“The best security blanket a child can have is parents who respect each other.” —Jane Blaustone
Without a doubt, you deserve privacy regarding your adult dating life. Dating on your own time is just that: dating on your own time. But when your dating life begins to include your children, your co-parent becomes part of that dating life as well — overtly, or covertly through your kids.
Jen was upset that Kyle had talked to his dad about the activities they were doing with her boyfriend during her residential time. She told Kyle, “I don’t want you talking about Joe to your dad. Who I’m dating is none of his business.” Kyle was confused. Since when did some part of his life become none-of-his-dad’s-business? He and Joe did lots of stuff together both with and without his Mom. He wasn’t supposed to tell Dad what he did over the weekend at Moms just because of Joe?
Brent, Kyle’s dad, was furious with Jen when they arrived for co-parent coaching. “Why are you putting Kyle in the middle?” “Why would you ever ask him to keep secrets from me. He completely freaked when he mentioned Joe, and followed with, ‘I’m not suppose to tell’?” Now Jen was defensive, “I don’t want him to be in the middle, or keep secrets. It’s none of your business who I’m dating; that’s all. I don’t want him telling you. I just want some privacy. I don’t trust you.”
After bringing down the heat, the coach explained that as soon as Joe became part of Kyle’s life, then Kyle was allowed to discuss his life: his activities, his relationship with Joe, his feelings about Mom dating, and so forth. Dad’s job was to be respectful of Mom’s private life while supporting Kyle in his growing understanding of relationships. Both parents agreed to new rules about adult privacy in a two-home family and supporting Kyle across both homes, which includes a new adult.
Still angry with your ex? Consider this: it’s not a matter of deciding if you’ll co-parent, but rather whether or not you’ll co-parent skillfully.
We know that what is best for children is cooperative reasonably integrated co-parenting where co-parents make decisions together and coordinate parenting across both homes. This includes sharing information about dating partners once you involve your children.
Ideally, you and your co-parent have an understanding about when and how you alert each other about dating relationships. By realistically dealing with this anticipated life-change, co-parents recognize that the more maturely they can accept a former spouse dating, the easier and healthier for their children.
Why would you talk with your former spouse about your love life? You wouldn’t. You’re not sharing personal information about yourself, but rather engaging your co-parent in support of your kiddos. When co-parents can normalize a parent dating for the kids, they can listen with care to their children’s anxiety and interest in a parent’s new boyfriend or girlfriend. By being able to share with both parents children don’t experience another loss of connection with either parent around a family change that is significant for them.
You don’t have to share anything about dating with your ex. But, hopefully, both parents can be available to listen and talk to children in a healthy supportive manner about either of their parents dating. Regardless of whether you open up to your co-parent before involving your children, when you reach the stage of commitment, it is time to let your co-parent know your household is changing in a significant way for your kids.
Parenting Tip: Tell Your Co-Parent your Kids are Meeting your Love Interest
You’ve finally gotten your freedom and autonomy, your love life is no one else’s business (especially your ex’s), and besides, some co-parents may over-react to the news and cause drama. True. But, once you’ve vetted a relationship, and the person deserves the opportunity to meet your kids (and cause the potential upset for kiddos that may follow), you want your co-parent’s support if at all possible. Here’s why:
- We never ask kids to keep secrets from a parent. Asking children to keep a secret from their other parent is asking them to hide a part of themselves or their experience from one of their two most important people. We’re inadvertently putting them in the middle; we’re asking them to cover for us. If you don’t want your ex to know, don’t tell your children.
- We don’t want kids to be the messenger of potentially difficult emotional information. Do not put your children in the innocent position of communicating something you yourself are uncomfortable sharing with your co-parent for fear of their reaction. You do not want your children to feel they’ve triggered raw grief or an angry outburst — that they’ve caused you both to fight because of something they’ve said. They end up alone with guilt, shame, and anxiety. Not your intention, but a very likely outcome if you and your co-parent haven’t adequately prepared one another.
(Note: If your ex is going to have big feelings about you introducing the children to your dating partner, communicate the news while your children are with you. Give your ex-time to process. Give them time to reach out to friends, and calm down and prepare to support the kids before your children return for their next residential time.)
- Protect your children from parental conflict. We DO want kids to feel they can love, and be loved by both of their parents. Again, it is not divorce that is the most robust predictor of poor child well-being. It is parental conflict. Children do best when they feel free to care about all of the important adults in their lives — including a parent’s new partner. When you prepare your co-parent in a respectful way, they are more likely to be able to support your children in making this sometimes difficult transition.
