Imagine this: Sunday morning after the service, a church member, Amber, approaches you for some advice. She’s been a single mom of two young children since her divorce a few years ago. Recently, she’s started dating again and is interested in pursuing a relationship, but she doesn’t know if that’s the right decision with two kids at home.
What counsel can you offer Amber? What sorts of things should the single parent keep in mind? Below, I share some key points of counsel for the dating single parent, as well as guidelines for when the relationship may need to be put on hold.
What dating means for children
In leading single parents through the potential for dating again, first help them understand how their children may be perceiving this idea. The parents will then be in a better position to help their children navigate this life change.
Fearing the loss of their parent
Attending to the needs of children during dating is primarily about being aware that the children have already gone through a significant loss. Perhaps a parent has died, or maybe the child’s family has “died” because of divorce. Loss makes people fearful of more loss, so children who have already been through the death of a parent or the loss of divorce may be hypersensitive to losing their connection, time, and energy from their parent who is now dating and falling in love with somebody else.
In addition, if a single mom, for instance, is dating a man with children, the mom’s children will have to share their mom not only with a new man, but with his kids as well. So it becomes a double loss. While it may be a gain for the mom to fall in love, it is a loss for her children. They must transition from having all of their mom’s attention to sharing her with both another man and his family.
Feeling like they don’t matter as much anymore
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re dating is essentially walking away from their kids to fall in love. They throw themselves completely into the other person. The kids then feel like they don’t matter. They feel like the new partner matters more than they do. But this creates a resentment in the children’s hearts, which becomes a barrier to connecting with that new partner down the road. In leading a single parent, you can help her affirm to her children, through both words and actions, that they matter.
How parents can help their children
By intentionally moving toward them
You should advise the single parents to be intentional about attending to their children’s needs. That means the single parent is not only moving toward her new dating partner with some intentionality but is being very intentional about moving toward her children. She has to make sure her kids realize they haven’t lost their mom. When a parent begins to date again, the children are losing a piece of their parent, and some of the parent’s time and energy, but they’re not losing all of their parent. So parents can do things like date the new partner, but also date their kids without the partner. Parents can give time and energy to both their children and their new partner in balance.
By maintaining rituals of connection
For single parents to move toward their children, it doesn’t have to be profound. It can be simple things, like spending one-on-one time with their kids. It’s maintaining the little rituals of connection that we all develop within our own families. So it may be things like Saturday morning pancakes or sitting on the couch and watching television together. It could be Friday night board games. It could be Sunday going over to Grandma’s house after church and having Sunday dinner.
You can give counsel about these daily opportunities to spend time with children. Keeping those rituals of connection alive with children and not completely throwing themselves into all things around the new dating partner is the way parents can maintain a balance, address their children’s needs, and have a better perspective about the dating relationship. It helps them stay objective about the new relationship, rather than being consumed by it.
By keeping their priorities clear while dating
Part of what comes with intentionally moving toward the children and developing a balance between the kids and a new dating partner is an understanding by the dating partner that the current parent-child relationship must take a priority. The new partner should recognize the children’s need to have their parent spend time with them. And that may mean the dating partner isn’t included in that time.
Over time, as the dating relationship grows, develops, and moves toward marriage, the single parent can become more intentional about including the dating partner along with her children. They are all moving toward becoming a family with time spent together doing different activities. But there should always be an understanding that there needs to be special time between the parent and her kids without anybody else around. That helps preserve that relationship and makes it easier for the children to then embrace what eventually will be a new family.
Next steps for the relationship and potential red flags
Find points of connection
At some point, the dating couple may begin to feel that the relationship is progressing well, and they desire to marry again. When two separate families begin the process of becoming a unified family, they can start (before the marriage) with activities and interests that naturally connect them. For instance, a single mom’s children and her new partner’s family may share a love of sports or a love of literature. The dating partners can find those points of connection and build on them. Over time, they may discover new commonalities, or forge new middle ground, where they can create memories together. That is systematically deepening their relationship.
Consider: Are the families merging well?
A gradual blending is also important to help both dating partners get a sense of whether they think there’s potential for a new blended family. When the single parent dates someone, they aren’t just making decisions about themselves as a couple but are making decisions for the future based on their families. If the single parent shares that the families are not merging well, she ought to slow down the dating process. It doesn’t mean they have to end it, but they ought to at least be objective and slow it down to wait and see if things can improve. If the single parent’s kids and the dating partner can’t find any connection, if it’s a stressful, strained relationship, that’s a yellow flashing light as to whether or not the couple should move toward marriage. It doesn’t mean the relationship has to stop, but it also is not a green light.
Heed the red flags
Sometimes, it becomes clear that children are not connecting well with the new dating partner. There might be a flat-out refusal by one child or the potential stepparent to connect emotionally, or there may be different parenting styles between the parent and the dating partner. But if the adults can’t come together around their ideas of parenting and their parenting styles, or if the children just aren’t connecting, it will wreak havoc.
One way we may see this is if a child refuses to come to the wedding. While I’m not saying that parents should end the relationship, this is a huge indicator that family harmony is unlikely. It could be that the single parent and her new partner need to look at that and make a decision about how they move forward. I’ve heard one man say he was more interested in his new partner as his wife than in preserving his relationship with his thirty-year-old son. Now, that’s a sad moment, but he was very intentional about making a choice. He was acknowledging that he was going to lose his relationship with his son if he got married.
In cases where a child is refusing to accept the new person, I would want to encourage the couple to slow down the movement toward a wedding and go back to trying to rebuild and restore the relationship with the child. This doesn’t mean parents have to get full permission from their children or the complete blessing of their children, but at least try to preserve the parent-child relationship and not risk it being severed forever.
Remind parents that true stability comes from Christ
In all of this, the single parent and the new dating partner must be reminded that Christ-centered love provides stability for children and for any future marriage. Any dating relationship—and any parent-child relationship—must be centered on Christ. Without this focus, the relationship, whether existing or new, is set up for failure. Remind single parents that they must be intentional about consistently focusing on Christ and seeking to honor Him in their relationship with their partner and with their children. Stability in relationships comes from Christ.
Ron Deal shares more excellent insights and practical tips for ministering to blended families in your church. Be sure to check out his other CareLeader.org articles, which include Helping Stepfamilies When Things Go Wrong, Understanding the Unique Needs of Stepfamilies, and Blended Families: 4 Considerations for Pastors.