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In Relationship with a Single Parent: Ground Rules

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I am a single father of two great kids. I believe my story and adventure into online dating can help men and women understand the issues, challenges, and wonderful benefits of dating a single parent.

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.

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.


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 set up 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.


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.


“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.”


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.


Very similar to number four. When used in a 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.


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.

As a single dad, I am just now entering 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.

My Kids Are a Priority

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 request and a crisis at 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.

Keeping it 100% Real, Say What You Feel

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 – life coach austin texas
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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. RR

    Hi John –

    I’m a single woman. I’m 48. I’ve never been married and I do not have kids. I’m attractive and educated. I always wanted to be married and have my own family. I have been disappointed many times by the men in my life. I wasted my time on the wrong guys. My two long terms relationships were with divorced men who had children with their ex wives.

    Both of these men put their kids ahead of our relationship. With my first ex, For instance, the plans we had made to celebrate my birthday, or take romantic weekend away were cancelled or postponed or interfered with because the ex wife had her scheduling crisis or emergency at work or whatever. My ex had trouble standing up to his ex wife; he was so scared that he would lose custody of his son altogether. It made no sense to me and I grew to resent my ex and his son and the ex wife. Finally, after years of dating, he announced he doesn’t want to marry me (after planning our engagement). We broke up 11 years ago, and he still hasn’t remarried. Now that kid of his is in college.

    In my second relationship, the ex had older, college aged kids but his ex wife hated me or hated the idea of me. She would say horrible things about me to the kids who would then run and tell their Dad. Finally, when one of them was graduating from college, I was forbidden from attending the graduation party, because the ex didn’t want me there and threatened not to attend and that her parents wouldn’t go as well. My ex caved and I was uninvited. We finally broke up because he didn’t want to marry me and said he didn’t want to have any more kids even though he said he wanted all of that.

    I date a lot on line and I meet single fathers. Now that I am in my 40s, I find single dads are interested in dating me because I don’t have kids. So, they think I’m flexible and there is less negotiating in terms of my schedule. These men have also suggested “I’m too old” to have my own kids and assume I’d love being a step mom. Meanwhile, they’ve done things like postpone dates, etc…because something came up with their kids. In my opinion, these men were very selfish.

    While I appreciate your blogs, it also hurts to read that you assume single, child free women don’t get what you’re going through. I wasted too much time on the wrong men. I take responsibility for those poor decisions. But, single parents can be selfish too. The men in my life were selfish; they didn’t respect my dreams and my desires and didn’t value me as a person. Somehow, they felt justified because they were dissing me to parent their children.

    I’ve gone out on a couple of dates with a single dad and he is really into his kids. This guy is super handsome, and educated. Loves talking about his kids and how he loves taking care of them and adores shuttling them around. He tells me about the cute things they do….. He says things like my “kids come first.” Blah, Blah, Blah. It’s boring conversation for a date. And, it also tells me that I am competing with those kids. He then finally asked if I “ever wanted to be pregnant” and “can I get pregnant now?” WTF?

    So, why do I write all this? Single parents needs to figure out if they really want to date to be in a relationship or if they seek some companionship on the nights they don’t have their kids. Also, I’m tired of how parents assume people like me are selfish and only worry about our entertainment schedules. I own a business. I’d like to retire some day and I resent my high car insurance premiums. II’m an adult just like you and I have adult responsibilities and obligations. They don’t look exactly like yours.’m a career legal aid attorney and I’ve fought for the poor and volunteer my time regularly. I bet you don’t have time to volunteer because you’re a parent. I care about many things and people depend on me. I also care for my mother after my Dad died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. I am not a selfish woman.

    So, I submit the following: sometimes, your kids have to come second. If you want to love again, you’re going to have come to terms with that fact. Your date can’t just be sidelined because your ex needs to switch up the custody schedule or you feel guilty that you thought about your own needs before those of your children. People without kids get that your kids come first. I mean, duh? Do you think we’re heartless and insane? Don’t make us compete for your attention. And, if single parents want to hang on to these convenient assumptions that those of us without kids “don’t get it, are selfish and are too busy planning our next social event” and therefore are not suitable for relationships…” then that says a lot about the single parent. Quite frankly, I think some single parents hang on to those excuses as a way to manage their own guilt and anxiety over dating.

