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Diane Peters
Dating & Kids: Avoiding Disaster

Ah, dating. It's scary, stressful, and tiring. And when one of you has a couple of kids waiting at home, it makes this complicated social interaction even more complicated. There's the sensitive feelings of the kids to consider. There's parenthood's added responsibilities and lack of flexibility getting in the way. But while kids make dating harder, they certainly don't render it impossible. Here are some guidelines for getting together in a way that works for both potential partners and kids.

Dating When You Have Kids

Make sure you're ready. Still grappling with grief from your divorce or the death of your spouse? That might make dating feel overwhelming and starting a new, healthy relationship impossible. On the other hand, many parents wait too long to start mingling. If you aren't getting out much, your life revolves around the kids, and you've almost entirely forgotten what sex feels like, a date might be just what you need.

Be open. Wondering if you should tell this great person that you've just met that you have kids? Don't even ponder it. Be honest. And if the babysitter has to be home by midnight or you can never meet for brunch because you've got custody on the weekends, be absolutely clear about it right off the top. If your date knows what to expect, you can quickly get past logistics and into each other.

Kids come first. If you're dating someone who doesn't have kids, they might not understand just how huge and important a responsibility parenting is, so tell them. "That person needs to know you're going to have to cancel dates sometimes because your child is sick or something happens. And they can't take that personally," says Lois Nightingale, a clinical psychologist based in California and author of My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They're Getting Divorced.

Introduce the kids when the time is right. If you're casually dating, don't get the kids involved. Not only does a revolving door confuse kids (young ones especially think every new love interest they meet is going to become a new parent) but it teaches them, by example, that relationships are disposable. That goes double for having lovers sleep over: it encourages children to see sex as a casual thing. It can also cause serious problems if your ex hears about it.

Wait until a new relationship becomes serious, then introduce that person to the kids. But don't make a big deal out of it. A relaxed dinner at home, a video night or an afternoon soccer game will probably keep things low-key.

Look long term. Dating when you've got kids is hard work: it's emotionally draining, takes up your precious time, and requires deft juggling. Make sure it's worth the effort. Not only do you need to assess how you feel about this person (Do you really like them? Are they just around to keep you from being lonely?), but you need to make sure they can fit into your life as a parent. The best test is to watch the person with your children. (Are they playful and fun? Do talk to the children with respect? Do they reprimand or scold them? Do they become jealous when the children take priority?)

Dating Someone Who Has Kids

Be realistic. If you've just met a wonderful person who happens to have kids, don't pretend it will have no effect on your potential relationship; it will. While you're dating, kids will limit the time you can spend together and put your love life on a curfew. If things get more serious and long term, they'll play a major role in your relationship. If an ex-spouse is around, you'll also have to deal with them.

"It depends if you want to be part of a family, and being part of a family is complicated," says Nightingale. If family life appeals, great. If not, you may need to seriously reconsider how this relationship is going to work out for you.

Don't play parent. Even if you go as far as to marry this person, you will never become a parent to the children. To maintain the power structure in the house and keep resentment at bay, it's important for you to not discipline, scold, or yell at the kids. Unless you're protecting yourself or another from harm, step aside and let your partner be the boss.

Set your own boundaries. Sure, you're going to get stood up when the little one has a cold, and you'll end up staying in when the babysitter quits, but you still have rights and needs. It's important to assess what you require in this relationship. Maybe you want at least one night a week alone with your lover. Perhaps you don't want to get involved in the politics of the ex. Maybe your mandate is the occasional romantic weekend away from it all.

If you do find problems come up (such having to entertain the kids every Saturday while your partner runs errands, having to watch yet another Disney video, or eating macaroni and cheese again) speak up and negotiate a solution you can live with.
Diane Peters

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