Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Single Parent Dating?


A Chatham County reader requested advice regarding single parents who wish to begin dating after a separation or divorce. Should single parents have a life of their own? Of course! It is very important for single parents to take care of themselves and find enjoyment in their lives. The loss of a marriage is devastating; the hopes and dreams of the wedding day are forever crushed. In many cases the marriage and parent relationship has been replaced by hurt and anger.

Although single parents are not necessarily doomed to remain single and will at some point look for another relationship, they must begin by considering the needs of their children. Remember that children love both parents, and each child is a combination of mom and dad. In most cases the children will forever yearn to have their mother and father remarry, and even adult children of divorce usually fantasize about their parents reuniting. It is important that each single parent empower their children to have a full relationship with the other parent. (There are some exceptions as in the case of abuse or domestic violence when professionals are needed to monitor whatever relationship is deemed appropriate for the situation.) When the children feel that their relationship with the other parent is protected and supported, they may be more able to share each parent.

The age of the children is important in considering a new relationship, but it would be a mistake to believe that only young children experience difficulty when their parents start dating again. All children experience some degree of difficulty when a stranger enters into the family circle. While older children and teenagers often retreat into relationships with their friends and try to act as if they don’t care, they nevertheless remain dependent upon their parents for love and nurturance. Children of any age will become confused in distressed when they feel that parent love is threatened by a new relationship.

Children do not need to be exposed to the rituals of courtship. When a parent is ready to start dating, initial dates should begin on days when the children are living with the other parent. It is important to remember that these children have experienced a loss in parent relationships even when the parents are able to co-parent successfully. Children should not be introduced to parent dates unless they are really "significant others" so that they will not have to experience a succession of losses of new relationships. When a date does become a significant other, the new person could be introduced as a part of group functions and gradually introduced to the children. It is important to avoid public displays of affection in front of the children at least initially so as not to arouse jealousy and competition in the children. Of course, children should never observe sexual activity between the new partners. Introduce the new partner in the same way that you introduce other adults, either Mr. or Ms. or first name if this is your practice. Never introduce the new partner as a new mommy or daddy. It is important that the new partner not try to "bribe" the children or establish an overly friendly or playful relationship which could not be continued if the couple gets married and the new partner assumes a step-parent role.

If the new partner does become a stepparent, it is important to realize that remarriage with children is very difficult and the children are rarely as happy as the newly married couple. Many good resources are available to assist the new stepfamily, either books or therapists trained to deal with this challenging new role.