    I’m sorry if this came across as a rant or as hostile. I’m single without children because of my circumstances; not because I’m a career obsessed female. Also, I wanted to challenge the way Americans like to glorify parenting.

    Thank you.

    1. jmacofearth

      Sometimes your kids have to come second. Absolutely. Thanks for sharing your amazing story.

  2. Nya

    I’m a 26yr old female who recently met a great guy that I’m interested in. During our initial interaction, he shared that he is 1) divorced, and 2) the father of a school-aged girl. He is a young professional in the public service industry- definitely in his 30s and very attractive imo.
    Initially, we definitely have some interests in common: fitness, Christian faith, economics, education, travel, and extroversion. He opened up a little about his struggle to find a home church since his divorce, so I invited him to mine! I have a feeling I will see him tomorrow.
    I’ve spent the morning binging on your posts. It definitely helps to have some perspective regarding what he might appreciate in a woman. To be honest, I’m TERRIFIED about the physicality of labor. I love children and have always dreamed of having them, but labor is almost an alien concept. I typically give up before attempting to wrap my head around it… I guess that is my fear. I don’t want to be seen as selfish or superficial because I don’t have kids yet. I have room in my heart to love a child!!! I’ve ALWAYS considered adoption! I love education and would relish the opportunity to engage with my own children the way my parents engaged with me. I can hug and kiss and listen and encourage and be supportive. I can observe. I can be patient… I’m curious about his ex wife. I wouldn’t mind deferring to her parenting style. To me, having a family is so aspirational! I pray about it every day: a husband, a home, children, a community to share and be active in. I still want all of these things, and I want to be helpful to a good man who wants these things as well!
    I wish you the best in your dating. I’m so grateful for your vulnerability and transparency on this journey.

    1. jmacofearth

      Wow, Nya. What a powerful post. Thank you for your honest words. Go slow. Dads with kids will be a bit protective at first. Always support their kids as a priority. Offer you connective support, but let the dad and the kids be the guide as things move along. Church is a great starting point, I hope he shows up tomorrow. Keep me posted.

  3. becca

    People need to understand that if they are a single parent they are asking a lot of potential partner a lot. And they need to show consideration and frankly appreciation of that fact.

    Blended families are difficult to make work. They can work but only with a lot of effort and love. I grew up in one I know they take a lot of effort. And if the biological parent doesn’t make an effort with the new partner, it will be bad for all involved including the child.

    I dated a guy recently who had a child and a busy job. Over the summer (he was a teacher and coach) I wanted to see him really put in some quality time for us. He was making more time, it was clear I was last priority. There’s was always something I else. I cared about him deeply really wanted to make the relationship work so I was trying to communicate what I needed. I knew if things didn’t change I’d be ending things. I really didn’t want too. But in the end I needed to think about my desire for a family. He was saying he saw a future with me but actions led me great pause.

    I know I can communicate better (I should have left relationship sooner.) The kicker came when I said look I’m working overtime next week, I would like something special this weekend I know next weekend you have your daughter. And he literally said well first I have to do my errands so I have quality time with my kid. I hope you understand. I told him I didn’t but I wanted to discuss things. I was going to explain my perspective clearly and end it. He beat me too it, saying we weren’t compatible I need someone without a kid and more time….

    I said oh I agree things need to end, but the issue isn’t that we couldn’t work its you not wanting to put the effort. I hope you sometime find someone your willing too.

    I was very sad of course but I feel I dodged a bullet too. If that was a stupid test on his part, I am proud as heck that I failed it. Of course dating partner shouldn’t be more important than a child but if your willing to put in effort while dating holy crap what kind of marriage will it be. Holy Crap.

    1. jmacofearth

      Becca, thank you for your story. Both parents need to make the effort to find the time together. When one partner is not flexible and is not contributing to the togetherness, they are giving a clear message. I agree you made a healthy choice.

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