single father with kids

4 Relationship Requirements for Single Parents

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Divorce is hard on everyone. As a dad, my kids (5 and 7) were taken from me for more than 70% of the time. I was wounded by the inequity and fury of the divorce process.

I began to emerge as a single dad with non-custodial parenting rights, I began dating with the intention of finding another long-term partner. I didn’t want to date. And I knew I could not recreate the family that had been fractured by the divorce. But I wanted something lasting. Something durable. My journey took me nine years and I learned a lot along the way.

As Single Parents, We Have Different Priorities

I was damaged by my divorce. I entered into a cooperative divorce only to be given the shaft in the closing days of the process. I was sad at the loss of my marriage, yes, but I was mostly saddened by all the time I was going to lose with my children. I remembered what it was like when my dad was asked to leave the home. (He was an alcoholic, so there was a huge difference.) Everything got very serious. Money got tight. And holidays became a small civil war as I was shuttled back and forth between my home and my dad’s new home. I knew I was never going to be “home” again to my kids. I knew that I was going to have a lot less time being their dad. And I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time alone.

I tried dating early on, but it was more of a spasm than a real attempt. Sure, sex had been nearly non-existent in the final year of my marriage, but my desire to get out there and sew the seeds of love was quickly met with the reality: dating purely for sex is a bit like drinking to be happy. I did have a few successful dates, but the blowback of crazy relationship drama was not worth it. I took a few years off from dating to get my act together.

And as I started dating again, I came to find that there were some real benefits to being with a woman who was also a mother.

  • They understood the priorities and sacrifices a parent makes to support their children
  • They had also been through a divorce and were understanding of the difficulties of co-parenting
  • They had kids of their own and could relate to the joys and stresses of parenting

My priority as I started dating again, was to find a long-term relationship with someone who could bring the whole parenting package to our relationship as well. What that meant, was they could be both mother and father to their kids, and as they grew in empathy as well as strength they could join with me in our journey as parents. Parents to a different group of kids, perhaps, but parents again. Parents in alignment with our responsibilities and our willingness to build a life together.

Dating Was Not the Goal

I didn’t want my marriage to end. I fought to keep my then-wife in the commitment. I lost the fight.

As I returned with energy and enthusiasm to the idea of finding a long-term partner I was open to all possibilities. From the drama and stress of an unhappy marriage, I knew I was going to find joy again with a different woman. Yes, there would be different problems, but perhaps I could avoid some of the hardships I had experienced in nearly ten years of marriage.

It didn’t take me long to develop a guiding principle. As a single parent, I didn’t want to date, I wanted to find a relationship that had the potential to go long-term and settle into the process of relationship building. I wrote my *want* list (What a Single Dad *Wants* in His Next Relationship) and I began working through the process of searching, courting, and dating. I learned two key requirements in the first two LTRs. (long-term relationships)

Relationship Requirement 1: Expresses Love Easily

My partner must be able to express love and affection easily and joyfully.

This wasn’t about sex. This was about the simple act of telling someone, “I think you’re amazing.” I didn’t even realize how much of this affection I had been missing in my marriage until girlfriend number one came along and rocked my world. She was able to give me genuine hugs, and genuine compliments, and showed me what an affectionate relationship would look and feel like. She was 100% love. She was also 100% mama to two teenage kids. I also learned from her what parenting older kids was going to look like. We could talk about our kids. She could give me advice from her experience. We shared parenting stories and ideas. We shared enthusiasms and excitements about our children. And we were able to appreciate the good parenting of the other person. It was a bit like saluting a fellow officer. We were both in the fray as parents, and we could support each other in the associated challenges.

Relationship Requirement 2: Share a Passion

The second long-term relationship tested a lot of my ideas about what a relationship might look like. But the primary lesson I learned from girlfriend number two was: doing what we loved (playing tennis) was a surefire way to join our hearts and bodies. We didn’t have a very stable relationship, but we did have a love of tennis, and tennis together was a great form of foreplay. The fact that she broke up with me once a week was only mildly concerning at first. (“She just didn’t know what she wanted,” I said to myself each time.)

The reason she kept breaking up with me, according to her, was that she didn’t want to get serious with anyone. She didn’t want to get married again. She wasn’t even sure she was ready to date. But date we did, on and off again about five times. And the phrase that began triggering her departure was this, “I only want to date someone I can see going down the road with. I’m interested in a long-term relationship, or no relationship at all. I’d rather be alone than date someone out of convenience or loneliness.” (I chronicle GF-1 and GF-2 more deeply in my book Single Dad Seeks.)

Relationship Requirement 3: Sex Must Be a Shared Passion

Several years further down the road, I ran into an athlete and an older woman who showed me the joy of sex again. I learned from her that sex could be fun, spontaneous, humorous, and requested from either partner. She had a willingness and a joy with her sexual desire that was magical. I learned from her that sex absolutely had to be GREAT. And what that means is different for everyone, and certainly different for each of us as we mature and deepen our long-term commitments. Sex must be a connective and playful experience. If one partner is doing it out of duty, or one partner is exhausted and doing it to get it over with, what I discovered is, it’s better to not have sex than to have bad sex. Disconnected sex was the first sign of the coming apocalypse in my marriage. When my then-wife looked at me with the “won’t you just hurry up and finish” look, a part of me began to give up on our intimate connection.

Relationship Requirement 4: Love My Kids As You Love Me

I didn’t really understand this until I broke up with a long-term partner who had been rather indifferent to my kids. She liked that I had kids (she did not) and she wanted me to have a good relationship with my kids, but… She wasn’t that interested in loving or even appreciating my kids. I’m not sure if this is a parent vs. non-parent thing, but once I experienced her apathetic attitude toward my kids I knew I would never settle for that behavior again. Are single parents the only ones who can understand another single parent? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no. But I’m also sure, that my kids were hurt by this woman’s narcissistic behavior toward them. She wanted a relationship with me. She was glad that I was a dad. But she wasn’t interested in becoming friends with my kids. Period. Only when we had broken up, did my kids tell me how cold and bitter she had been towards them.

What Single Parents Are Looking For

Yes, we are parents and we have bigger responsibilities than just our own whims, needs, and cravings. Dating profiles that say things like “love travel, live music, and drinks on the beach” are not very helpful in determining what you might really do in a relationship with another person. As single parents, at least we are starting with a common goal: support our kids AND find love again for ourselves. We might get those priorities mixed up from time to time, but we are 100% invested in our kids’ lives and their livelihoods. And if we can find a person who shares a bit of enthusiasm for our kids and their relationship with our kids, well… That is the golden standard.

Love my kids as you love me. I won’t ever forget that final requirement. And when you do find it in another single parent, you’ve both been given a singular gift that cannot be given by someone who’s never had kids. Parenting is a spiritual journey that you enter when your kids are born. The relationships you have as parents may change over time, but your parenting is a huge part of what gives your life meaning.

To me, my kids are everything. And to my partner, my love of their kids and their love of my kids, is unfathomable and wonderful when it happens. The divorce may have fractured a huge portion of my life, but my days ahead can also be my brightest ever, as a dad, as a lover, and as a father figure to someone else’s children.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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Get the complete single dad story with John’s new book: Single Dad Seeks (available in all formats)

And here are a few more posts about deep relationships:

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