Sometimes kids say it best. When asked what she wishes her mom would do differently while dating, Rachel, a smart young graduate student, replied, “I wish she would recognize her own impulsivity and emotional rollercoaster. She does and says things without recognizing that to some extent our whole family is dating this guy. This year I came home four times from college and he was in town every single time. After I went back to campus each time mom said, ‘I never get to see you!’ Yes, well, that’s because you were with your boy.”
Dating for two is difficult; dating in a crowd is downright complicated. The kids are engaged, at least on some level, even when you don’t think they are and everyone has strong emotions and opinions about who is involved and what the outcome might be. In other words, the whole family is dating. Table for 20!
In Dating and the Single Parent I examine the complex process of finding love in the midst of a crowd and include a number of dating best practices for single parents and the singles who date them. Here are just a few:
Realize that You’re not just Forming a Relationship, You’re Creating a Family
When kids predate dating, the couple’s dating relationship inherently creates competing attachments between family members. The choice to be with the dating partner or children generally means the other is left waiting…and wondering how their relationship with you is being influenced by your relationship with the other. Children commonly feel some insecurity by mom or dad’s relationship with another person. Wise singles recognize this important dynamic and don’t assume that becoming a couple necessarily means that they can become a family. They attend to both and take time assessing how the potential stepfamily relationships are developing. This, in turn, impacts their decision to continue dating or end the relationship.
Avoid a Quick Turn-around
Parents who begin dating quickly after the end of a relationship (whether by death or divorce) or who reach a quick decision to marry after a brief dating period often find their children more resistant to the marriage. This sabotages the ability of a stepparent and stepchild to get off on the right foot with one another and puts the family at risk.
Engage in “What if?” Conversations
Even before dating, single parents begin a series of conversations with their children that wonder, “What if I began dating? How would you feel?” Periodically, they engage the conversation again and again: “What if Sara and I began dating regularly?” “What if John’s kids came over every Friday through the summer?” “What if she and I were to get engaged?” Each dialogue is both assessment (how are my kids feeling about these possibilities and realities) and intervention as it prepares them for what might happen. A smart single parent doesn’t let their children’s emotions dictate their dating progress, but they do listen and give serious consideration to how the children are feeling (becoming a couple is up to you; whether you become a family is up to them).
If You Don’t Have Kids
Do your relationship a favor, encourage the single parent you are dating to “go home” every once in a while and be with their kids, without you. This has two benefits: 1) it helps lessen the fears of the children; and 2) it keeps perspective in your relationship. Might you feel a little left out and lonely? You bet. But then this relationship is as much about them as it is about you.
Expect Hot/Cold Reactions
Liking a parent’s dating partner sometimes creates a loyalty problem for kids: They don’t know how to embrace everyone and not hurt feelings (especially the other biological parent). Because they are caught in a loyalty conflict, children sometimes warm up nicely to a dating partner and then turn cold. Sometimes they vacillate back and forth. Don’t panic or judge the children too harshly. Confusion comes with the territory. Relax and work with what they give you.
Learn All You Can About Stepfamily Living
Nearly twenty years of counseling, coaching, and training blended families has revealed to me this secret of successful blended family couples: They work harder at getting smarter about stepfamily living. Getting smarter means learning all you can about how stepfamilies operate best and why they have a two-thirds divorce rate. You may know how to drive a car, but driving in snow and icy conditions requires a different knowledge and skill set. Nearly all blended families have inclement weather to manage as they drive (especially in the first few years), so adopt the attitude of a learner. Visit us at SmartStepfamilies.com and get stepfamily smart.
written by Ron L. Deal
Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of blended family ministries for FamilyLife®, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Remarriage Checkup (with David H. Olson), The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), The Smart Stepdad, and his latest Dating and the Single Parent. Learn more at www.smartstepfamilies.com.