“So when are you and Dan getting married already?” asked my 8-year-old son. We were hiking through Cranbrook on a sunny Saturday and I squirmed as he spoke the words. “Can we have this discussion another time?” I smiled, side-stepping his snarky grin.
Two-plus years out of a bad marriage, I’m in no rush to find husband No. 2. When I do take that step, I want to be certain it’s a lifelong, healthy relationship that’s good for me and good for my three kids. So you can imagine my surprise that they’re ready to create our own version of the Brady Bunch before I am.
It’s because I did exactly what experts recommend: take it slow, not force a new guy on the kids and follow their lead.
With a 50-percent divorce rate, America is seeing more mixed families than ever before. It’s a different game to date when you’re a parent and while there are no hard and fast rules, parents and experts agree on some guidelines – the least of which is, let them be ready before you are.
1. Validate and reassure
“No matter their ages, explain (to your children) why you’re dating and that no one will ever replace the other parent,” says Dr. Terry Orbuch, research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and a family therapist. “Tell them they are your first priority and you’ll always be there for them, no matter who you’re dating.”
If kids are resistant or negative, don’t get defensive. Acknowledge feelings, and give extra hugs.
2. No revolving doors
“I’ve done a pretty careful job of limiting (my son’s) exposure to anybody that I wasn’t 100 percent sure could be marriage (material),” says Sean Singer, a divorced dad in Plymouth. Seven years since his divorce, Singer has only introduced his now 14-year-old son to two women, neither of whom he ended up marrying.
“In both cases, (I introduced him only) when I was sure that I was going to maintain a long-term relationship,” Singer says.
“It’s not good to introduce your children to a lot of different people,” says Steven Spector, Ph.D., a West Bloomfield therapist and assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine.
Laura Solomon agrees. The West Bloomfield mom of nine (seven of her own plus two stepsons) cringes about how many men her husband’s ex has traipsed through their boys’ lives.
“Unless it’s ‘The Guy,’ don’t bring him around,” Solomon says.
Surprisingly, younger kids are “more resilient,” says Dr. Orbuch. For stability and trust, don’t march a bunch of dates before your kids – and if you do, understand that tweens, teens and adolescents are likely to take break-ups harder than little ones.
3. Every kid is different
While my younger son envelopes Dan with hugs, belly-punches and eager exclamations of love, my elder son is more cautious. Dan respected his sensitivity, approaching him with conversation or a board game as a way to grow close.
“Take each child’s temperament into consideration and developmental age,” says Spector. “Be concrete with little ones, abstract with teens and pre-teens. Always use the concept of friends.”
4. Fun and neutral
First, second, even third meetings of a “significant other” and your respective kids should occur in neutral, fun locations – Chuck E. Cheese, parks, putt-putt or movies – places devoid of pressure.
When Laura and Jeff Solomon were dating, they concocted chance meetings as a way to familiarize their kids.
“We didn’t (say), ‘Hi, this is my boyfriend and his kids,'” Solomon says. “We went to the park and, oh, we happened to run into Jeff, Jake and Jordan. It’s terrible when people date and get their kids all attached and the kids are thinking they’re going to be brother and sister and then you dump the guy. (Our kids) friended each other.”
“To this day, they still joke, ‘We remember when we met Jeff. You weren’t dating him – you met him at Chuck E. Cheese!’ One time we met at the gas station to follow each other and they’re like, ‘Didn’t you meet him at a gas station?'”
5. Reconsider the romantic sleepover
“Unless you’re very, very serious, the person shouldn’t sleep over,” says Spector.
Especially with teens, while they hear what you say, they are more likely to do what you do, says Dr. Orbuch. Both agree that the significant-other-sleepover is a values call – and both hesitate to give the green light from a clinical perspective before there’s a ring on your finger.
“Adolescents are watching and they’re going to model you. Kids do what parents do,” Dr. Orbuch says. Reserve sleepovers for nights when the kids stay with the other parent.
6. No step-discipline, please
Karen Buscemi and her ex-husband Andrew discuss and dole out punishments for their son, who spends equal time in both houses. Stepparents don’t chime in.
“In our houses, parents take the main role; steps (don’t) execute punishments,” says Buscemi, the Rochester Hills author of I Do, Part Two: How to Survive Divorce, Co-Parent Your Kids and Blend Your Families Without Losing Your Mind.
