Introducing Children to A New Partner
Introducing children to a new partner is often one of the most contentious aspects of separation, whenever it happens. As a divorce coach and mediator I have found parents are often poles apart on this issue – often because one party is already in a new relationship and wants to move on.
And it’s often, though not always, that men want children to be introduced to their new partner long before a woman does.
So, with all these differences of opinion at play, what is the right time for introducing children to a new partner?
The short answer is there is no blueprint for ‘the right time’. Only the time that’s right for your children. Introducing children to a new partner should always be given lots of time and thought. This is not about you, however happy you are in your new relationship, it’s about supporting your children as life changes around them.
In this blog we explore everything you need to consider to make the right decision for your particular situation.
Let your children adjust
Remember, it is likely that your children will take longer to adjust to the changes in their family than you. The timescales for this will vary depending on your children’s personalities, ages and their emotional needs. Trying to pin down an average of when a child is ready to hear about their parent’s new relationship is like asking how long that piece of string is.
It’s about noticing what’s going on in your particular family and responding to that wisely, with your children’s needs as a priority.
Questions to ask yourself
Q: Are your children ready to accept a new person in your life?
Even if you start a new relationship, your children may not be ready to accept it. Keep a new relationship discreet from your children until they are established in a routine of seeing you and their other parent regularly and feel secure in that. Remember, irrespective of what happens with your new partner, as far as your children are concerned, they have two parents – you and their other parent. They will need lots of reassurance that your new partner does not replace them in your love and affection.
Q: How are they likely to react?
Be prepared that once your children know you are in a new relationship, they may not be happy about it. Feelings of anger and sadness for the loss of your marriage may resurface. You can’t predict how your children will react – they may be genuinely happy for you, and get on brilliantly with your new beau. But preparing yourself for difficult emotions will help you respond calmly if things get tense or upset. Remember it’s their fear at losing you that will drive most of these emotions. Reassurance that you will always love them and be there for them rather than anger they are taking it badly is essential.
Q: Is the other parent on-side?
Discuss the introduction of your new partner to the children with their other parent first if at all possible. It will make it so much easier for your children if they know this is something their other parent knows about and is respectful of. It’s certainly respectful to your ex to tell them yourself rather than let them find out from your children! Respect and communication are critical issues in co-parenting. You may disagree about appropriate timescales for the introduction of new partners, which can be tricky. Talking it through with a family mediator can help, as well as including principles in your Parenting Plan more on this later in the blog).
Q: Does your new partner have children too?
Take the integration of step-families slowly and at a pace that seems right for both sets of children. Think about introducing the children on neutral ground, rather than at one family home or another. Again, mediation can help if the details around blending your families are challenging. Encourage children to enjoy their extended family network as it develops. Once they get to know one another they may have fun with the new people on their family scene. Children often feel guilt at enjoying having a step-family, because they feel it’s taking sides, or diminishing their love for their other parent. It can help if both parents assure any children involved that their love for them won’t change, whatever other changes take place.
Plan the meeting
If you’re in the heady stages of a new romance you may be desperate to introduce your children to your new love – it may even feel like lying if you don’t. But, wait. This is about what’s in their best interests and what they can cope with.
A plan will mean it’s more likely the meeting goes well. Think about when and where. Is there a social event you’ll be at with your children where they will have other family and friends around so the don’t feel so overwhelmed and can escape if need be?
It could be that your children would prefer a quieter meet with you, your partner and possibly their children. Neutral territory is best.
Don’t expect your children to be friendly or gracious at first. It’s more likely they’ll be wary and play it cool. Know that’s normal, it’s not that your children are rude. If your children don’t want to meet your new partner just yet, don’t push it. Respect their feelings and this will serve your new relationship well in the long run.
If your children are old enough, discuss your new relationship wwith them, and listen to what they say. They don’t need to know about it straight away, but neither are children stupid. If the children are old enough to realise that mummy’s ‘friend’ is in fact your boyfriend or girlfriend, say so.
Keep your boundaries strong. If the children are curious to meet your partner before you’ve even decided if the relationship has legs, gently and firmly let your children know that that won’t be happening until you are sure you will be seeing a lot of this person.
If they have questions, answer them as honestly and straightforwardly as possible, again keeping your boundaries strong. It might be appropriate for them to ask and know what your new partner does for a living. It might not be appropriate for them to know whether you plan to marry them!
Don’t be afraid to pull back
When the children meet your new partner, be honest and open with yourself about how it went. What red flags were there, if any? First meeting nerves can make initial get-togethers awkward and tense. Was it just that or something more? How do you feel?
Ask your children how they feel. Encourage them to be honest. Don’t be afraid to pull back if the meeting doesn’t go well or is overwhelming for your children. Sometimes, these things can just take time. If your new relationship is serious your partner will be around for the long haul, and you can take your time to get things right.
When your child’s other parent introduces their new partner
It doesn’t matter how clear you are on the need to wait and be sure about your new partner before you introduce the children, you my have little or no influence over what your child’s other parent does.
In the ideal world, you’ll agree the process as part of your Parenting Plan. It could be time related – for example not before you’ve been dating for three months. It could be only when you think it’s likely the new partner is a long-term prospect. Whatever you decide, it’s a good idea to put these principles in the plan and refer back to them.
It’s also a good idea for you and your ex to agree to tell each other about new partners before breaking the news to children. This means if your ex has a new partner you can help your children understand what’s happening, and vice versa. This gives your children a sense of stability, and the knowledge that even though you and your ex are no longer together you are still on the same team as far as parenting is concerned.
Dealing with a surprise
In the real world, this doesn’t often happen. The first you know about your ex’s new partner is when your children return to you with news of a person you’ve never heard of. Firstly, stay calm. However annoyed you feel your children don’t need to see it. Fundamentally, this is about your children not you. Take your emotions to your therapist or friends if you are struggling.
You may think its too soon because ‘they only just met’ (and you may be right) but what’s done is done. If there are no safeguarding issues, the morality of the situation isn’t something you can do anything about now.
If the children return confused or distressed, try to remain calm. Don’t contact your ex whilst you are angry because you’ll react rather than respond. Send communication via Our Family Wizard if you have it – it will encourage you to moderate what you say!
Let them know that the children have returned feeling upset. List their emotions such as confused, angry or hurt. Resist the urge to criticise as this will only inflame the situation. Stick to the facts. You might say something like:
“The children have returned from you having met with X. Neither they nor I had been expecting this and children weren’t prepared. Equally, I was not prepared and cannot answer the questions they have. Please confirm that next time you see the children you will be on your own and prepared to answer any questions the children may have”. Then, leave it there.
The Absolute Academy can help you
Being a parent isn’t easy. Being a single parent and trying to make the right decisions for the children and yourself certainly isn’t easy. Tiredness, loneliness, overwhelm and anxiety can cloud your judgement at best and damage your self-esteem at worst. Sisterhood in The Absolute Academy can change all that.
With a dedicated secret Facebook Group, a training portal full of useful resources, Live Q&As and Zoom Wednesdays (BYO wine), we are a friendly bunch of women who can support your legal and emotional journey through divorce. Find out more and join us here.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com