Sometimes it feels as though the changes are never-ending. You know you don’t want or can’t live with them anymore. Or you know they don’t want to be with you and you’ve come to terms with it. Then they announce they’ve got a new partner. Suddenly the last vestiges of unresolved issues pop up again. This time it’s all about you and the children. Is this going to affect your relationship with them? Will they like the new person better than you?
Dealing with new family dynamics is one of the most difficult issues of separation. No matter whether it happens almost at the point of separation, or far later down the track, there is still a similar range of emotions to deal with. You can’t help wondering what the new partner is like, if they will like the children, if the children will like them. For many families going through this there is a tendency to switch from hoping your children will love the new partner, to hoping they won’t like them more than you.
If your ex has a new boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s important to set up good boundaries right from the beginning to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible. While it is not true for all cases, it is often the mother who manages the emotional changes of the new situation whether it is with their new partner, or with an ex’s new partner. This is often due to the mother tending to be the primary carer. However, whichever the side dealing with the change, keeping everything on an even keel provides the best long-term benefits.
Introducing a new partner
If you are seeing someone new and want to introduce them to your children, consider mentioning the new relationship to your ex first. It is human nature for them to be curious, and means they won’t hear from the children. It is unfair to expect the children to be grilled by a naturally curious ex about a very grown-up topic such as new loves.
Explain to your child that this person is not a new father or mother, but is your new partner. Let the relationship gently evolve. Both your new partner and your children will continue to need some time just with you.
- Give children their own space. When you set up home again with a new partner, it is important that all the children have some privacy and a space they can claim as their own.
- Be patient – your children will need time to get to know and trust your new partner and their children.
- Listen to your children – even if the things they say are negative, it is important that they feel heard. Seek support for yourself if you find it hard to hear the things they say.
- Try to spend time alone with your children to reassure them your love for them has not changed.
- Make sure your child maintains a positive relationship with your ex-spouse. Do not make your child the go-between, and let your child know that it is okay to have a relationship with the new stepparent and stepsiblings.
- Keep a fair approach to all the children – there will be arguments but try not to side with your children rather than your partner’s.
Tips for a smooth transition
- Be polite to the new partner. It is likely you will feel tense or strained about seeing any emerging relationship between her and your children but it’s important that both she and your children don’t see this. No matter how your relationship ended, the dynamic of another person can dramatically change the way a new relationship is played out – and this one may be good for both your ex and your children’s relationship with your ex.
- Remember you are the parent and your children will always see you as such. They will often rave about a new partner – just as they would about a favourite aunty or uncle. That is normal, and is no slur on you as a parent.
- If you feel he or she is undermining you as an authority figure, first make sure the rules and boundaries are set at home. Make it clear from the start that your children will be expected to behave how they always have when under your care. You are unfortunately unable to control their behaviour at the other house, or the new partner’s behaviour. However, children respond best to an environment where there are loving boundaries. They may like endless freedom in the other house, but they’ll come round!
- If they develop a great relationship with the new partner remember that is a good thing. It means they will be happier and more settled long-term, even if it’s hard for you.
- If there are ongoing problems, set up a meeting with your ex-partner to discuss the problems, focusing on the needs of the children, as opposed to yours or your ex-partner’s needs. Regular meetings that involve just the original family members are beneficial, and show the children that both parents remain invested in their care.
- Children will nearly always test new boundaries and test reactions. Expect them to ask if you like the new partner, or ask you to explain the new relationship to them. They may say they like the new partner better than you. Even if it hurts, don’t allow them to see any reaction, but instead remain calm and allow them to talk it out.
People are often surprised at how they end up slowly building up a good relationship with an ex’s new partner. If nothing else, you both have loved the same person, and will have that in common at least. Find points of commonality. If you go into the new dynamic expecting that it will work out for the best in the long run, you are far more likely to find everyone feels positive about it.