Judith Slotkin agrees. In six years of being together, she has never disciplined partner Anne Adelson’s sons.
“I decided early on not to confront Annie’s children with any issues I might have with them,” says Slotkin, a Bloomfield Hills resident. “To speak to Annie about it and if she chose, then she dealt with the children. That has protected (both) relationships all these years.”
7. Encourage the other parent relationship
“Whether the divorce was good or bad, whether there’s still feelings of resentment or bitterness, be kind to each other,” says Buscemi. “Don’t throw a new love in your ex’s face. Keep respect for your kid in mind. Let your ex know you’re dating; don’t let him or her find out from the kid or a friend. Let your ex know if you’ve decided to get married – be short and sweet, don’t write a litany about how happy you are to pledge your life to that person.”
When your child warms to a new beau, they may feel anxiety, thinking it’s a betrayal of the other parent. Plus, it ends the “reunification fantasy” that all kids of divorce maintain, hoping their parents will reunite like The Parent Trap.
Research shows that “it’s the exception that parents remarry,” says Dr. Orbuch. “The most difficult thing for kids to understand is they don’t have control over their parents’ relationship.”
“Clarify that it’s OK to like and love two different people,” says Spector. “You can love your father or mother and also care about a new person. It’s not wrong.”
And it’s OK when children become attached to a significant other – if the relationship is serious, say Spector and Dr. Orbuch.
“The other person can be an excellent role model,” says Spector. A new, successful relationship is also (hopefully) a great example of a healthy relationship, replacing earlier examples of failure.
8. Relationships 101
There is no predetermined time to wait before dating, says Dr. Orbuch. Basically, the time is right when you’re ready to trust someone new.
“People disengage or emotionally separate at different points,” she says. “Women are more likely to emotionally separate from a marriage when they’re in it, so when the actual divorce occurs, that may be years after they emotionally separate. (For) men, physical separation is much more the impetus to emotionally separate. People have different points when they’re ‘out’ of a relationship.”
“I didn’t wait very long,” says Buscemi. “I was the one who did the leaving, so I was ready to move on. It is such a bizarre thing to date with a kid – everybody has their baggage. (When you’re divorced with a kid), you don’t want it to matter and in your heart it doesn’t, but you’re really vulnerable that people aren’t going to want you because you have a child. You start to think, ‘God, I’ve taken the eligible bachelors out there and narrowed them to a very small pool.'”
“You want to think, ‘Well, if he doesn’t like me because I have a kid, to hell with him.’ But you still want him to like you, you still have the school-girl emotions,” Buscemi says.
“Don’t feel desperate,” says Melissa Brodsky, a Farmington Hills remarried mom of two with two stepkids. “Too many people jump into a second marriage due to fear of being alone.”
Evaluate what went wrong before – don’t issue blame; objectively assess attributes and compatibly. Many people think opposites attract, but research shows similarities make relationships last.
“All relationships have conflict, and it’s important that kids see some conflict because you don’t want them to grow up thinking parents don’t disagree,” says Dr. Orbuch. “It’s essential that kids see conflict dealt with effectively.” That happens best when two people share values and perspectives.
Don’t look for a stepparent for your child, Dr. Orbuch says. “Find someone who’s similar to you in underlying values about children.”
And follow these quick-hit tips: Go out at least three times before giving someone the boot. Date for a while before getting serious; watch how the person behaves in a variety of scenarios. Be safe; don’t allow dates to pick you up at home. Before getting serious, ask an objective third party – what Dr. Orbuch calls a “good buddy” with your best interests at heart – to weigh in. Then, “go with your gut.”
9. Remarriage is a good thing
It’s another adult in the house, another person to love your children, an example of a healthy loving relationship. “If you’re happy and balanced, you’re going to be a better role model,” says Dr. Orbuch.
If you approach remarriage as a team, you’ll help kids breeze through this new change rather than fight it.
“It’s a new beginning for them and the more you involve them, the more they feel it’s a team effort,” says Spector.
Even when it comes to the wedding, let kids have a voice. Choosing desserts or clothing or the order in which they’ll walk down the aisle (by age!) allows kids to take ownership of this new marriage and feel like they have a place in it.