Most of us all know the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls. She met the lonely man who was busy with three boys of his own. This group so easily formed a family and lived happily ever after. But what happened when Mike and Carol were dating? When did the kids meet everyone and was it that easy?
Integrating your kids during the dating process isn't always that perfect Brady Bunch picture. Being a single parent is stressful. Life with children isn't always playing patty cake and giving hugs. There are tantrums, power struggles, sleepless nights and runny noses to contend with, so it's important to take things slowly when children are involved. When and how to introduce the kids to your dating partner and their kids depends on several variables.
Timing: The length of a relationship is important. Think of people you might have known or dated in the past. Do you remember what they were like after two weeks versus two months? A lot can happen as you get to know a person, so be careful about integrating the children too soon. Kids from divorced families have already experienced a loss and can get attached very quickly, so it is important to think about how the introduction will affect them.
Instead of determining when to introduce the kids based on the amount of time that has passed, think about it in terms of where you are in your relationship. There are several stages to any relationship: the first, or "courting" phase, should be about having fun and really getting to know one another separate from kids, family and friends. This is the fun part and should really be about discovering one another. The second is what I call the "dating" phase. This is when you've known one another a few months on a more consistent basis and are trying to determine whether this could go further. The final phase is the "relationship" phase, which occurs when the couple determines that they are fully committed to a long-term situation. This is the phase in which you should introduce each other to your children, as the kids can feel a sense of permanency and stability.
Also consider the amount of time you have been divorced. Children are not ready to have another parental figure thrown into the mix right after their parents' split. They already may demonstrate a lot of fear, loss and anger. Introducing a stranger will only heighten these emotions. Kids might even blame the outsider for the breakup. Make sure enough time has passed and the children are really ready for a new person in their life.
Age of the children: Kids at different ages present different issues. Overall, it is difficult for children of any age to witness their parents dating. Children are often left with anxiety about how their parents' dating will change their lives. Always remember that the courtship phase is for the parents. According to researcher Constance Ahrons, who completed a 20-year study of children of divorce, most kids viewed their parents' courting behaviors as confusing and strange. Ahrons also found that younger children ages 5 to 10 are more possessive of their mothers than older children. Kids tend to feel threatened or resentful at having to share their mothers. Additionally, the study indicated that teenagers resent seeing their mothers showing affection to other men; their mothers' overt sexuality can be troubling and confusing for teens. As for the fathers, children may become even more upset when they date. Ahrons states this could be because they might already see their fathers less, causing them to feel more threatened by new relationships.
Goal of the relationship: There are many different kinds of relationships. It is common after divorce to casually date in order to experience something different than your marriage -- nothing too serious. Other relationships start out casual and move into something more intense and long-term. The point is to get clarity before involving the children; otherwise, kids will experience confusion and anxiety if there is a breakup.
Reason for including the kids: Different people want to include the children for different reasons. I have heard clients say that they desire to see if the significant other will be good at helping them with parental duties. Someone without children may fantasize about an "instant family". The truth of the matter is that colliding the dating and parenting worlds are tough, so really make sure you have a solid understanding of the motivation behind blending the two.
Reality check: Dating after divorce can be fun and magical. It may make you feel like a teenager all over again, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's great to feel alive, have fun, find yourself again and reconnect with your desires. However, remember that you have children now so it isn't quite the same as it was before. Children often become embarrassed and confused when seeing their parents act like adolescents.
In conclusion, it's best to hold off involving your kids in a new relationship without exploring these variables as it may cause them further trauma and possibly sabotage the relationship. Wait until you are certain and secure as a couple and that both parties have realistic expectations. In the meantime, enjoy the dating process. There will be plenty of time to watch "The Brady Bunch" together!