Dating after a divorce can be a difficult situation for any parent. While a parent may be eager to begin meeting new people after recovering emotionally from a divorce, it can mean different things to every child. Some children may have a positive response to having a new adult figure in their lives. For others, it can raise fears and anxiety about their family structure and sharing a parent’s attention with a stranger. Establishing boundaries that feel comfortable for everyone is a challenge but will ultimately lead to a healthier transition.
When to Begin Dating
Knowing when to begin dating after a divorce is a very personal decision and will be different for every individual. A good standard is waiting a minimum of six months following separation from a spouse, suggests the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children may feel as though they are going to receive less attention from parents when they start dating. It may also cause them to realize that it is a reality that their parents are never going to get back together. Open communication is the most important strategy parents can use during this time. Invite your children to share their opinions and emotions about the situation, particularly if they are teen or pre-teens.
Introduce a New Dating Partner
Parents often feel nervous about the first meeting between their children and a new dating partner. Strike a balance between introducing children to every date and hiding a relationship when it begins to get serious, recommends M. Gary Neuman, author of “Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way.” Children don’t need to be exposed to every date because they could begin to form attachments too early and be disappointed if it doesn’t work out. However, if children find out that a parent is in a serious relationship before they are told by the parent, they may feel betrayed. Creating boundaries by taking the relationship slowly and gradually exposing children to a new dating partner will help children accept a new person in their lives.
Helping Children Adjust
It may take time for both parents and children to adjust to a new relationship following a divorce. It is normal for a child to experience mixed emotions during this process. Children may feel awkward spending time with an adult who is not a parent and experience loyalty conflicts between biological parents and new partners, according to licensed marriage and family therapist Jean McBride. Having open, age-appropriate conversations with children and teens about dating can give children a chance to voice any concerns they have about the new relationships. Parents should validate their children’s concerns and explain their decision to date while not allowing their children to dictate the rules of their dating lives.
Moving on after a divorce is a difficult but healthy step for both parents and children. Communication can mitigate the feelings of fear and anxiety that children may experience when a parent begins dating. To set boundaries, parents should avoid sharing too many details about the divorce or the new relationship, while being open to listening to children's feelings about the situation. Parents can continue to prioritize their children by spending quality time with them and showing love and affection. By paying attention to their own needs and wishes, parents can create new and fulfilling relationships and may be happier parents as a result.
Lauren Mills, L.C.S.W. is a licensed psychotherapist and mental health writer with a private practice based in New York City. She has extensive experience providing psychotherapy to children, adolescents, adults and families. She holds a Masters of Science in clinical social work from Columbia University.