Single dads, single men, often want to rush into relationships during their separations and after their divorce with such frequency that it becomes a sort of cliche. As a woman, I don’t always get it. What is the rush? Why rush into a commitment when everything else in their lives is upside down? Children, typically, don’t get it either. Children have the hardest time dealing with their father’s new relationships especially if those relationships are being forced upon them. If you’re a single dad and you’re dating, here are 3 things to know before introducing your new love to your kids.
Have as much fun and all the sex you want while your kids are with their other parent, but when the children are with you, remember this: they need to be your #1 priority. You need time to re-build or re-create your relationships with them away from their mothers before they’re capable of welcoming someone new into your life.
They need to trust you again; to know that no matter what happens, you’ll be there for them unconditionally whether they push it or not. (I never said this was going to be easy!)
Those kids of yours want and need your attention.
Your kids know that trust is earned, it’s not rewarded. They’ll dole out trust carefully. You can’t expect them to trust someone they don’t know (especially if you’ve raised them well!) and this is where your feelings could get hurt.
I realize that children are all different, but they’re still coping with your family’s divorce. Bringing someone new into their lives and expecting them to immediately trust this new adult because you’re having sex or are seriously considering marrying them, doesn’t mean your child is on the same page. I recently heard a teen say this about her father’s latest girlfriend: “I’ve met her about 6 times… she’s nice but I’ve spent more time with my bus driver than I have with her.”
Your role is to parent and to love them.
When children live with different parents, essentially having two homes, there’ll be twice as much stuff they’ll have to deal with. I’m often asked what to do with the child who sides with the other parent? My answer is usually, always, the same: love them where they’re at.
As kids, they’re testing, trying to win your attention, your approval. They manipulate and use adults the same way you did! They know what buttons to push and how much trouble you can handle them getting into. We’ve all seen enough after-school movies to know what a child will do to get their parents to see them.
Your role, as a parent, is to also raise them to be competent, productive members of society. (Ideally, we need children to be competent adults for the good of all). Often your child is simply testing just how far they can push. They want to know how long you’ll back them up.
But just as often, kids will sense during the pushing and manipulating, the needing of attention, whether you still love them. Or not. You know this too. You know that unconditional love is something we’ve all craved; to know that no matter what’s really going on - the amount of trouble or punishment - you still believe in them.
I have spent time in the police department with my son. As a parent, I may not have liked what was going on, but no matter what, I love the man I know my son is capable of being. I let him know that I wasn’t happy about the circumstances but that I had his back and we’d figure it out. Now, I’m not an expert with the police as some parents are, but I do get that my anger only goes so far. Loving my children during the difficult times is way more important than loving them during the easy ones. And any parent who forgets that love is equally if not more important, will lose out in all their relationships.
Your new love will need to be patient.
There’s a lot of truth to having patience. As a child with step-parents, it wasn’t easy to fall in love with my step-dad or step-mom. After all, they weren’t my biological parents. Even though eventually I did fall in love with both of them, at first and for many years, it wasn’t easy.
Despite the fighting at home, having a new adult in the family was an adjustment. And visiting my dad and his new family was awkward and unfamiliar more often than not. There’s still a formality in my relationship with my step-mom even though I’ve confided in her, sought her advice, and leaned on her for years. She and my step-dad did everything they could for me and my brothers and sisters. We were the lucky ones!
Saying all that however, I’m still not sure how much love they felt from us. I’m not sure they always enjoyed having my brothers and sisters underfoot, and I’m not positive they always felt wanted and adored. In truth, these things take time to build.
When you bring a new adult into your children’s lives, they have to be the kind of adult that can put kids’ needs first without expecting much in return. Coping with divorce, kids don’t form the same kind of relationships as adults do with their new lovers. It’s an impossible task to expect kids to be able to bond as quickly as you do.
So this new adult in their lives, this new lover of yours, has to be willing to put up with a lot before expecting much respect, love, admiration or even manners in return. We don’t live in a culture where those rules really apply anymore and even if you want your kids to be polite or your family home is strict, be careful of setting yourself up for failure.
I watch my children closely. I remember how it felt when my mom and then my dad brought home my step-parents. I recall how the new rules in each home took some time to learn. Some of us really balked at them which of course just set everyone up for more arguments. It wasn’t smooth sailing for a very long time.
When my kids talk to me about their fathers’ relationship I have to keep a really open mind. I’m not in his home anymore and I don’t know his lover. I listen from the perspective of an adult who was once in their shoes. I know they are viewing things from their perspective, not their dad’s. I know it’s tough on them, there are new expectations and new rules. This woman hasn’t earned their trust and they haven’t bonded with her the way he has. Her presence is uncomfortable and confusing.
But I also know that overtime, if she’s patient and kind, if she continually shows up for my kids, and their dad is able to put our children first, they will learn to like and then to love her. She will become a part of their lives and share memories with them. Separate from me. I not only know that, I welcome that for my kids.
I always felt that step-parents and new relationships were about having more love in one’s life. (It’s the only way I let them have a nanny, go to sleep away camp, and to go away to college!) It’s the same with new lovers and if you remember that your kids are working through their first divorce and new relationships, over time, everyone will experience more love in their lives.
Laura Bonarrigo is a Certified Life Coach and a Certified Divorce Coach at laurabonarrigo.com. Laura's a writer, public speaker and the founder of doingDivorce School an online coaching program for those ready to shed the pain of divorce. For empowering and practical ways to lose the identity of your past, visit www.doingDivorceSchool.com and laurabonarrigo.com.