Special Issues: Separation and Divorce – New Partners
Stephanie Foster, Registered Psychologist
The introduction of new partners to children can be very stressful. There are a number of things to consider, including the developmental age of the child, the time that has elapsed since the separation, and the level of conflict between the parents. In general, parents should consider waiting until the children have shown reasonable adjustment to the separation/divorce before introducing new partners. This varies for every child and for every age. Parents should bear in mind that the introduction of new partners is likely be a stressor for the child. Therefore, the child needs to be emotionally ready to handle the impact. In the very earliest stages of separation and divorce – often referred to as the crisis stage – most children are not ready to accept new partners. It is important to allow the child time to grieve the loss of their original family.
The introduction of new partners is likely to stir up many emotions for your child. It is important to understand what your child might be feeling, so that you can develop a plan of action to help them cope. These are some things to consider when a new partner becomes involved in family life:
• The child may perceive that the first parent who begins a new relationship is betraying the other parent. The parent should explain that everyone adjusts to divorce differently. They should explain that they feel ready to move on, but understand that other people (including the children) may feel differently.
• It is important to remind the children that friends and new partners do not replace the special bond between parents and children.
• The introduction of a new partner may dash a child’s fantasies of family reconciliation. These fantasies are very common in children. Although parents should be honest about the fact that mom and dad will not reunite, they should acknowledge the child’s wish with sensitivity. You might say, “I know that you are feeling sad. It hurts that mom and dad will not be living together anymore.”
• It is vital for parents to spend extra time with children once a new partner is introduced into the situation. This will help to minimize fears of abandonment and rejection.
• You must continue to spend one on one time with your children. Do not include the new partner in every activity, at least in the early stages.
• In the very earliest stages of introduction, make activities with the new partner more time-limited and structured (movies, games). This will allow the child to adjust to the new person’s presence.
• Children may be angry that they are being asked to accept yet another change – a new person in their lives. This is normal. The best way to deal with this is to acknowledge the child’s anger and to introduce new partners slowly, allowing the child to adjust.
• Be accepting of your child’s feelings, including the expression of dislike for the new partner. This does not mean that you should stop seeing the new person, but it does mean accepting that your child does not feel as you do. You might say, “I understand that you do not like him/her. I do like them and I will see them, but I understand that you and I can feel differently.”
• New partners should treat children as individuals in their own right. They should not expect a child to be welcoming right away. The parent and the new partner must be sensitive to the child and responsive to their cues.