By Diane Chambers Shearer

Dating Again: Where Do the Kids Fit In?

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The first time I went out on a real date after my divorce, I felt like a teenager with my mother sitting in the back seat. The excitement of developing new relationships with men was somehow dampened by the sense that I was a parent burdened with astronomical responsibilities — and that I was 10 times more cynical than I had been 15 years prior! Nevertheless, dating and socializing were important ingredients on my journey of post-divorce personal growth. But once I eased back into the dating scene, I realized there were many questions about how to integrate this part of my life with the parental role that dominated my existence.

"When do I introduce the children to my new dating partner?" is probably the question I get asked most often by single parents. There is no clear-cut answer. In fact, much of it will depend on your gut instincts. Most experts agree, however, that introductions should wait until you have dated someone consistently for several weeks. Mainly, this is because children who have experienced divorce or the death of a parent will be sensitive to losing another significant person in their lives. Having too many adults moving in and out of their lives may affect their sense of trust and well-being. A good rule-of-thumb is to keep your dating life separate from your family life at least until after you have had a chance to test the relationship yourself. When both you and your partner feel comfortable the relationship will be steady and monogamous, make the introductions, but don't expect your children and your new friend to begin doing a number of activities together. Let the relationships unfold naturally. If you and your new partner truly want to foster a successful blend, your example of patience and respect toward one another in a horizontal relationship should set the tone for the vertical relationships you may expect later between step-parents and children. Once you've decided to integrate this new person into your family life, proceed with caution and care. Don't be surprised if your kids keep their distance for a long time after you've made the initial introduction. Their natural defenses against loss will be very strong during this period. Children may also express jealousy toward your new relationship when they feel the threat of losing you to someone else. Having already lost one parent, they can have a difficult time dealing with the thought of losing you to someone else. When they become overly protective, express disapproval of your new dating life, or misbehave to get back at you for making dating choices, don't retaliate with anger or stop dating to appease them. Instead, listen to what they have to say. Continually assure them that you will not make a permanent decision about bringing someone new into your lives unless you feel it will be good for everyone. Ask them to trust you, and be especially loving toward them during this time. It's easy to want to spend every waking hour with someone when you fall head-over-heels in love, but keep a clear mind. Create some distance between you and your new partner by blocking time to spend alone with your kids. This will give you a chance to take a step back and examine the new relationship. It will help your kids feel more secure about the changes taking place. It can also clue you in to the reaction your partner will have as you place a priority on your parenting responsibilities. Take things slowly and keep the physical relationship in front of the children at arms’ length. Overnight stays while the children are around are simply not a good idea. It will only cause more tension for everyone involved and will appear to the children that you are trying to force a "new family" concept on them. Save kissing and touching for when the children are not around. This will help them get to know your partner without feeling embarrassment when you are all together. Imagine sitting around the house watching your mother and a strange man necking on the couch (yuk)! When you begin to talk more seriously with your partner about marriage, then it is appropriate to take the relationship between your partner and your children to a new level of closeness. At that point, you might want to have a sit-down discussion with everyone to talk about the possibilities of blending the family and spending more time together. Allow your kids to express their feelings about the relationship, and encourage them to be patient with your partner, just as your partner is willing to be patient with them. Remember, you were a parent before you were this person's date. Finding out how well your partner accepts the "package deal" is very important to your decision to bond your life with him or her. Observing interactions through gradually spending more time together is always a good idea. Expect awkwardness, allow for strong feelings, and don't rush the future. Relax. Before you decide to bond your life with another person, think through what it is you owe your child and what you owe yourself. You owe your children a harmonious environment in which they are loved and accepted, not just tolerated. You owe yourself the chance to be happy and to experience a healthy, loving relationship. If your new partner brings the kind of quality to your life that fulfills these needs, you can feel comfortable you are on the right track.