What You Should Know Before Dating a Divorced Parent
A healthy curiosity about your partner's perspective is an essential part of the dating process. It's even more important if you're starting a relationship with a parent, especially one who recently divorced.
Matt Lundquist, L.C.S.W., a Columbia University-trained psychotherapist based in New York City, said the most common issue for childless folks who find themselves dating parents is the lack of time you experience together.
"When dating a parent, there are simply going to be times that person isn't available," he said. "Time with kids has a level of importance, a level of focused attention that can be hard for some nonparents to understand. Early in a relationship—where meeting the kid isn't yet appropriate—means dating someone who's available in a limited way. You have to be OK with that."
Resentment can be a problem
Hayley Evans, L.M.F.T., a sex therapist and the owner of Serenity Experiential Family Therapy Center in Broomfield, Colorado, described how a childless person can gauge if they're mature enough to date a divorcee.
"[A person is] emotionally ready to date someone who is recently divorced if they are able to really hear and listen to another person's experience without getting defensive or reactive," she explained. "Do you have a tendency towards jealousy when partners talk about past relationships? If jealousy or resentment does arise, will they blame their partner for their emotions or are they willing to seek help to work through those feelings? Knowing that those feelings belong to them, and are not the fault of their partner, is important to keep in mind when entering into a relationship."
Failing to manage these feelings, especially when dealing with a parent's busy schedule, can lead to resentment, Evans explained.
"Resentment is often a result of your needs and wants not being met while having the expectation that they should be," she said. "It can be helpful to express any emotions you are feeling. Let them know you were really looking forward to spending time with them and are disappointed but that you understand why they need to cancel."
Dating a parent may sometimes be an exercise in independence, as you learn to keep your own company. In fact, that ability can help "resentment-proof" your relationship.
"Flexibility is a necessity when dating someone who is caring for children, as things will come up that take priority," Evans suggested. "Make sure that you have a backup plan in case the date is canceled to get your needs met elsewhere. Reach out to a loved one or a friend; set up a space conducive for self-play; have some quality alone time; or invite a friend or family member. Getting your needs met elsewhere will make it difficult for feelings like resentment to build and fester."
What if the kid hates me?
If you are eventually invited to spend time with both parent and child, Evans warned against putting up a false front.
"Children have great B.S. detectors," she noted. "As soon as someone starts pretending to like something/someone or pretending to feel a certain way, the child's alarm will go off, resulting in a decrease of trust."
If the child isn't immediately a fan, it's imperative to remember they're entitled to their emotions. Evans explained how parents can interact with their child's feelings, a perspective from which childless adults can learn.
"Just because the parent has a relationship with the new partner doesn't mean that the child does. It's important to be patient, validate what the child is experiencing and balance doing things with the partner versus the parent and child doing things alone together," she explained. "For the parent, listen to their experience without trying to change it or 'fix the problem.' Reassure the child that you love them and that your parent-child relationship is important to you. Process your emotions with a trusted peer, not with your child."
Lundquist outlined reasons the child may not like the new partner and potential solutions, including coming to terms with what can't be changed.
"Is the nonparent partner overeager? Impatient? Competitive with the parent's relationship with their child? Is the child struggling from unresolved feelings about the divorce or the other parent?" he asked. "If these are given attention, then the relationship tends to improve. That said, in instances where it doesn't improve, there needs to be some acceptance of the idea that in some instances, people just don't enjoy one another much. The sooner that can be accepted, the work can turn from trying to like each other to getting along and that being good enough."
Ask yourself: Am I ready?
Trust your instincts on whether or not you think a potential partner, especially a recently divorced one, is ready for a new relationship. No one wants to be the rebound. Evans offered nonparenting partners this precaution:
"People who have been through a divorce may want to jump into another relationship to distract themselves from the pain of the divorce—perhaps blaming their ex for all of the problems—which is something for a potential partner to watch out for," she explained. "Avoiding emotion through distraction or blame is a sign they are not ready to enter into another relationship in a healthy way."
Talking about your ex too soon or too often is one of the ultimate dating missteps, but when becoming involved with a parent—especially one who is recently divorced—understanding their baggage can influence the context of this new relationship.