Q: After divorcing my husband a few months ago, I met a really wonderful man who I want to introduce to my children. I’m sure there are right ways and wrong ways to go about this and I want to set them up for a good relationship.
A: That’s a great question, one that can be hard to figure out when you’re in the throes of new love. Parents are often eager to introduce their new partner to their children for both emotional and practical reasons. Experts recommend waiting a year after the official divorce to introduce the kids to your partner. The reasoning behind this is that children need time to understand that their parents will not reconcile, and to grieve the loss. Asking them to accept someone new before they have a chance to grieve sets them up to view your partner as the reason for the dissolution of their family or at least an obstacle to fixing it, and they are more likely to view your partner as a threat, since they might already be struggling with the loss of one or both parents (in some form) and fear losing you further.
It is also recommended that you introduce the kids to your partner only after you’re confident the relationship is stable (i.e. emotionally healthy) and permanent – you don’t want to ask them to bond with someone who might not stay. This second loss of a family unit can be traumatic and teach children to expect loss. Another reason to wait is that you want to ensure that your partner is not just a good companion for you but a good living partner and someone that could potentially have a positive relationship with your children. Those are things that take time to truly know. So before introducing them to your children, talk to them about all things children and parenting to see if they share similar values around this critical piece of your life. Experts recommend introducing your partner to your children after dating exclusively for at least six months, and then only if your children have worked through the grief process from the divorce.
So the general consensus among child and divorce specialists is to take your time with introducing your partner to your kids. Here’s some more expert advice:
- Tell the other parent and close family members that you intend to introduce your significant other to your children before you do it. You want them to be in the loop so they can be a good support for your kids if they need it.
- Have your kids meet your partner as a “friend,” but be honest if your children ask you if you’re dating. You want to give them accurate information but not more than they need to know or more than they can handle.
- Have them meet in a neutral spot, briefly and with a defined end time. Make it a casual event with no pressure to talk – a group get-together, or an activity that people can focus on. If your partner has kids, don’t invite them along the first few times.
- After a meeting or two like that, spend time together in a way that allows for more conversation between your partner and child (e.g., a meal after a movie).
- Hold off on sleepovers until your child is somewhat comfortable with your new relationship.
- Don’t try to convince them to like your partner. Invite their emotions and convey that whatever they feel is okay (but behaving inappropriately is not). Let them know your partner is not a replacement for their other parent. Reassure them that your relationship with them won’t change – schedule alone time with your children so they see you’re not going anywhere.
Of course, it can be hard or even impossible sometimes to follow these guidelines, and even if you do all of it an easy transition is no guarantee. If you feel like your child is struggling with you having a new romantic partner (a decline in grades, dropping out of extracurricular, a negative change in social groups, isolation, unusually sullen or sad behavior at home), consider meeting with a specialist who can help the family navigate this life experience and come out strong.