Co-parenting While in a New Relationship:
Maintaining a successful co-parenting relationship while in a new romantic relationship poses unique challenges. It also has the potential to provide great benefits to everyone involved if done in a healthy way. Conversely, inappropriate co-parenting while in a relationship has the potential to create tremendous stress and long-term emotional consequences for both the adults and the children involved. It is therefore essential to understand how to best navigate this process and what strategies to utilize to successfully create co-parenting boundaries while in a new relationship.
Co-parenting While in a New Relationship
The first step in this process is introducing your children to a new partner. This step is often done poorly and frequently causes so much unnecessary emotional damage both to your children as well as to your co-parenting relationship.
Following this 5 step STOPP strategy will significantly reduce the probability of that damage happening. In fact, it will maximize the chances of this new person being welcomed into your children’s lives rather than being viewed as an evil intruder who is hated for years to come. The five steps are Slow, Tell your ex, Only share what is necessary, Preserve quality time, and Patience
As is true for so many things in life, timing is everything when introducing a new partner to your children. There are two very specific parameters that are essential for you to follow if you want to protect them from emotional harm:
1) Do NOT introduce a new partner to your children while you are still married and are going through the process of divorce. It will be confusing to your children, will inevitably inflame your spouse’s rage, and will potentially de-rail your divorce negotiations. Breaking this rule is truly a very selfish decision that ignores what is best for every member of your family and has the potential to backfire in so many ways. Avoid it at all costs!!
2) Do NOT introduce a new partner to your children when you first start dating. It is essential that you wait until the relationship is long term and committed. Your children have already experienced so much loss and instability because of the divorce. The last thing you want for them now is to create the potential for more loss by prematurely bringing a new person(s) into their lives who is only going to disappear if the relationship does not last. This would be damaging to their mental health and needs to be avoided despite your strong desire for your kids to meet this important new person in your life.
Tell your ex
Introducing a new partner into your children’s lives is a significant event for them. Given that, healthy co-parenting requires that the other parent be made aware that it is happening. There are several benefits to that:
1) It removes it as a secret that your children need to keep from their other parent.
2) It provides both parents the opportunity to help the kids adjust to this new life event.
3) It gives the other parent the chance to give their children “permission” to have a relationship with this new person. That is hugely important since it frees the children up from feeling guilty or disloyal about liking this new person or enjoying spending time with them.
4) It allows the other parent the option of meeting the new partner if they desire to do so. This is a totally appropriate request and one that you should grant if possible. I know that you would want this same courtesy if your children were going to be spending time with your ex’s partner that you had never met. Try not to let your emotions dictate your response to this request but respond to it based solely on what is truly best for your children. This is essential for successfully co-parenting with an ex and a new partner.
Only share what is necessary
Your dating life is adult business, and you need to set boundaries regarding what you share with your kids about it. Try to do your dating when they are with their other parent and avoid sharing every intimate detail about this new relationship with them. I have seen so many parents try to get around this suggestion (as well as the Slow suggestion) by playing a variety of games that eventually backfire. For example, they create “accidental meetings” and introduce their new partner as a friend that they just happen to be running into everywhere they go. Your kids are not stupid! They will figure this out and it will negatively impact their relationship when they eventually find out the truth.
Preserve quality time
Once the introductions have been made, it is essential that you do NOT include your new partner in all your time with your children. That will only lead to a further sense of loss for them and will result in the child feeling resentment toward your new partner for taking you away from them. This means being sure to spend quality time alone with them, without your new partner, on a regular basis. Divorced parents attending their children’s activities together without their new partner would be a good example of setting healthy co-parenting boundaries while in a new relationship.
It is so important to remember to give your children time to slowly develop a relationship with your new partner. They may be someone that you have come to love, but to your children they are simply strangers who have the potential to further complicate their lives. Give them time to get to know the person and anticipate that there will be resistance to accepting them. Try to meet that resistance with empathy and support, rather than with anger. Trying to force a relationship before your kids are emotionally ready for it and putting the new person into a parental role with your children are two actions that will invariably backfire.
