12/01/2011 02:16 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2012

Have Children and Thinking of Dating Your Ex? Some Things to Consider

Jennifer and Alex had been divorced for three years. While neither had left the marriage for another person, both had had two-year relationships that they'd recently ended. They also had two children, a son and daughter ages 10 and 8 respectively, whom they had been co-parenting very effectively. Though the children spent more of their time with Jennifer, they had ample time with Alex, who had no reservations regarding the "grunt work" of parenting such as taking the kids to pediatrician appointments, attending teacher conferences, and going clothes shopping as needed.

After breaking off his relationship and enjoying the feeling of being free, Alex decided to call Jennifer and ask her if she would be interested in meeting for dinner. He hadn't felt free to do that while he was "committed" to another woman, but he saw no reason not to make that offer now. They could have time to talk about the kids in a relaxed, non-hurried way, he thought. And though he had no conscious desire to reconcile, he was aware that his opinion of Jennifer and the problems that drove them apart had softened in the interceding three years.

So Alex called, Jennifer agreed, and they met at an Italian restaurant that they had frequented together while married. They had a good time, and when they left they shared a brief hug and a noncommittal promise to do it again.

Two days later Jennifer called Alex and let him know that the kids were "freaking out." It seems that Jennifer had casually mentioned that she was meeting their father for dinner. The next morning their daughter asked Jennifer if she and Alex were getting back together. When Jennifer said no the girl frowned, then stomped out of the kitchen. A few minutes later Jennifer heard a commotion and ran upstairs. She found her daughter in a state of agitation she'd never seen before, her room looking like a tornado had passed through it.

Jennifer's son did not have a tantrum, but Jennifer couldn't help but notice his sullen mood over the next several days. When she asked him what was bothering him, however, he merely shrugged and walked away.

Fantasies of Reconciliation

Regardless of what Alex and Jennifer may have intended, from their children's perspective what they were doing was dating. And let's face it -- two single people having dinner is a date. Finally, no matter how old they are -- nine, or nineteen -- it seems that children of divorce harbor fantasies of their parents reconciling and thereby bringing their family back together. The exceptions may be those children who witnessed a great deal of conflict, and perhaps physical abuse, and who harbor no such desire. On the contrary for these children the idea of their parents reconciling may instill a great deal of anxiety.

If you find yourself entertaining the idea of dating your ex-spouse, regardless of whether or not any romantic notions are attached, it is important to recognize that your children will very likely perceive this differently. With that in kind, here are some suggestions for how to explain such a decision to your kids:

  • Let your kids know in advance that your and your ex will be meeting. Don't let them discover this by surprise.
  • Tell the kids the agenda for the meeting. Will you be talking about school issues? Forthcoming vacation plans? Changes in co-parenting or visitation schedules? And so on.
  • Unless you actually believe that reconciliation is a real possibility, make it very clear to your children that this is to be a cordial meeting but also a "business" meeting.
  • Be prepared to answer this direct question: "Are you thinking about getting back together?"
  • Even if you do all the above, expect your children to have some emotional reaction, based on the reality that children's fantasies of reconciliation die hard.

To learn more see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.