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Lessons from Splitsville

Co-parents in long-term relationships learn something from post-divorce folks.

Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

Often people find that post-divorce relationships turn out to be a big improvement over the relationship they left behind, even when they are doing it as a single parent. Some of that, of course, is because of the lessons we learn from past relationships. Some of it is because most of us grow and mature over time, so we become more capable of a mature relationship. Some of it is because as we gain clarity about who we are and what’s important to us, we are better able to communicate it to our partners and therefore create a relationship that we are happy in.

That said, this doesn’t mean that being married to the person you had kids with is doomed to be less wonderful! If the marriage can grow and mature with the people in it, then certainly it can survive and even thrive.

There is some very good research that looks at what makes marriages last and what makes them survive and thrive. I thought I would add to the conversation by looking at some specific things that make the post-divorce, single-parent relationships so satisfying, and think about how they might be applicable to the married parents as well. In other words, if people can create the best relationship of their lives with someone after they split, why can’t we do it while we are still together?

Here are a couple of lessons from post-divorce, single-parent splitsville that everyone can take home to their current partner:

  1. Make time with no kids. When two single parents are dating, initially most of them are very careful about when they introduce their kids to their partner. Also, they simply can’t get to know someone well while their attention and time is split taking care of their kids. So… they go on dates. They have to figure out a way to have time without kids just for each other. I cannot stress enough how important this is and how few couples with kids do this. So many couples I work with the answer “no” when I ask them if they go out on regular dates without the kids. How can we expect to have romance, intimacy, and enjoyment with our partner if we don’t carve out the time for a date?
  2. Bite your parenting tongue. Someone else's parenting of their kids is their own business. Obviously, if they are parenting in a way that is disturbing to you, it’s likely you won’t date them. But if overall they are a good parent, then it’s a matter of making small subtle choices that you might not make. Or that they are doing things a little differently than you might. When this happens, it’s not your kid, so you bite your tongue. You say nothing. You let them do things their way. Of course, when it’s OUR kids we want parenting done OUR way, but the truth is that no matter how aligned we are as parents, there are going to be differences and unless it’s very important for their development we need to keep our mouth shut. There is good research that shows that criticism of the other is corrosive to a relationship. Pick your battles.
  3. Bite your tongue in general. When people are dating, they are very focused on having positive experiences. They don’t say judgmental or critical things, and if they differ in their wants or thoughts, they do it with the utmost politeness and sweetness. They don’t sweat the small stuff—it’s really not that big of a deal in the scheme of things - and they want the other person to like them and feel good around them. In other words, we make the effort to be our best selves. Often, when time goes on and the relationship becomes normalized, we stop trying. Some of that is understandable - when we live with someone and see them every day, they are bound to encounter us in a bad mood, or with less sleep, or when we are having a bad day and it’s harder to be our best selves. On the other hand, why should the effort to be that best self ever stop? If we are making a daily effort to bring our best to the relationship and supporting the best in the other the relationship is bound to be pretty enjoyable for both of us more often than not.
  4. Discuss parenting roles. While we are talking about parenting, how about we talk about role conversation? So many couples I work with express a great deal of frustration about what their partner is doing or not doing when it comes to parenting and the role the other has in their child’s life. Single parents who are dating often are forced, as they are becoming more intimate and getting to know each others’ children, to talk about what kind of role they want to and can play in the children’s life. The conversation is thoughtful and intentional, and decisions are carefully made with both the children in mind as well as the strengths and limitations of the partner. These kinds of discussions would really benefit more co-parents.
  5. Do nice things for each other. So many couples with children that I see feel stretched thin, all the time, especially when the kids are young. So often there then becomes a tally that happens regarding who is doing what and how much of the burden of parenting and taking care of the house each person is taking. Now, while it is important to have conversations about chores, division of labor, expectations, and clarity about jobs that have to be done, it is also important to just simply do nice things for each other. When single parents are dating, they know what it’s like for the other person to be a single parent. This means that it often brings a lot of joy to help out their partner and ease their burden - to do dishes that weren’t theirs, to fix something around the house that needs fixing, to throw in a load of laundry. To do these things because it brings joy and pleasure to lighten the load of your loved one. Not because you’re keeping tally or it’s your turn or you know they will complain, but because it feels good.
  6. Learn about each other. Finally, there is something fundamental that happens when people are dating that people who have been together for a long time forget to do: learn about each other. When we are with someone for a long time we feel like we know them. And in a lot of important ways we do–often long-time partners know us better than anyone. But as I said at the beginning of the article, as we go through life we learn and grow and mature. We gain clarity about who we are and what our values are. In dating relationships, we get to start out fresh. We get to talk about what we’ve learned and who we are. We get to ask for what we want and what is important to us. And we have the experience of being seen through fresh eyes. Likewise, we get to know each others’ bodies - what’s pleasurable and what isn’t, what turns us on and off and to explore and learn new ways of giving and receiving.

There isn’t any reason why a long term relationship can’t also include this. Even people who have been together for 20 years regularly learn things and grow and change and long term relationships could really benefit from having regular space and time to learn about each other anew and with a fresh set of eyes. This can also help couples get out of ruts of interaction and long-term frustrations—if we are learning anew about the person we are with, we are giving them a chance to not simply conform to our ideas about them, but instead to create a new and fresh vision of who they are.

Dating creates a fresh opportunity to define ourselves, learn about the other, treat the other with respect, approach the relationship with consciousness, choice, care, and love. But really, this is a possibility for every relationship, even ones that have lasted for decades. It's simply up to us to bring those qualities into the relationship intentionally.

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