Dating, Divorce, and Your Kids

by Heather Setrakian, M.A.

Dating, Divorce, and Your Kids

With the US divorce rate still lingering around 50% for first marriages, many children have experienced their parents’ divorce by the time they are eighteen. And most adults are out and dating again within a year after their divorce, sometimes dating several partners before remarriage. While there have been several studies on divorce, remarriage and step-parenting, very few exist for the courtship period parents go through before remarriage.  Here are some guidelines to consider concerning post-divorced dating and your children:

Adjusting to the idea of dating isn’t just for parents. Dr. Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce and We’re Still Family and professor emeritus at University Southern California, recently completed a 20 year longitudinal study on children of divorce. She found that the young children she studied worried about how their parent’s dating process was going to affect them. Children between the ages 5 and 10 were more possessive of their mother than older children.  Leah Klungness, co-author of The Complete Single Mother, states that post-divorce dating can be stressful for children. Don’t assume that kids will understand the need for a “crazy phase” of dating.  They are dealing with their own issues of loss, betrayal, adjustment, trust- just to name a few. Parents need to make sure before things get tricky that children understand their continued importance to them, the freedom for the child(ren) to continue a close loving relationship with the ex-spouse (despite any personal misgivings) and the possibility of new people in the parent’s life.

Your attitudes and behaviors on dating will be a model for your children. Teenage children are entering a new world of dating behavior that may include sex, and will look to their parents as models of behavior. What they see is what they’ll do. Research has shown that single parents’- and especially mothers’- attitudes and behaviors on sex and dating influence their children’s attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, single mothers’ dating behaviors directly influenced their son’s sexual behaviors, and indirectly influenced their daughter’s sexual behaviors by affecting her attitudes on sex. Parents should talk about appropriate behavior for adults and adolescents before either side starts an intimate relationship. 

Tread carefully when introducing children to your new partner. Klungness recommends that any new relationship should be exclusive for several months (that is, a serious relationship and not a casual affair) before they are introduced to the children. Similar research also supports this idea: a gradual approach allows children time to adjust to their parents’ dating (and the new dating partner) at a pace that allows for successful parenting.  If the decision has been made to bring the new partner into the child’s life, make sure that they meet on neutral territory (i.e., not home) in a casual setting. Introduce the new partner as a “new friend” and not the new “love of my life.”

Sensitivity Counts. Children may have more trouble adjusting to their fathers’ dating relationships than their mother’s. This may be because of the diverted attention in the wake of limited time together due to custody issues. Another possibility is the potential for the new relationship to be the cause of the parent’s divorce. Remember that meeting a new partner will bring up many emotions for children. Sticking to neutral turf helps the parent provide the necessary structure children may need while being introduced to new partners.

Parents should be sensitive to their children’s feelings but not turn to a permissive parenting style because they feel guilty or embarrassed. Balancing the emotions of your children with the excitement of a new, positive, relationship will help smooth the transition into single-parent dating.

More Online Resources:

Click here to read a great article from the Boston Globe that includes a list of guidelines surrounding dating after divorce

Tips, Resources, and Warning Signs for Divorced Parents: The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) presents a great article on  divorce and your children

Family Education article featuring individuals experiences with post-divorce dating and their children

A great review of dating, remarriage and children based Constance Ahron’s longitudinal study from MissouriFamilies.org

Research:

Anderson, E, et al (2004). Ready to take a chance again: Transitions into dating among divorced parents. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 40, 61- 75.

Whitbeck, L.B., Simons, R.L., &Kao, M.Y. (1994). The effects of divorced mothers’ dating behaviors and sexual attitudes on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their adolescent children.  Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 615-621.

For related content, check out our Divorced Mom’s Guide to Dating site here!

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