure they’d get along great. In fact, Matt was counting on Amelia to strengthen his relationship with Megan. He was a little apprehensive about how his daughter’s adolescent physical and emotional development would change their relationship and felt that having a woman like Amelia in the picture would help them navigate these tricky waters.
For her part, Amelia was curious to meet Megan, especially since Matt talked about her a lot, and she knew they shared a love of soccer. Plus, she wanted to please Matt, whom she was growing quite fond of. But Amelia was concerned. Most of her students and the girls she coached whose parents were divorced had reservations about the women their fathers dated, and some claimed to hate them. They all had reasons, most of them unconvincing—the women were too short, too tall, too old, too young, not friendly enough, too friendly, too affectionate with their fathers, too distant from their fathers, too kind to their fathers, too unkind to their fathers, too rich, too poor, etc. Amelia had long ago concluded that dating a man with kids was challenging. Amelia’s concerns were not unfounded. As noted above, Megan was not enthusiastic about meeting her.
Matt was so eager, however, that he talked Amelia and Megan into meeting each other right away. He wanted Amelia to join him and Megan for their usual Wednesday evening dinner—usually a special time for them because Megan’s little brother did not come along. Amelia worried that she might seem like an intruder, but it was too late. Matt had already told Megan that Amelia would join them that week. When Wednesday came, Matt picked Amelia up, then they headed to get Megan and have dinner together.
How do you predict this first meeting will go? The vignette above is based on a composite of the stories of many friends, family members, and clients. The stakes are high on first meetings with a partner’s children, no matter their age. Getting off to a good start can begin a solid relationship where both the child and partner enjoy one another and become close. If it does not go well, recovering can take a while, and be costly to both the parent-child and partner relationships. In fact, in worst-case scenarios, it can cause difficulties that ultimately lead to the demise of the new romantic relationship itself.
If Matt had consulted me before telling Megan about Amelia, I would have made a few concrete suggestions, and I will share them below. Note these are suggestions—things to consider. There are a great many helpful books, articles, and videos about stepfamilies and about dating with kids. And none of my suggestions are meant to replace a consultation with a mental health or family development professional, who, knowing the specifics of your situation, will be in a better situation to make recommendations that are tailored specifically for you.
1. Be patient.
Matt and Amelia have only been dating for a few weeks. Although Megan may eventually love Amelia and have a lot to gain from knowing her, that will be nearly impossible if the relationship between Matt and Amelia does not work out. Furthermore, the relationship between Matt and Amelia is still new, and if Megan rejects her, that will likely burden the budding relationship.
Once the relationship between Matt and Amelia is solid, everyone will be better able to weather the storm, if one develops, around Megan and Amelia’s getting to know one another. Another benefit of waiting is that Matt can introduce Megan to Amelia gradually, so that Megan becomes curious about Amelia, and wants to meet her. Talking to Megan about Amelia could also solidify his closeness with Megan, who is likely to appreciate hearing about her dad’s life.
2. Small behaviors and actions matter.
Make sure that you are with your child when your child meets your new partner—do not have the child meet you and your partner together. In Matt’s case, a simple reshuffling—picking up Megan first—could make a huge difference.
This reflects the importance, and primacy, of your familial relationship with your child. The child will be less likely to fear becoming a “third wheel” or outsider to the relationship between you and your partner. This may seem trivial on the surface, but it is hugely important because the first fear a child is apt to have is of having their close and loving relationship with their parent challenged or diluted.
If Matt and Megan meet Amelia together, this strengthens the perception—and the reality—that Matt and Megan are a family together, and Amelia is a new friend of Matt’s who could become a friend of the family—she may, someday, be part of the family, but there is plenty of time for that to evolve. As a friend of the family, Amelia can be seen by Megan as who she is—an appealing young woman with much to offer—rather than as a threat.
Of course, it is not always that simple. Megan may have her doubts and fears in any case. But stressing the primacy of the parent-child relationship, for now, is important. (Eventually, as kids want to establish their own adult lives, they will likely be glad that a parent has a partner to make them happy; it reduces the child’s responsibility toward the parent. But that is later.)
3. Make it plain that your child will not have to share you with your new partner.
Do not bring the partner into an existing, regular, fun ritual. If you have dinner together every Wednesday, as Matt and Megan did, do not use that time to introduce your new partner. Your child may get the message, even if unintended, that the cozy one-on-one time with you they had treasured is now over. This will create the risk that your child will see your partner as an intruder, threatening their close relationship with you.
Instead, plan, with your child, some activity that would be good to share, especially one in which your new partner has something unique to offer—in this case, perhaps a hike or a project where Amelia’s help would be welcome. It’s probably better to keep the first visit to a couple of hours. Afterward, have some time with your child alone in case they want to talk about it.
4. Do not have your new partner stay overnight at your place while your child is there, for what may seem like a very long time—perhaps as long as a year.
This may take some juggling, but it is an investment in the long term well-being of your partnership and your closeness with your kids.
5. Do not move in order to be closer to your partner, if it takes you farther from your children.
Your kids, at this age, are settled. Unless they hate their town, school, or neighborhood, a move that makes it harder for them to visit you will inevitably be seen as a message that you have chosen the partner over your child. If your partner has kids, do not ask them to move closer to you and farther from their kids.
6. Perhaps this is so well-known that it need not be said, but do not expect your partner to replace the child’s other parent.
Even in the best of stepparent relationships, and even if the other parent was abusive or missing, the new relationship should be an enriching one that is experienced as an addition to, rather than in place of, the parent-child relationship.
In most cases, your child already has two parents who love them. A person you are dating may add a lot to their lives, but they will not replace a biological parent. In my view, a stepparent relationship may be a bit like the relationship that an aunt or uncle would have with a child. (Infants or toddlers who have lost a parent will likely accept a stepparent as a substitute for the missing parent. The same is not always true for school-age kids or teens, even if they never see their biological parent again.)
Much of my thinking about these issues has been inspired by “giants” in the field of stepfamilies, especially Judy Osborne of Stepfamily Associates. Of course, I take full responsibility for what I have written.