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In Relationship with a Divorced Dad: Ground Rules

WHOLE-dancing A woman responded to one of my Single Dad Want posts with a very moving and impassioned comment. (See the comments) And as I was writing the response I realized I was beginning to write the next post about relationships. So I moved it here, as a post.

Lucky, I really like your comment. Your man, your divorced dad, is lucky to have someone so understanding. And while I only have limited experience with being on the dad’s side of the experience, I do have a little knowledge of what you speak.

There are plenty of single parents who use their kids to get out of almost every obligation. Even obligations to themselves, for say… exercise, dating, taking responsibility for their own actions. And I have been the dad who apologized for checking his phone when a text dinged while on a date. I don’t think I will always do this, and there are certain moments when the phone definitely needs to be turned off, but while my kids are still in pre-college school, I’m at least going to make sure there is no emergency. That’s the deal with me.

As a single dad I do understand that my kids are a priority. That’s a given. But kids can be used as an unhealthy defense mechanism as well.

But then there is my response and my boundaries with both my kids and my ex that must be understood and enforced as well. I am available 24/7 for emergencies. But when the text dings and it is, in fact, one of my kids… Well, at this point I have several options. Let’s take this from the perspective of a FIRST DATE, rather than a developing relationship. In a first date you are trying to make an impression. That “best behavior” should be the formula for the relationship going forward. Certainly things change as dating evolves into a relationship, but let’s take the first date as our benchmark for good behavior, especially on the single dad’s side of the dinner table.

SCENARIO ONE: CRISIS
If I determine that the issue is a crisis that requires a response, I will apologize, explain the situation briefly, and respond with a text or phone call. From that point on, you should treat it like an unexpected emergency. Everyone’s agenda and desires take a backseat to the first aid and trauma response. (“Your daughter has fallen on the playground and needs to see a doctor.”) And beware that many requests can be setup like a crisis, (“Dad, I need my science binder by 3rd period tomorrow, I left it at your house.”) when they are actually poorly formed requests. Your willingness to let these types of requests become new plans can tell a lot about healthy boundaries and good parenting skills.

SCENARIO TWO: REQUEST
The text could be a request from one of the kids or the ex. “Dad can I go home with Kate after school today?” And depending on the situation, you can choose to ignore (The discussion that evening, “You needed to ask me the night before, we’ve already got plans.”) or respond. But it’s not a crisis. And if you ignore it no one will be hurt. Frustrated perhaps, but not hurt.

SCENARIO THREE: THE EX DROPS THE BALL
“Dad, I need someone to pick me up after the cross-country meet and I can’t get Mom to pick up.” Things happen. We make mistakes. And between strained ex-parents, there can be some manipulation and control going on. Let’s assume the best. In this scenario, the kid needs a ride. Whatever the situation, the Mom is incommunicado, a problem that might need to be addressed at a different time, and a solution needs to be provided. “Okay, count on me to be there if we can’t get your Mom to respond. I’ll keep trying her, and you do the same. But OF COURSE, go to your cross-country race, we will figure it out.”

SCENARIO FOUR: I’D REALLY RATHER…
Kids can be an excuse to get out of anything. Sorry, but it’s true. If your divorced dad is always breaking plans because their kid is sick, getting an award, has a recital… Well, you might want to see why you’re no longer a priority. Don’t let his kids become an excuse. Make sure the two of you have a chance to establish enough rapport that you can ask, “Dude, if you don’t want to go to this event with me, just say it.” Kids can be the easy way out. I’ve done it. I’ll probably do it again. Sorry. It’s often easier than a confrontation. But if you’re avoiding the confrontation because “his kids need him all the time.” That might be the issue right there.

SCENARIO FIVE: KIDS AS AN EXCUSE
Very similar to number four. When used in relationship the “excuse” is often used to recover from a miss of some sort. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you last night. The kids got home and all hell broke loose.”  That might be okay, if your call was just a “nighty night” check-in, but if you were scheduled to talk about living arrangements, that might be an example of using the kids as an excuse for not taking responsibility.

SCENARIO SIX: PLAYFUL KIDS WILL BE KIDS ONLY SO LONG
Kids are our singular priority as parents. As I move into a relationship with another woman I know that too will become a priority. I’ve never really gotten past the dating phase, so I personally haven’t had to cross this bridge. But I do know, that I push back on my kids all the time. They ask, they demand, the whine, they want all kinds of things. That’s what kids do. And I know that if I have an opportunity to PLAY with my kids, at this point in my life, I’m going to choose that, whenever possible.  But in a primary relationship I also want to PLAY with my partner. The balance between these two desires of mine is more about respect and courtesy than it is about being divorced or not.

Don’t make your kids the reason not to explore a new life, a new relationship, and the new intimacies that may open up a whole new future for you and them, eventually.

As a single dad I am just now entering in a new dating relationship with a woman who does not have kids. I can feel the pull. We have already had moments of “oh shit, your kids are there, I’m sorry…” and “don’t worry about the kids, they are in their rooms studying.” If I try to imagine her point of view I’d be projecting, so I’ll stick with mine.

As a single dad I do understand that my kids are a priority. That’s a given. But kids can be used as an unhealthy defense mechanism as well.

And as I have stated that I didn’t think I’d be interested in dating a woman who was not a mom, I’ve had to revise that statement, based on new information. My fear about dating a woman without kids is more about boundaries and time management. It’s not about her being a mother or not. It’s not about her wanting more of my attention or not. The issue is about MY management of MY relationship to my kids and my ex-wife and HER.

I can use the kids to get away with murder. With a single mom as a date I know that she will understand when the kids trump our plans. However, with a date who is not a single mom, the same rule applies. Kids MIGHT trump our plans, but I am always willing to talk about it. And I am perfectly capable to make decisions based on a requests and a crisis in the moment.

My goal then, is to keep all requests out of crisis-mode. And keep all boundary discussions about us and not the kids. The real answer is: As a single parent I have responsibilities to my kids that will trump all plans 100% of the time. However, I will never use those same responsibilities to disrespect you or avoid my commitment and responsibilities to you. An emergency will be evaluated on a case by case basis, and I will always attempt to let you know the real story.

I will try to say, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m just tired and I don’t want to go,”  rather than, “Oh, they moved the parent-teacher conference without telling me, I need to bail on the opera.” I’ll simply say, “Sorry darling, I don’t like Opera.” We can take the negotiations from there.

Never use your kids as an excuse, unless you simply need an excuse. But don’t make your kids the reason not to explore a new life, a new relationship, and the new intimacies that may open up a whole new future for you and them, eventually.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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