When a couple chooses to enter into divorce mediation, as opposed to litigation, there are often noble intentions driving this decision. Facing off as adversaries in court is costly, not only in the literal, financial sense, but also in how it can drain away a couple’s mutual goodwill. In the best-case scenario, a mediated divorce allows the foundational partnership that supported the marriage to evolve without crumbling. This baseline of shared respect gives divorcing parties the strongest possible chance of effectively tackling complex, emotional matters, such as the division of material assets and custody. In an ideal outcome, you may walk away from divorce mediation bruised, but not battle scarred. With the basic integrity of your relationship intact, you retain the tools to coparent in a healthy, positive way, moving forward. You may no longer be together, but you are forever united in wanting what is best for your children. With that understood, there is still one issue with the unique potential to upset the hard-won equilibrium that even the most well-meaning ex-couples strive for: When and how to introduce new romantic partners to the children they both cherish.
If handled without foresight, clarity and planning, the arrival of a new romantic partner into the family ecosystem can drain the divorcing individuals’ supply of goodwill. This ultimately undermines their children’s perception of familial trust and safety. Bringing a new partner into the mix too soon, without careful communication or mutually agreed-upon parameters can derail both the post-divorce relationship and the promising new one. Nobody wins.
What does this mishandling of a delicate situation look like? What is the potential fallout? And what are the best practices to follow, to avoid these pitfalls?
Thankfully, we have helped many families design a framework for dealing with these issues that keep children’s welfare as its cornerstone. It is possible to navigate these situations with sensitivity and care. This way, everyone wins. The key is remembering your shared goal: To preserve the emotional wholeness of your family, even as it integrates new members; even as it takes a new shape.
PART ONE: WHAT NOT TO DO
Fail to communicate
If you decide to introduce a new romantic partner to your child(ren) without first discussing it with your former spouse and co-parent, s/he may feel blindsided and unprepared. A simple conversation up front, explaining your intentions and timeline communicates respect. Often, parental anxiety gets triggered when we feel we are losing control or at least positive influence over our children’s lives and experiences. By talking with your former spouse about your romantic situation and intentions vis a vis your kids, you are acknowledging s/he is your parenting co-captain, as opposed to a powerless bystander.
Jump the gun
It is best to wait to introduce a new partner until you have some degree of certainty about the longevity of the relationship. Often—especially since the pandemic—parents rely on the idea that children are adaptable, flexible, resilient or (due to their young age) ignorant to the grown-up world around them. This does them a disservice. In reality, studies have shown kids thrive when their routine and family dynamics are predictable and consistent. The specific timeline is up to you and your former spouse to establish. But many couples agree to wait a minimum of six months before introducing a new partner to their kids.
Expose kids to a romantic revolving door
You may find, as is your prerogative, you have several false starts or abbreviated relationships when you reenter the dating world. Some liaisons are short-lived but nevertheless positive. In any case, it is inadvisable to introduce children to a string of new partners in rapid succession. If you are dating multiple partners simultaneously or find yourself embarking on a series of new romantic entanglements, that should remain in the world of adulthood. (Parents are still entitled to privacy.) In our experience, ideal outcomes are achieved when kids and former spouses are shielded from introductions until new relationships are firmly established.
Stonewall or malign your ex’s new partner
It is natural to feel a sense of betrayal when your former spouse connects with a new romantic partner. It is also understandable to want to protect your children from new adults you have not yet vetted for safety. After all, you would never hire a caregiver or enroll your children in a daycare without first interviewing the childcare provider. It is reasonable to want to screen any new adult who comes into your children’s lives. But it is also unfortunately common to allow these feelings of pain and anxiety to toxify the family system. If we do this, our kids suffer. Introductions between all involved adults should be facilitated in good faith. But if, after meeting your former spouse’s new partner, you have no legitimate concerns about their ability to keep your children safe, it is your responsibility to smooth (or at the very least not obstruct) the path for this person to form a positive connection with your children.
Weaponize your kids
A positive relationship between co-parents and their respective partners results in lifelong gains for the children of blended families. Post-divorce, “a successfully reestablished family or a successful remarriage can improve the quality of life for both adults and children,” according to a longitudinal study cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics. On the flipside, we have seen parents—sometimes unconsciously—seek to avenge their own emotional pain by indefinitely barring new partners from ever being around their children. This embroils the children in a damaging tug-of-war. They become pawns in parental conflict, to their detriment. They may be hesitant to share what went on at Dad’s house for fear of upsetting mom. Or incentivized to act negatively toward Mom’s new romantic partner in order to “avenge” their “betrayed” parent. When communication breaks down between co-parents, and/or resentments fester between new partners and the other important adults in their lives, kids suffer. A united front, mutual civility, and shared, universally upheld values is a sure path to healing. We often say it takes a village to raise a child. Unless you have a valid objection, integrating the new partner into your parenting team enhances your village instead of detracting from it. Parenting—especially after divorce—can be isolating and exhausting. Consider what you stand to gain by eventually relying on the new partner as another parental figure. Children thrive when they are loved by more adults, not fewer.
Refuse to let go
Parents tell us that one of the most challenging aspects of life post-divorce is missing their children when they are with their other parent. Some seek to regain a sense of connection or control by focusing microscopically on the details of how an ex and his/her new partner spend time with the children. You may find you have become fixated on the nitty gritty details of their time together. A shift in perspective may be warranted. It is helpful to set mutually agreed upon ground rules about major considerations like health, safety and screen time. Both co-parents and their partners should uphold these rules. But beyond that, a healthy goal is to try to trust your co-parent and his/her partner to the best of your ability. Unless you have reason to believe one of them is incapable of loving and protecting your children, pick your battles. Assuming the new partner meets the above criteria, s/he should be gradually integrated into the role of another trusted adult—think of the way you would empower an aunt, a babysitter or a grandparent to watch over your children—in their lives.
When your ex-spouse meets someone new, it can be emotionally challenging for you and your children, but with the right tools and attitude, it can be a positive experience for everyone. In our next blog, we will discuss some of the potential issues you can address preemptively with your spouse during mediation, with the goal of making the introduction of a new partner easier for the whole family when it happens in the future.