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Rules of Engagement: Setting the Stage for Post-Divorce Dating With Kids

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This is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is now that your divorce is final and you survived the temporary insanity that it caused, you're ready to consider another relationship. The bad news is next to divorce, getting into a new relationship is the second leading cause of temporary insanity.

I'm not trying to be a buzzkill here. A new relationship can be an exhilarating and blissful experience. But to avoid putting yourself and your kids through another round of family drama, you have to be very aware of what you're doing -- just like you were during your divorce.

Here are some guidelines to help you steer clear of trouble:

Make It A Feature Length Movie, Not A Short Film. That initial phase of a new relationship can be one of the most amazing rushes ever. Everything about it makes you want to go full speed ahead, taking your relationship from brand new boyfriend to forever-and-ever life partner in a matter of days. But because you are a responsible grown-up, you know that would be a really stupid thing to do. After all, you've worked hard to get to where you are today. You remember the living hell that your divorce was. And if you really work at it, you can even vaguely remember how you were once head-over-heals in love with your ex. So, you know full well that sometimes things that seem really amazing in the very beginning turn out to be pretty terrible in the end. The last thing you want to do is to jeopardize the life that you have carefully reconstructed for yourself and your kids. Just as you enjoy a piece of cake one delicious forkful at a time rather than swallowing it whole; take the time to savor each minute of this phase of your relationship rather than rushing ahead.

Don't Fast Forward. Here's a common misstep divorced women make when it comes to new relationships: As soon as they've been on two dates with a guy, they want to introduce him to their kids. Your kids have had enough rough sailing for the time being. The last thing they need is a bunch of waves created by moving too fast with your new boyfriend.

Your love life can have a big emotional impact on your kids. If they end up liking the guy they will form an attachment to him. Then, if you end up breaking up sooner rather than later that sets them up for a loss that was totally avoidable. If, on the other hand, they end up not liking him, then your boyfriend can become a wedge between you and your kids, and that creates tension for everyone.

Protect your kids and your home life by holding off on the introduction until you're sure it's worth the upheaval it has the potential to cause. Don't introduce your new love interest until you know him really well and you're reasonably certain he's going to be around for the foreseeable future. I'm talking about a vetting period measured in months, not days. Feel free to date, but try to schedule your dates on evenings that your kids are with their dad or otherwise away.

Don't Treat Kids Like Oscars. If your new boyfriend has kids, resist the urge to wage a campaign to win them over right away. Women who do this think that getting in good with the kids will help impress their new love interest and advance their budding romantic relationship. Not only is this strategy unfair, it often backfires.

It's not fair because it involves manipulating the emotions of children simply to further your love life. That's a pretty crappy thing to do. It backfires because when you start off acting like a fan rather than a friend, you often end up pretending to be someone you're not. It won't take long for the kids to figure out that you really aren't who you pretended to be, and they will then conclude that you were using them to get in good with their dad. At that point you will have your first obstacle to overcome -- one that is completely your fault.

A better approach is to have the patience to get to know each other gradually. Rather than pretending to like every single thing about the kids only to have your real opinions come out later; you can slowly discover what you honestly have in common. You won't like every thing about his kids, and they won't like every single thing about you. But you will both be able to trust that your opinions are honest and the developing relationship is genuine.

Of course, women aren't the only ones who do this. Make sure you don't let your new boyfriend approach your kids like they are Oscars that can be won if his performance is impressive enough. Your kids deserve to be treated like people who are worthy of respect, not prizes that are up for grabs.

Don't Act Like You're Auditioning For Replacement Parent. Don't encourage your kids to call your new love interest Dad or invite his kids to call you Mom. These kids already have a mom and a dad, and being told to start calling someone else Mom or Dad only serves to confuse them or make them feel awkward; and it could even cause tension with their actual mom or dad. Instead, model for them what it looks like to approach a relationship in a mature manner: slowly and with respect and restraint. That's a lesson that will serve them well in many ways.

You're The Casting Director Of Your Love Life. Your kids don't get to decide who gets cast as your boyfriend -- that's your decision. But they do get to decide whether they themselves like him. And don't be surprised if they don't at first. Many kids are not thrilled to have a new leading man waltzing into their house and changing up the family dynamic. While you can't order them to like your new boyfriend, you can insist that they treat him with respect while everyone works through the transition. The best way to maximize the chances that your kids will eventually like your boyfriend is to be selective about who you choose to begin with, carefully vet him before you make any introductions, and then continue to take things slowly once you do.

Handling Negative Reviews. If your kids don't like your boyfriend, give them a chance to explain the basis for their opinion. If they tell you that he gives them a creepy feeling, they caught him rifling through your jewelry box, or he told them he's a reptile freak and he's in the process of setting up a snake aquarium in his house, these are serious complaints and you should break up with him immediately. But if they tell you he is an attention hog or that you really don't need a boyfriend, anyway, because you have them, that's a different story. Complaints of that nature indicate that their objections aren't based on anything specific to him; but rather they dislike the idea of your having any boyfriend at all.

Their views are understandable. After all, these are your kids. From their standpoint, there's a big gross out factor when it comes to the idea of their mom being all starry-eyed over some guy and doing all of those things that go along with dating. And what kid wouldn't get his back up over some new guy cutting in on the time and attention they get from their mom?

But while their complaints might be understandable, that doesn't make them legitimate. There's no need to break up with your boyfriend over unfounded complaints. In fact, doing so would send your kids the message that they have ultimate authority over your love life, and that would set a precedent that you would quickly come to regret. While breaking up isn't wise, making some adjustments to take the pressure off everyone would be a very smart move. Continue to see your boyfriend, but go back to seeing him away from the house and/or at times when your kids are not around. Don't hide the fact you're continuing to see him; just don't include your kids in your plans.

Over time, your kids will adjust to the idea of your having a boyfriend and their resistance will diminish. Then you can slowly ramp up the occasions when your boyfriend is included in family events. A side benefit of this approach is it affords you additional time to get to know him, which means you will be that much more sure of things before he gets involved in your kids' lives. And your reward for being sensitive to your kids' needs is that your kids will be far more likely to actually like your new flame (rather than simply accepting him) if they don't feel like he is being forced on them. And all of that gives your relationship a greater chance of succeeding.

Don't Give Your Kids A Supporting Role. Every relationship -- even a brand new one involving a guy you are totally smitten with -- has its share of bumps in the road. Because you're coming off a divorce and you haven't dealt with the dynamics of a new relationship in a very long time, it's natural for you to want to process these developments by talking them out with someone to get a little perspective. That's fine -- as long as that someone is not one of your kids.

You may feel that talking to your kids about your dating life makes you look cool or bonds you together in a new way. But it really constitutes over-sharing that runs the risk of causing your kids to see you more as a teenager and less as a parent; and that will diminish their respect for you. Also, they will be predisposed to take your side in any spats you have with your boyfriend, and that can interfere with their relationship with him in the long run. You and your boyfriend may kiss and make up, but your kid may find it hard to forgive and forget.

Have A Heart-to-Heart With Your New Heartthrob. Before you and your boyfriend meet each other's kids, you should talk about these points to make sure you are both on the same page. If you don't feel comfortable enough with him to have that conversation, you do not yet know him well enough to introduce him to your kids. And if you find yourself more worried about how he will react than how your kids are going to be treated, that's a pretty clear sign that you're suffering from temporary insanity. When you put concerns about your new relationship ahead of concerns for your children, you need to spend less time dating and more time thinking about your priorities.