As a single parent, have you ever wondered what your kids would say about the way you date?
When asked what she wishes her mom would do differently, Rachel, a 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.”
Dating with two people is difficult; dating in a crowd is downright complicated. Single parents need to consider tricky questions. For example, when and how do you include your children in the process? How much should they influence your decisions about dating? Or, if you’re dating a single parent (with or without kids of your own), what should you be looking for?
Dating Myths for Single Parents
Wise dating begins by avoiding these three myths:
1. “If I’m happy, my kids will be happy.” Single parents sometimes tell themselves that their happiness is at the center of their children’s happiness, and therefore, “If I fall in love, my kids will be happy as well.” In truth, there’s no guarantee that finding romantic love will improve the lives of your children. In fact, your happiness can actually bring great unhappiness to your children. To remain balanced in dating, give equal consideration to your needs and those of your children.
2. Your kids can’t be successful unless you are married. This myth claims that children raised in a single-parent home have deficits that will be eradicated if they are, instead, raised in a two-parent stepfamily home. Actually, research suggests the outcomes for kids are no different. Children can fare just as well when raised in a single-parent home as they can in a stepfamily. Therefore, when it comes to the well-being of your children, single parents should feel permission to stay single if they so choose. If you meet someone who is a good fit for your children, great. If you don’t, great.
3. Marriage repairs your home and gives children a family. Divorce or the death of a parent fractures a family, and understandably, single parents want to restore their family to a state of wholeness. But in truth, this isn’t possible. A decision to marry and form a blended family does not return a missing parent to the home. Instead, remarriage provides children with a stepparent and creates a parenting team that is very different from the biological family system into which they were born. This is not to say that stepfamilies cannot be loving, healthy homes—they can! But to date and marry with the expectation that “all will be restored” is to set yourself, your spouse, and your children up for great disappointment.
Best Practices for Dating Again
Once you eradicate the single-parent dating myths from your life, here are some best practices to guide your dating decisions.
Make your early dates about dating each other—not your kids. Early on, your kids may meet your date and be intrigued to learn a little about him, but the first few dates should primarily be about the two of you. At first, reference your date as “a friend,” or, if your kids are prepared, call him your “date.” Casual introductions are fine, but don’t proactively put your kids and the person together until you’re sure of real possibilities for the relationship. This is especially true for children under the age of five who can bond with someone you are dating more quickly than you can. As your interest in the person grows, gradually become more intentional about finding time for your significant other and kids to get together. Tread lightly at first, and continue to monitor and be sensitive to everyone’s reactions.
Avoid a quick turnaround. Parents who begin dating quickly after the end of a relationship (whether by death or divorce) or who make a quick decision to marry after a brief dating period often find their children more resistant to the marriage. This rapid pace sabotages the ability of a stepparent and stepchild to begin a healthy relationship, and it puts the family at risk. Of course, the definition of “quick” will vary between all those involved.
Engage in “What if?” conversations. Even before dating, single parents should begin a series of conversations with their children, asking, “How would you feel if I began dating?” Engage the conversation periodically, asking, “What if John and I began dating regularly?” “What if Sarah’s kids came over every Friday through the summer?” “What if he and I were to get engaged?” Each dialogue can serve as both assessment and intervention as it prepares the children for what might happen. Smart single parents don’t let a child’s emotions dictate their dating progress, but they do listen and give serious consideration to how the children are feeling. Remember, becoming a couple may be up to you, but whether everyone becomes a family is up to them.
Expect various kid reactions. It can be confusing for your kids when you date someone new. One side of them wants to see you smile again; another side is frightened by how life will change if someone new joins the family. This fear stems from the fact that your children are dealing with loss. They have often lost regular contact with a parent, and they feel they have no control over their lives. Also, liking a parent’s dating partner sometimes creates a loyalty problem for kids. They’re worried about how liking your boyfriend or girlfriend will impact the feelings of their other biological parent or that parent’s extended family. Children may warm up nicely to a dating partner and then turn cold or vacillate back and forth. Don’t panic. Repeatedly reassure them of your love and continued involvement, no matter who enters your life.
Pursue God’s blessing. I believe the high calling of Scripture for divorced persons is to reconcile their original marriages if at all possible. Having said that, I want to acknowledge that it isn’t always possible or safe. For example, returning to an unbelieving partner or restoring an abusive marriage won’t bring glory to God unless there has been radical repentance and profound change. Whatever your situation, the point is this: Don’t date or move on to another marriage without first giving serious consideration to the calling of reconciliation. Explore with a pastor or ministry leader what the Bible has to say about your specific situation.
Learn all you can about stepfamily living. Nearly 20 years of counseling and training blended families has revealed to me this secret of successful blended-family couples: They work at getting smarter about stepfamily living. Getting smarter means learning all you can about how stepfamilies function, how they operate best, and why they have the unique complexities that they do. Be a learner.
As parents we have been given the high calling of stewarding our children’s hearts, minds, and souls. Wise dating is certainly a part of this calling, but parenting is so much more. Don’t worry if you make mistakes—give yourself grace as you step into the dating world. And give your children grace as well. God restores his people, and he will walk with you down each step of the dating road.
Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of FamilyLife Blended™, a popular conference speaker, and author of The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, and more. His one-minute radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, can be heard daily on stations nationwide and online. Learn more at FamilyLife.com. This article was adapted from Dating and the Single Parent. Copyright © 2012 by Ron L. Deal. Used by permission of Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group.