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Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Headshot

Introducing Your New Partner To Your Kids: Take Your Time

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Are you a parent dating again after divorce and looking for guidance? Perhaps you met someone you are compatible with but wonder when you should introduce them to your kids. I've sat by and watched many of my friends and clients introduce their new partner to their children too quickly after their divorce -- only to observe the relationship crash and burn after a brief period of time. The fallout from introducing your kids too quickly to a new love interest isn't pretty. It can cause anguish for everyone -- especially your kids who are probably holding onto the idea that you and your ex will eventually get back together. It may take them time to accept a new person in your life.

While it's normal to seek solace, companionship, and a sexual relationship after getting a divorce, it's crucial to take it slow so that you can assess whether this relationship is casual or might be permanent. Ask yourself if your new love interest is a good fit for your family. After all, you might have great chemistry with someone, but they might not be best suited to be a capable stepparent or live in partner.

During a counseling session, Julia, an attractive newly divorced 46-year-old teacher, described her new partner Kevin as a breath of fresh air, sexy, fun and the complete opposite of her ex-husband Dave. They had been dating for a little over two months and she was head over heels in love with him. As Julia spoke, excitement welled up in her voice: "Kevin's just so different from Dave and I can really let my hair down with him. He has a daughter of his own and he's great with her. I know my two girls will like him because I do -- so we're planning a weekend camping trip with all three girls over the Memorial Day holiday."

At this point, I asked Julia if she had thought through any disadvantages of planning an intense weekend so soon after starting a new relationship. But at that point our session was coming to an end and Julia stated that she was confident of her plans. Her homework assignment was to make a list of pros and cons of the camping trip but she rushed out the door without jotting it down.

When Julia arrived for her next session, two weeks later, she was feeling distraught, betrayed, and disappointed. The camping weekend had gone badly and Kevin broke up with her. In fact, Kevin told Julia that he didn't feel that their girls got along very well and he just wasn't ready for an instant family.

What is the best time to introduce a new partner to your children? Chances are we've all heard stories like Julia's and know that dating after divorce when you have kids can be tricky. The number one thing to keep in mind is not to do it too soon after your divorce. What's the hurry? Even if both of you are in love and seem to have a lot in common, breakups are common and kids get caught in the crossfire. Next, the setting and timing of an introduction is crucial to success. Rather than planning an overnight or long visit, it's best to have a brief, casual meeting with few expectations.

Keep in mind the age of your children when introducing them to a new love interest, because younger children (under age 10) may feel confused, angry, or sad since they tend to be possessive of their parents. Renowned researcher Constance Ahrons, who conducted a 20 year study of children of divorce, concluded that most children find their parent's courtship behaviors confusing and strange. Your older child may seem more accepting and appear to be able to tolerate your new partner better. However, they may feel threatened by this relationship. Ahrons also found that teenagers may find open affection between their parent and a partner troubling -- so go easy on physical contact in front of your kids.

Consider that you are a role model for your children and exposing them to casual partners does not set the best example for responsible dating. Do you want your teenage children to model their behavior after you? Keeping the best interests of your children in mind will help you to make wise decisions about dating after your divorce. You owe it to yourself and your kids to build new relationships thoughtfully.

5 Tips for introducing your new partner to your kids:

• Talk to your children and explain that you are dating someone whom you care about and that you'd like to introduce them after awhile. Ask them if they have any questions.
• Keep the first meeting short and low key: Going to a restaurant or neutral spot is best. Ask your kids where they'd like to go and don't invite your partner's children to join you on the first few visits.
• Don't plan an overnight right away. If you have shared custody, it should be easy to spend an overnight with your new love when your children are with your ex. Having your new partner spend the night should only be an option once you are fairly sure that your relationship is permanent or you are engaged.
• Assure your kids that your partner will not replace their other parent or change your relationship with them. Most young children view their parent's dating behaviors as confusing -- they may feel threatened or resentful about having to share you with another person.
• Have realistic expectations about your children's acceptance of your new partner. Just because you are enthralled with this person, they may not share your enthusiasm.

In sum, being cautious when dating after divorce when you have kids will pay off for everyone. Consider the amount of time since your divorce, the age of your children, and the level of commitment with your partner. Don't introduce your children to new partners who you are dating casually. You can inform your kids that you are going out with friends and that's enough information. Talking to a relationship coach or therapist may help you to make a smooth transition into this next phase of your life.

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