My Boyfriend, His Kids, and His Ex - Part 1
“My Boyfriend, His Kids, and His Ex”, part 1 in a series
After our marriage ended in 2005, we became the poster-children for divorce amongst our circle of friends and colleagues. We wished we could have been the poster children for successful marriage, but it didn’t work out that way…
Despite the problems that ended our marriage, we’ve established a congenial co-parenting partnership that allows our two daughters to thrive. Because colleagues, friends, and strangers would often ask us, “How do you do it?” we founded CoParenting101.org in 2008 to answer that question and to provide support and encouragement for other divorced families.
So imagine our surprise, about a year after launching CoParenting101.org, when we discovered that co-parents weren’t the majority of our site visitors. According to Google analytics, women dating co-parenting men were the #1 demographic landing on our home page. Why was this? Keyword search data gave us further insight as to what attracted these particular women. Inevitably, they arrived at the site after searching some variation on the phrase, “my boyfriend, his kids, and his ex.” According to their keyword searches, these women had such questions as:
- “Why hasn’t my boyfriend introduced me to his kids yet?”
- “Why is my boyfriend friendly with his ex?”
- “Why does my boyfriend still talk to his ex?”
- “Why does my boyfriend let his ex boss him around?”
- “Why does my boyfriend put his child before me?”
- “How do I know if my boyfriend still has feelings for his ex?”
Using this information, we created a post on our site to address these questions, though serious, in a bit of tongue and cheek fashion. Now, nearly 3 years later, that post remains the most popular post on our site, with exponentially more hits and comments than any other. Left unaddressed in a productive way, questions like those above not only have the potential to hinder a burgeoning new relationship, they can also negatively impact the co-parenting situation, regardless of the gender of the dating co-parent. Further, unresolved co-parenting-related issues in dating can become minefields in remarriage, exacerbating the inherently challenging stepfamily dynamic. In this guest post series, we’ll take a look at each question and its implications:
“Why hasn’t my boyfriend introduced me to his kids yet?”
When we separated in 2005, we agreed that no one would meet our children until we were as sure as we could be that this person was The One. We also agreed to give the other parent the option of meeting the new significant other, before this person was introduced to our children. We felt it was important to keep our children out of the revolving door of our dating lives. For one thing, it’s a matter of safety not to introduce children to people we as adults are still getting to know. Also, having new people coming in and out of their lives can leave children confused about relationships and commitment. The revolving door can also be hurtful if they become attached to someone who is suddenly no longer around, especially in light of the parental break-up they have endured.
Even though we both followed guidance from the book Helping Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Wayas to how to introduce a child to a new partner, we each introduced our new partners to our children, after one and three years of dating, respectively. We both introduced them to our children first as our friends, and then later made them aware of the dating relationships.
Some shared parenting agreements specify how long a new couple must date before children are introduced, or how long after the divorce is finalized before such introductions can be made. These agreements may also include restrictions on having overnight guests while children are present.
Some co-parents informally follow a rule of thumb, such as introductions after 6 months of dating. Others wait until it feel they feel the time is right with no set deadline in mind. One stepfamily expert told us that kids are emotionally ready for such introductions about a year after the adults are ready. As adults who are excited about our new relationships, we can make the mistake of assuming that our children will be excited about them at the same time and in the same way that we are.
Unfortunately, some co-parents are living with threats made by their ex related to dating. An ex might say, “I don’t want you bringing another guy around my kid” or “If you bring heraround the kids, I won’t let you see them,” even though the new partner poses no harm to the child. To the extent that a co-parent believes that bringing a new partner around the kids is going to cause a co-parenting blow-up or loss of access to his kids, he may avoid making introductions.
So while co-parents are weighing all or some of the above considerations, the new boyfriend or girlfriend may view the situation in far more simple terms: “If she was really into me or really serious about this relationship, she would have introduced me to her kids.” We caution those who are dating co-parents not to use an introduction to the children as a gauge for commitment. It’s not fair to the children involved, and a co-parent can be madly in love with someone yet still not ready to make an introduction to his children for a host of reasons, including the readiness of the children. The grown-ups must manage their own expectations, frustrations, fears, and disappointments; the children are counting on the grown-ups to be responsive to their needs, not saddle them with a burden just to reassure or placate another adult.
However, if a co-parent avoids making an introduction for fear of a battle with his ex, then he needs to consider whether or not he’s able to truly commit to a new relationship while letting his ex call the shots in his personal life. Pursuing legal options may be necessary to ensure that parenting time is honored and not at the whim of an angry co-parent. Family counseling can help children navigate their own feelings about the new partner and deal with any confusion or fear related to the parental conflict.
So what does dating while co-parenting (also called step-dating) look like in practice, in the beginning? Some co-parents date “secretly” (generally everyone in their lives except their children are aware) until they feel the time is right to make an introduction. It can be helpful for the co-parenting partnership if the other parent is made aware before any introductions are made. Some co-parents want to afford the other parent the opportunity to meet their new partner; others don’t. Some co-parents want to meet the new significant other; others don’t. Some new partners want to meet the ex; others don’t. Whatever the approach, children should be free to feel however they feel about the introduction and given time and space to gradually get to know this new person. A child should not be pressured to “like” Mom’s friend right away, nor should she be pressured to reject him out of “loyalty” to the other parent.
In the next installment in this series, we’ll consider co-parenting communication, and the questions, “Why is my boyfriend friendly with his ex?” and “Why does my boyfriend still talk to his ex?”
Deesha Philyaw and Michael Thomas are the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based founders of CoParenting101.org and co-authors of the forthcoming book Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce (New Harbinger, 2013).