When a single Mom is dating, how long should she wait before introducing her children to a new guy, and vice versa? Naturally, the short answer is “it depends.” The timing varies depending on the age of the children and the circumstances of your single life. Most children fantasize that their divorced parents will reunite, so meeting someone new crushes that hope, and that can be difficult for them. There are no hard and fast rules about the timing of introducing someone new to your children. What’s important is to consider all the circumstances and make your best judgment call.
The first consideration is when to begin dating following a divorce with children. Ideally, you invest in healing the relationship with your Ex first - restoring good communication, making sure that you don’t do anything offensive or inflammatory such as bad-mouthing your Ex. Invest in some family counseling if needed. The goal is to align as co-parenting partners going forward. This protects your children and greatly eliminates the stress later on of bringing a new person into the picture. Nothing is a bigger bucket of cold water on a budding romance than having ongoing negative drama with your Ex.
When you’re ready to date, the next consideration is how much to tell them, and that depends on their age. If your children are really little, they won’t understand much about what’s happening so communication isn’t as critical. If they are older, talk to them up front and prepare them as much as possible. Tell them that you want to meet someone new to share your life with, talk about what it means to date, and explain what it looks like (i.e., I will have someone stay with you while I go out to dinner and a movie).
Having moral principles such as no sex until you are in a very committed relationship makes a positive difference in their lives, for obvious reasons. For your teenage children, telling them your moral stance on dating gives them immense reassurance as well as a role model for their own behavior.
Clarify their role in your process of choosing your future spouse. This part is controversial but worth considering, and it’s a decision point. Should you make a commitment to your children that you will only remarry if they like the person you choose? Or should you take the stance that it’s your choice and they just have to live with it even if they strongly dislike the person you choose?
I lean toward the former, for a number of reasons. One, it gives them a measure of emotional security at a time when they have had most of it removed because of the divorce. Two, it gives you a reality check – why would you want to marry someone your children don’t like? Maybe they can see something you don’t. Three, it forces you to balance your attraction to someone new with your children’s needs, and that means lots of self-reflection and quality communication.
Keep in mind that there is a difference between your children genuinely not liking someone and your children suffering from attachment issues that would make them dislike anyone you bring home. Get professional help if you can’t tell the difference.
The next consideration is their overall wellbeing. Are your children adjusting well to their new lives? Are they thriving, doing well in school? Do they open up and talk to you, and do you know what’s going on in their world? If so, they are probably ready when you are. You’ll know you’re ready to introduce someone when a.) You really, really like the person, b.) He really, really likes you, and c.) Something special is developing with high future potential.
If, on the other hand, your children are not doing well, not thriving, and seem to be spiraling down or have ongoing psychological issues from the divorce or death, it’s probably not good timing. In that case, you might want to consider putting off dating until things improve. I’ve had clients who are single parents make the wise decision to focus on helping their children heal first, and then date later. I applaud anyone who is willing to sacrifice their needs in order to put children first.
I have also known cases of children who adjust so poorly to a divorce that they are never comfortable with a parent dating, and that is a separate issue that may take family counseling to resolve. Put your children first, but don’t be a martyr to their maladjustment. Be intentional about working through the issues and getting beyond them rather than being mired in them permanently.
Consider attachment issues. Young children (early grade school or younger), have a strong tendency to bond quickly with anyone you bring home, as long as that person is basically nice. Be sure you are in a serious relationship before you introduce them so you don’t put your little ones through round after round of broken attachments.
Last, and not least, consider your partner’s preferences. Talk about when the timing would be best to introduce your children to him and his children to you if he has them. Balance your needs with his, and make sure your discussion revolves around both your children’s current state of wellbeing and ages.
One caveat: some people believe that you should wait until you’re sure you want to marry the person you’re dating so that your children don’t experience a “revolving door” of potential partners. The problem is that you’ve already made your choice at that point and if your children really don’t like the person you’ve chosen, it’s almost impossible to unwind. You can handle the revolving door issue by dating smart: casually date, without sex, a number of people. Only get involved with someone of good character who shares your values and wants what you want out of life. That narrows the field a lot, so that by the time you introduce someone to your children you are solidly on the road to marriage.
Nina Atwood, M.Ed., LPC, is a licensed therapist, published author, and host of the hit Web site, Singlescoach®. Nina has been featured in national magazines, newspapers, on radio and television. She is the author of four self-help books, including her newest book, Temptations of the Single Girl: The Ten Dating Traps You Must Avoid. Listen live or via downloadable podcasts to "Love Strategies" with Nina weekly at www.blogtalkradio.com/nina-atwood. Nina is an award-winning CEO Coach for Vistage and does one-on-one coaching with key level executives.