One of the concerns that often comes up when counselling parents and children through a separation or divorce is that of introducing one’s children to a new partner. How soon is too soon? How do you know when the time is right? Should the children be a certain age? Should the decision be made in conjunction with one’s ex? Where should the introduction take place – at home or somewhere public? Should the children be told about it in advance or should it be a “by chance” meeting? How should you introduce him or her – as a friend or a boy or girlfriend? Should he or she be included in family gatherings? How will your children likely react or feel about your new partner?
Since this is such a common, and obviously, incredibly important concern, I thought it might be helpful to address the issue in this article. Of course, there is not only one formula or prescription that should be followed. However, there are some points that are more generally applicable across the board. Taking the questions above into consideration, I will tackle one, sometimes two, at a time:
1. How soon is too soon?
If you are thinking of introducing your children to your new partner within a few months of being separated, then it is probably too soon. Your children have barely had time to get used to the idea of not being together as a family unit and are most likely not at all interested in knowing that you are spending time with someone new. For one thing, they will not appreciate knowing that their father or mother is so quickly forgotten and for another, they will not be happy with you having to divide your time between them and a new partner. Some parents have told me that they are going to wait a year before introducing anyone new into their children’s lives and while I think that it is admirable that they have decided to wait a protracted period of time before adding any more changes into their children’s lives, I don’t think that there is a magic number.
2. How do you know when the time is right? And should the children be a certain age?
If you can see that your children have adjusted relatively well and are going through the grieving process as expected, then you may be able to introduce someone new after eight or nine months, for example. In addition to making reasonably sure that your children are ready for the news, evaluate the situation based on how old they are (younger children may accept a new partner more easily than an older child or teen), their personal temperament and personality and how comfortable they are about talking about the separation and divorce in general. Have you read any books or watched any movies about divorce and new partners in parents’ lives? Watch for their reaction – both verbally and physically – to see how they respond. Maybe ask questions that relate to the movie or book to see where they are at.
Also, make sure that your relationship is secure. The worst possible situation is to introduce and expose your children to a new relationship each month. Is your new partner someone who you see being with long term? Have you seen the way he interacts with other children (maybe even his own)? Is he able to pursue a relationship with you and your children in the way that you would like or does he still have a commitment to someone else?
3. Should the decision be made in conjunction with one’s ex?
Some parents who have managed to remain amicable after the separation or divorce will sometimes tell me that they have mutually decided on that magic number of months to pass before introducing their children to new partners. Then, I hear a lot of anger and resentment if one of the parents wants to introduce his or her children to another partner sooner than that agreed upon time. Although it is great if ex’s can communicate and discuss when the time is best for their children, it is better to be able to evaluate the situation at the time of wanting to make the introduction rather than having to come up with an exact number of months in advance of doing so. Of course each parent wants their children’s interests to be considered first and foremost, but it is very difficult for an ex to remain sufficiently emotionally detached to be the final judge of whether his or her children are ready or not – especially if he or she would have preferred that the marriage had never ended. I have had the opportunity to meet with several amicable ex’s who, with me as mediator, have worked through this issue with their children’s best interests in mind.
4. Where should the introduction take place – at home or somewhere public? And should the children be told about it in advance or should it be a “by chance” meeting?
Every situation is unique and some of this will depend on your personal situation and your children’s individual personalities. There are pros and cons to both making the introduction outside and inside your home. The pros to introducing someone new at home is that your children, after making the initial introduction, can hide for a while if they wish, check the situation out from a distance and then advance when they are ready. The con is that the children may not be ready to have a relative stranger come into their house and may resent him or her sitting in a chair that dad used to sit in, for example. The pro of making the introduction out of the house is that everyone is on neutral territory and on more of an equal playing ground. The con is that there may be nowhere for the children to escape. Since my suggestion is to give your children some advance notice of the meeting, rather than it being “by chance,” that you invite their opinion as to where the meeting should take place. Some parents prefer not to make a big deal of the first meeting but prefer to gradually involve their “friend” in gatherings and then eventually evolve into sharing that their relationship is not completely platonic – this can be okay too.
5. How should you introduce him or her – as a friend or a boy or girlfriend?
A friend recently shared a story of how her ten year old daughter learnt about her relationship with her new partner. At first, her daughter thought of her partner as nothing more than a “friend.” She had not invited him over when just she and her daughter were together, but he often attended small gatherings where her daughter had an opportunity to chat with him. This allowed her to get to know him in less of a threatening context. Next, my friend visited his house with her daughter so that they could meet his new puppies. This created a further connection between them. At some point, my friend’s daughter began to suspect that her mother’s relationship with her “friend” was more than that and asked her mother if he was her “boyfriend.” This led to a discussion about the difference between a “friend” and a “boyfriend” and ultimately led to my friend revealing that, according to her daughter’s definition of a boyfriend (“someone that you kiss and cuddle”) that he was indeed her boyfriend. Depending again on your child and the situation, the introduction to a new partner can be more gradual and informal.
6. Should he or she be included in family gatherings?
Again, this is a good question to be discussed with your children. I think it is good to find balance. If your children spend time with their other parent, use this as an opportunity to spend more intense periods of time with your new partner. When your children are with you, make sure not to include your new partner all the time – especially at first. As your relationship evolves, allow his or her involvement to gradually increase. Keep watching to evaluate your children’s response to his or her being there. Of course, you are entitled to adult companionship and your children should not commandeer whether he or she is there at all, but they should be entitled to have their say about how his or her presence is making them feel. If you feel that their concerns are legitimate, then you may want to adjust the arrangements.
7. How will your children likely react or feel about your new partner?
There is no one right answer to this question. My experience has been that children react with a host of different emotions. Everything from jealousy and anger to pity for their other parent to happiness or relief about your new love interest. The most important point to remember is to be open to everything that they are feeling and reassure them that what they are feeling is normal and understandable and that you are available to talk at any time.
Just as dealing with the separation and divorce required a period of adjustment for both you and the children, so will learning to accept a new person in your life. Keep in mind that your child is not likely (especially if he or she is a little older) to want your new partner to act like a third parent. He or she doesn’t have to bend over backwards to be a friend either. In fact, some older children have shared how much they dislike feeling as if their parent’s new “friend” is trying too hard to win him or her over. As tricky as it is to define him or herself in your children’s lives, allow this to be a gradual process during which everyone gets to know one another, so that this transition is as easy as possible on everyone.