One of the most difficult things about separating from a partner is the knowledge that at some point they are likely to start a relationship with someone new. It tends to be equally tough whether it was your decision to break up, or theirs, or a mutual parting. For some people it’s tricky enough to contemplate an ex with a new girlfriend or boyfriend when you’re young, free and childless, but when the relationship that the two of you had together lasted a long time and managed to produce children, there is a whole new set of issues to be considered.
This blog aims to suggest some things to think about, arising from our experience, when you are considering introducing a new partner to your children. It almost goes without saying that this is not a legal matter – you won’t find any prohibitions on new partners in the Children Act, nor do we think there should be. However, as lawyers, we find that the way the introduction of a new partner is managed can have a huge effect on the way the divorce process plays out. If it is done constructively, there are opportunities to open up avenues of helpful cooperation that can smooth the resolution of all the issues between you. If it is done clumsily, it can wreck the chances of a negotiated agreement, and much else besides.
First and foremost, if you’re not fairly confident about the future of your new relationship, it’s probably better to keep your children out of it. Most children thrive on stability, particularly during divorce when they may feel that a lot of things they thought were stable are changing. Introducing someone new into their lives when you’re not sure where the relationship is going may confuse and hurt them if that person subsequently disappears.
As Resolution family lawyers, we do our best to put the children’s interests at the heart of everything we do, and we recommend that all parents going through a divorce or separation involving children do the same. This means looking at a situation through your kids’ eyes to determine what the best thing to do might be. Is now the right time, from their point of view? How are they doing with the divorce generally? Is this information that you feel would benefit them at the moment?
If you are pretty sure that your new relationship is a lasting one, and that the time is right to introduce your new partner to your children, your next task is to cause as few negative repercussions as possible in the wider family. You don’t need permission to introduce a new partner to your children, but this event – especially if done without preparation – sometimes provokes a strong emotional response in the other parent, often way beyond what you might consider appropriate or proportionate. On divorce, many parents become more protective of their children while also sometimes doubting their own capacities to parent effectively, and can have a strong fear of being replaced by someone else. It happens both to Dads and Mums. Therefore we always recommend letting the other parent know, gently about the new relationship, that you plan to introduce the children to your new partner, and when and how you propose this will happen. It is a simple matter of courtesy – something that is often lost in the maelstrom of divorce, but which is worth its weight in gold if you can deploy it. We ask our clients to think, how would you want to be treated if the boot were on the other foot?
We find that the angrier the other parent is, the more stressful a situation usually is for the children. If provocation can be avoided, it is likely to be in your children’s interests to avoid it – and yours too, in the longer term.
Looking now from the children’s point of view, they will need to have information about this new person and the nature of your relationship with them. There is a delicate balance to be struck between giving too little information and too much, and unfortunately it is different for every child. As their parent, however, you are one of the people who love them most and know them best, so you can work it out. – you may even feel it would be useful to seek their other parent’s views on the matter. The one rule here is not to lie about what is going on – any questions must be answered honestly. If you can start talking with your children about your new partner from time to time before they meet, and help them gently build up a positive picture of him or her in their minds, this might help them with accepting him or her.
The other important thing to think about from the children’s point of view is the appropriate venue for the first meeting. It’s often better to be out with your children and then be joined by the new partner for a short time, at least at first: cafes and parks are easy locations to make this work. Then time spent with the new partner can be built up slowly, until the children are fully at ease. We find that this is a good strategy, whether the children are 5 months or 15 years old!
Finally, a note about gifts from the new partner. In our experience, these often upset the applecart. It is usually best to stick to ice creams and other perishable small treats for a while, as when a new partner starts buying children clothes or toys, it can feel to the other parent (and sometimes to children too) that they are trying to buy the children’s affections or approval, or that some kind of negativity is being expressed at the quality/worth of the children’s existing things. Gifts can also make children feel awkward, disloyal, or embarrassed. They are, we suggest, best avoided at first.
It’s important to understand that not everyone gets everything right on divorce, and we don’t all behave as we would wish to be able to. It’s hard always trying to do the right thing, especially if you feel like your ex doesn’t appreciate your efforts. However, focusing on the best way to do these controversial things, such as introducing a new partner, can pay dividends in the long-term and will really make up for any extra effort expended now. If you have any queries about new relationships or any other family law matter, please give us a call on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Adam, Tricia, Simon, Sue or Gail.