Maintaining Healthy Co-Parenting in a Relationship
Now that the introductions have been made and both your children and your former spouse are aware of your new relationship, the real work of co-parenting while in a relationship begins. The parenting dynamic will be different than when you were each single parenting and the challenges of successfully co-parenting will be specific to this new parenting situation.
While your previously established parenting plan will probably not change, the strategies for fostering a healthy and supportive co-parenting relationship while sharing parenting responsibilities might. Let’s talk about a couple of typical challenges that might arise and guidelines for how to best handle them.
Scenario 1: Your former spouse’s new boyfriend starts showing up at your daughter’s soccer games and attempts to take on a coaching role. Your daughter is not happy.
Guideline: The new boyfriend’s attendance at games should begin when the daughter feels ready to have him there and as an observer only. He should not take on a coaching role until the relationship is long term and committed and the daughter is comfortable with him doing so.
Scenario 2: Your former spouse’s new girlfriend comes to your son’s parent teacher conference without you having any prior knowledge of that plan
Guideline: It is inappropriate for the new girlfriend to attend a parent teacher conference. She is not a parent, and not even a stepparent, and she has no legitimate role being there.
Scenario 3: Your former spouse’s new boyfriend unexpectedly picks your daughter up for her mother’s scheduled visitation
Guideline: This is more a matter of respectful communication. While the daughter’s mother may not be available for the pickup, she should have called to inform the other parent of that fact and let him know that her boyfriend will be doing the pickup. It is the parent’s responsibility to be sure that their daughter is comfortable with the arrangement
Scenario 4: You find out that your former spouse’s new partner brought your son to his annual physical
Guideline: This is another parental role that a new partner should not be infringing on, especially without the express permission of the other parent
Scenario 5: You hear after the fact that your former spouse was out of town for a business meeting and that your children spent the whole time with his new girlfriend
Guideline: Most parenting plans have a “Right of First Refusal” clause that gives the other parent the opportunity to be with the children when the custodial parent is not available for a specified amount of time
All these scenarios are reflective of inappropriate co-parenting while in a relationship. They all pertain to violations of co-parenting boundaries while in that new relationship. The basic rule of thumb is that the new partner should not push their way into children’s lives or take on parental roles, especially in the early stages of the relationship. Doing so is going to create conflict and resentment with the former spouse and divided loyalty issues for the children.
Effective communication is another essential aspect to healthy co-parenting while in a relationship. It is helpful to think about the relationship with your former spouse as if it is a business relationship and to communicate with them as you would with a business associate (even if it is a co-worker that you don’t particularly like). In those professional interactions your communication would most often be polite, respectful, non-emotional, and focused on the business at hand. You would work hard not to be contentious, argumentative, verbally abuse, or personally demeaning. If you disagreed on something, you would work together to create consensus.
As co-parents, your business is your children, their needs must be your priority, and you need to strive to talk to each other calmly, openly, and with mutual respect. When disagreements arise, which they inevitably will, make an appointment to teach to each other when the children are not around, rather than during drop-offs or pick-ups when they are present.
In general, your new partner should not be part of the conversations that pertain to raising your children. The two of you are the parents and including them will add a layer of complication that is not necessary.
Co-Parenting and Re-Marriage
Once a new relationship becomes long-term and committed, the parenting dynamic will inevitably change. The new stepparent will now have a more legitimate role in the children’s lives. However, it is important to always respect the fact that children only have one biological mother and one biological father and that nobody can or should try to replace that parent. Children should not be asked or required to refer to their stepparent as “mom” or “dad” when they already have a mother or father present in their life. That puts them in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they are betraying their biological parent and that needs to be avoided at all costs.
While challenging, it is important to accept your former spouse’s new spouse. Try to think of them as one more person who loves your children rather than as the person who is going to take them away from you. If you have a history of a positive, loving relationship with your children, there is nothing or no one who can destroy that bond. That belief will allow you to see the new spouse as a potential ally, rather than a threat.
Maintaining a successful co-parenting dynamic while in a relationship can be very challenging. However, it can also be extremely rewarding if done well. Dr. Erica Ellis, a licensed psychologist, has devoted her 30+ year career to helping families navigate the divorce process in a child centered way. She created Two Healthy Homes to provide divorcing couples with the tools and resources necessary to reconfigure their families without causing further emotional damage to themselves and their children.