How to Avoid Fireworks When a Significant Other Comes Into the Picture
By: J. Alex Jacobson
Founder, Mediator — Jacobson Mediation Group
In the television series, Modern Family, the patriarch, Jay Pritchett, is married to Gloria Delgado Pritchett. Gloria has a son from a prior marriage, Manny. What the viewers see is mostly positive — Jay assumes a father-figure role for Manny because Manny’s biological father, Javier, is not an active participant in Manny’s life. But what if Javier were involved in Manny’s life? Prior to Jay and Gloria getting married, one might question how would Javier’s involvement effect the relationship between Jay and Manny? What rights does Javier have regarding Manny’s exposure to Jay? What obligation does Gloria have to keep Javier informed of her relationship status with Jay?
While many people going through a divorce cannot imagine ever being involved in another committed relationship, it is quite common for divorcees to date again, get involved in a committed relationship again, and perhaps remarry. When children are involved, this process of “moving on” can be quite impactful for them. As part of the negotiations leading to a final parenting agreement, a divorcing couple can tackle these challenging topics relating to a significant other entering the picture, establish an agreed upon protocol for how and when the children will be exposed to the significant other, and ideally make the relationship with the significant other more like Jay and Manny rather than Snow White and her evil stepmother.
Here are a few issues for divorced or divorcing couples to consider regardingthe introduction of a significant other:
How long must one be in a committed relationship with a significant other before he or she is introduced to the children?
Even in the most high conflict cases where couples cannot even agree upon what day of the week it is, they are often able to agree that exposing children to serial significant others is not in their best interests. Ideally, a parent will only expose the children to a significant other when it is “serious”. What constitutes a serious relationship, though, is difficult to define. One way is to set a length of time that a parent must be in the relationship prior to him or her being introduced to the children. For example, a parenting agreement can (and they often do) include a provision that allows a significant other to be introduced to the children only after the parent has been in a relationship for six months, nine months, or a year (or any other agreed upon period of time). While a provision like this is difficult to police (i.e., how would the other parent know when the relationship actually began?), by discussing and agreeing upon the timeframe, a parent will ideally be more inclined to follow the established protocol.
Should the former spouse be offered the opportunity to meet the significant other prior to him or her being introduced to the children?
Given that this significant other is going to be introduced to the children, the former spouse may wish to meet him or her. While this does not give the former spouse veto power over the relationship (barring an emergency), it will provide that parent with some information about the significant other which inures to the children’s benefit. If and when the children reference the significant other to the parent not involved in the relationship, that parent will have met the significant other, can normalize the discussion with the children about the significant other, and can mitigate any notion that the topic of the significant other is somehow taboo.
After meeting the children, how much time must pass before the significant other may stay overnight while the children are present?
Once the former spouse has been provided the opportunity to meet the significant other and the significant other has been introduced to the children, another step to consider is when it is appropriate for the significant other to stay overnight while the children are present. This consideration will vary widely depending on the age and maturity level of the children. However, the mere fact that a parent is sleeping with a significant other regardless of what is or is not taking place in that bedroom can be a complicated subject for children to handle, and due attention should be given to this step in the process of integrating a significant other into a family.
Communication is the key to avoiding unwanted and unnecessary disputes regarding the introduction of a significant other to the children of divorced or divorcing parents. While these topics may be challenging to discuss openly, engaging in these conversations with the assistance of a mediator will allow parents to reach an agreed upon protocol that is tailored to their needs and hopefully establish their own modern family.