The question was posed by fellow Family Law enthusiast Rhys Taylor recently, whether there was any material to assist advocates when mother or father or both, enter into new relationships. This article is by no means meant to stand as an authority on the subject as there will be far more qualified professionals than me who can give full answers that are supported by psychological studies and close work with children on that level. This article is based purely on my own meandering experiences navigating the field of family law for nearly 15 years.
1. Moving on.
Firstly, it is clearly important that after a separation that families move on. There will be different types of moving on for each family. You have to acknowledge the effect the break up will have had on the children. It may be a positive effect, there may be teenage children who are exhausted from their parents arguing who are relieved that their parents are separating. There may be very young children who will not appreciate there were difficulties in their parent's relationship, and will be very confused by the changes. The important thing to consider when moving on is that time is afforded to the children of whatever age to grow accustomed to their new lives.
Mum, Dad, or both may have new relationships and that is clearly fine. The Courts have never ever, in all my time practising ever criticised anyone for having a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Those relationships, however, cannot have precedence over the existing relationships between parent and child. Regardless of ages, the children need to know they still come first. They should be given time to get used to the idea of their mother or father having a new relationship before it becomes a new part of their lives. Boundaries need to be set early on so that the children know that this new person is not replacing the other parent, but they can still be a good influence on the children and the family if everyone is respectful of each other's feelings and the existing relationships.
3. Keeping positive.
An old District Judge used to trot out the same message to separating parents to try to encourage them to refrain from speaking negatively about the other in front of the children. He used to point out that the children know they are half mum and half dad, and so if either parent is speaking negatively and criticising the other, then the children are likely to recognise features of the 'bad' parent's behaviour in things they do and start to question how cared for they really are. If there is a new relationship and that person is very different from mum or dad, then this can be a positive thing as long as focus remains on how positive the children are and how valued they are.
4. Don't rush.
After a divorce or separation the children will be getting used to new routines and maybe staying with mum and dad for a few days each week or may be dividing the weekends. Whatever the arrangement, the children will want to spend time with their parents and not the new boyfriend of girlfriend. Conversely, if mum or dad is rather taken by the new partner there may be an urgency to show how well they are moving on and to make sure the children like the new person in their lives. The new partner may not come alone, they may have children, and so, not only would the children have to get used to seeing their mother or father with their new partner, there may also be potential 'siblings' to get used to too. This can be all too much for children, young and older, they may go back to the other parent and complain they feel uncomfortable or that they don't have enough attention. Children are young for so short a time and if the new partner really is worth their weight then they will wait. Don't rush to play happy families, give everyone time to adjust.
5. Finally, how would you feel?
It seems rather obvious but by putting yourself in your child's place you may modify your actions so that you are more child focused. Would you feel good if you had to share mum on your designated pizza night? Would you feel comfortable if it felt like you were on date night with dad and his new partner? Probably not. Keep things focussed on the children, because adults can rationalise these things and keep things in perspective, children need to know they are loved and they are the focus of their parent's worlds.
Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be child friendly.