I remember when I started dating. It was only a matter of time before I discovered just how difficult it is. Now when you have children it is downright complicated. Everyone is involved, and I mean everyone. There is you and your partner. The kids are engaged, at least on some level, even when you don’t think they are. The Ex is also engaged and everyone has strong emotions and opinions about everyone else who is involved and what the end result might be. Now if both of you have kids multiply all that by 2. No wonder single parents cringe at the bare thought of dating someone let alone settling down and marrying them.
As complicated as it is, its possible to climb this mountain and create a successful family the second time around. However it requires hard work, wisdom, patience and deliberate choices from the beginning and at every phase of the dating period. If you are a single parent or are dating one here are some best practices for you to consider as you start and go through dating.
Avoid a Quick U-Turn
Do not date soon after the end of a relationship whether by death, divorce, separation or breakup. Single parents who decide to marry/date someone shortly after the previous relationship ends will often find their children more resistant to their new partner. This is because the children are still grieving and cannot understand how their dad/mum has moved on so quickly. This also sabotages the ability of your partner the new stepparent and stepchild to get off on the right foot with one another and puts the whole family at risk.
So relax, sit in your pain and understand why the relationship ended, what was your contribution to its end? What lessons have you learned for the experience? Are you ready to let go, to forgive and move on? Unfortunately there is no reset button. You have to go through all the motions.
Mirror! Mirror! on the wall
The smart single parent takes a good long look in the mirror before they start dating. Find out what is motivating you to start dating. Your answers will let you know whether you are truly ready to date or are looking for an ‘elastoplast’ solution to deeper unresolved issues. Look out for reasons rooted in fears e.g. your children not having a father, being the only one in your family or circle of friends with a broken family, loneliness or unresolved pain after a divorce or nasty break up. These are red flags and ignoring them can only lead to more pain and disappointment if you enter into a new relationship
Have “What if?” Conversations with your children
Way before you even start dating, single parents need to begin a series of conversations with their children that go a little something like this, “What if I began dating? How would you feel?” If it’s someone they are already familiar with mention their name. “What if John and I were engaged?” “What if John’s kids came over every Friday during this December holiday?”
Each conversation will help you assess how your kids feel about these possibilities and/or realities. It also prepares them for what might happen. A smart single parent listens and gives serious consideration to how the children are feeling. Engage in these conversations throughout your dating experience, in anticipation of each stage of a developing relationship.
Acknowledge your Child’s Fears
Based on the “what if” conversations you have with your children you may uncover some fears they have with regard to you dating. Validate your child’s fears. It shows them that their feelings are important to you; it keeps the communication door open. Reassure them constantly. Later in the relationship, you new partner will also needs to do this in order to help them deal with the threat of having someone new in their lives
You’re potentially creating a Family
The truth is when you start dating the couple’s relationship creates competing attachments. The choice to be with the dating partner or children generally means the other is left waiting…and wondering how their relationship with you is being influenced by your relationship with the other. This is why your new partner may complain that you spend too much time with your children and not enough with him/her and your children may feel you spend all your time with your new partner. In addition, children commonly feel some insecurity by mom or dad’s relationship with another person.
Do not assume that becoming a couple necessarily means that you can become a family. As a single parent you have to attend to both ‘being a couple’ and ‘being a family’ always assessing how the potential stepfamily relationships are developing.
The first few dates should be about and between the two of you. Spend time together without the children. At the beginning you can refer to your date as “a friend” or if your kids are prepared, call them your “date.” When you start off go for casual introductions. Don’t put your kids and the person together until you are sure there are real possibilities for the relationship especially if your children are under the age of five. They tend to bond to people very quickly.
As your relationship grows, gradually become more intentional about finding time for your boy/girlfriend and kids to get together. Be cautious and conscious at first and monitor everyone’s feelings, fears or concerns. If the other person has children as well, it might be prudent to have get-togethers with just one set of children and a separate activity with the other set of children at a later date. This is because managing multiple relationships can be overwhelming. Eventually, though, if your dating relationship continues to deepen, you’ll want to get everyone together for a shared activity.
Teens and adult children need to move toward your dating partner at their own pace. If you take it upon yourself to get them to love and accept your partner you are only sabotaging yourself and creating room for resistance. Instead, create opportunities for them to get to know each other without forcing it. Show respect and allow the relationship to develop at its own pace.
Pace yourself… it’s a marathon, not a sprint
When you fall in love it’s tempting to want to spend all of your time with your new found love. Don’t abandon your kids by spending all of your free time with your new partner. Doing so only taps into your child’s fears that they are losing you and also gives the false impression to your dating partner that you are totally available to them. You’re not. Don’t lose your balance.
If You Don’t Have Kids
Encourage the single parent you are dating to be with their kids and spend time with them, without you, every once in a while. This helps lessen the fears of the children; and it keeps perspective in your relationship. You might you feel a little left out and lonely but then this relationship is as much about the children as it is about you. If you can’t get used to this notion and learn how to deal with it, then you’ll be a miserable stepparent
Expect Hot and Cold Reactions
Liking mummy’s/ daddy’s new boy/girlfriend creates a loyalty problem for kids: They don’t know how to embrace your partner without hurting their biological parents feelings. Because of this they can be warm and accepting sometimes and other times turn cold. Don’t panic or judge the children too harshly. Relax and work with what they give you. Reacting negatively will only make their loyalty stronger and in turn work against you
What’s Your Family Vision
What vison do you have of your family and the spouse you allow into it? You cannot judge lasting love and relationships by physical attributes or the ‘chemistry’ between you and your partner. You need an objective measure of the values and character of the person you are looking for not just as your partner but also as a parent for your children. You cannot have one and not the other. For example if the person you are dating isn’t good parent material with your children or with theirs you ought to move on even if you love them as a partner. Some things will not change because of marriage
Learn All You Can About Step-family Life
Finally the secret to success of stepfamilies is getting smart about stepfamily life. Getting smart means learning all you can about stepfamily dynamics, how stepfamilies function, operate best, and why they have the unique challenges that they do. This will help you make informed decisions not just based on your emotions/feelings. Adopt the attitude of a learner.