“What do I tell my Co-parent about my New Partner?”
Kids do not belong in the middle of co-parents’ communication, especially about something this important and potentially volatile. Some parents have agreed to inform each other prior to informing the children. Others prefer not to know until it’s a committed relationship. Keeping your children’s needs and co-parent’s preference in mind, once you’re including your partner on your parenting time, have a respectful informing conversation either by email or in person with your co-parent.
Here is an example where co-parents agreed to keep each other informed about introducing a romantic partner to the kids:
I’ll be dropping the kids tomorrow at 8 as usual. I hope you and the kids will have a great few days. I wanted to let you know that I have introduced them to someone I’m seeing who I’m getting serious about. No big plans right now, but I wanted you to know before the kids arrive at your house that they’ve met someone I’m dating. His name is Brian.
I imagine they may or may not want to talk about this with you — keeping you informed as we discussed.
Thank you ahead of time for supporting them. I will, of course, do the same for you.
Notice the child-centered focus. The reason for disclosing this information is not to share details about your private life, but rather to co-parent your children skillfully. You have no control over how your co-parent may respond. But, you have given your ex some time to process this news before your children arrive in his or her home. You’ve protected your children from a potentially uncomfortable position of being the messenger for adult information, and you’ve laid the groundwork for respectful information sharing going forward.
You are also giving yourself an opportunity to test the water for your co-parent’s response. If your ex-has a hard time with your new relationship, engage a co-parent coach or similar neutral third-party to guide the two of you on how best to support your children regarding new romantic partners.
“When should my Co-parent and New Partner Meet?”
At the point that a new romantic partner is a frequent participant in residential time with the children, a co-parent may express interest in meeting the new partner. Other parents prefer to let nature take its course, and wait for the natural meeting that could occur during a transition or child’s activity. Or you may have made agreements during your divorce process that you would each get to meet a new partner prior to involving the children.
There’s no right or wrong on when or how or whether a meeting is formal or informal.
What’s important to children is that their important adults don’t act in an embarrassing way, don’t cause each other pain, and those interactions don’t result in anger and conflict. These outcomes are strictly up to the adults and how they respectfully engage with each other. Be sensitive to your co-parent’s preference for distance if your paths are crossing at public events or during transitions; be thoughtful that kid events and transitions are parenting-times, not dating opportunities. And kids are lucky when a casual easy social relationship can unfold among their adults without stress or worry — that’s golden.
Because Co-parenting is until Death Do Us Part
Your co-parent is a particularly key member of your ongoing future. Whether you maintain front row seats on each other’s lives or live at enormous (physical or emotional) distance from each other, your children will need to find their way between the two of you for all the years to come. Hopefully the back and forth is free from fear of criticism, secrets, guilt or controversy for your children. Their emotional and physical health is dependent on keeping the level of conflict and tension between you and your ex as low as possible.
Every step you take toward a respectful, functional co-parenting relationship informs the atmosphere at your children’s events for years to come.
The desire to move forward with your new partner and the wisdom to hold back — calibrating just how much, how-soon you involve your new partner in ways that impact your co-parent (and your children!) deserves thoughtful consideration. Keep in mind that divorce recovery for the spouse who was left often unfolds over two to five years after the divorce is final. So, waiting a few more months for your co-parent to adjust to the reality that your new romantic partner will be attending your daughter’s baseball games can prevent unnecessary pain and push-back that delays everyone’s ultimate adjustment.
If you don’t want your kids to skip college graduation, move to the opposite side of the country, or elope to escape family strife…figure out how they can include you both with your partners in their special events without drama and stress. Make them proud of all of you.
Karen has over 25 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families facing transition, loss, stress, and change. Karen played an instrumental role in developing the year-long facilitator-training program for the Compassionate Listening Project. Karen served on the Board of King County Collaborative Law and Collaborative Professionals of Washington. She is a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and Academy of Professional Family Mediators. Ms. Bonnell is the author of “The Co-Parents’ Handbook” (https://coachmediateconsult.com/co-parenting-handbook/) and more recently, “The Parenting Plan Handbook” (https://coachmediateconsult.com/the-parenting-plan-workbook/) – both practical, compassionate resources for parents as they face difficult emotions and make some of the hardest decisions for their children and themselves through separation/divorce. You can learn more about Karen Bonnell and her practice at http://coachmediateconsult.com .