Tammy, a mother of two, has been single for five years. During this time, she has often longed for a partner but hasn't found someone she is interested in. This all changed a couple of months ago when she met someone she really liked. Still, she resisted the relationship for quite a while out of fear of how her children might react: would they accept the new man in her life? What if the kids became attached and things didn't work out?
Dating can be tricky if there are children involved and Tammy's doubts and questions are typical of thousands of single parents.
Timing is the key
"Parents shouldn't feel guilty if they've met someone. They sometimes are susceptible to the feeling that they are not entitled to a relationship of their own. There’s no reason you can't enter into a relationship; you just need to be mindful of all the factors involved," says Neil McGibbon, Health24's teen expert.
"Relationships are always a risk, and children are part of that risk-taking." But don't rush into introductions, says McGibbon. "Be sure that the relationship is going to work before you allow your partner to become involved with your children. If someone suddenly appears in your child's life and then disappears, it makes the child resistant to a future partner. If it keeps happening and your child is introduced to a succession of people, he or she will get a skewed view of what relationships are about and will struggle to attach to people."
The situation is slightly different with teenagers as they will be more aware of their parent going out on dates. At some or other point they will quiz the parent as to his/her whereabouts. At such a point a parent could ask whether they would like to meet the partner and start including the child in activities.
McGibbon also advises the following as regards the relationship between a child and new partner:
- Don't force the relationship: let them get to know one another over a long time.
- The parent must monitor how the relationship is going by asking the child every now and then.
- Check what the motives are: is your partner trying to win brownie points by establishing a relationship with your child or is it a genuine connection? If the child also initiates contact or shows interest, it is a sign that the relationship comes from both sides.
If they don't get along
A child might resent the new relationship because it might mean that he is not the focus of attention in the home anymore. Children might even be jealous of the new partner or might harbour resentment because they feel the person is trying to take the place of the father or mother.
"If a parent doesn't consider everyone when the relationship becomes serious and the partner considers moving in, it will be a recipe for disaster," says McGibbon.
"There has to be a proper discussion with the child and one cannot ignore that people are not getting on. At this point, it might be best to seek outside help through an organisation such as Famsa."
When things don't work out
In the case of a breakup between parent and partner, whether the relationship between the child and partner should continue depends on how long the relationship endured, how well they got on, whether the child wants to remain in contact and the feelings of the parent.
It is the parent's call as to whether the child should maintain contact with the ex. If the child is young and the breakup is acrimonious, the parent might prefer a clean break. The partner will have to respect this.
"It is typical for a child to be angry with the parent because that is the person he feels more secure with. This is positive as it shows that the child can express how he is feeling. It might be short-lived. Small children take a while to adjust but then lose interest in the other person; they accept that the other person is not a part of their lives anymore and the memories fade with time," says McGibbon.
If a teenager had a good relationship with the partner, it can be heartbreaking if the partner disappears from his life overnight. If he wants to maintain contact, the parent should allow that as far as possible.
Advice for the partner
Andre, who has just come out of a three-year relationship with a mother of two teenagers, says that he has learnt some hard lessons and would now offer the following advice:
- Don't criticise the other parent.
- Don't move in with speed, pretending that you are the saviour.
- The parent knows his/her children better than you do. For example, don't try to recommend that the child does a certain activity because you think it would be good for him or her.
- Don't get scared if you start to feel attached to the child.
- Have fun. As the third party, you don't have to deal with all the responsibilities of parenting. Enjoy the children’s company.
- Never argue in front of the children.
- Don't be overgenerous in an attempt to win their favour.
- A child is part of the package deal. Try to find ways of getting along with the child.
- Respect that you are not the parent. Don't slip into a parenting role.
- Don't try to be the child's friend. If the relationship becomes serious and long-term, that role will have to change.
- Don't get too close too soon. Make sure you don't set yourself up for something you can't sustain. Keep an eye on the future.
- The biological parents always have the final say. You cannot replace the other parent.
Things might be tricky when it comes to aspects of parenting. Splitting might occur during which a child might say: "But my dad says I can/don’t have to." You must be aware that the parents have the say even if they aren't together anymore.
- If things don't work out and your partner wants a clean break, you will have to accept it.
(Ilse Pauw, Health24, March 2009)