It’s no secret that dating someone who has kids is going to be pretty different than dating a nonparent. Late dates, spontaneous overnight stays and the ability to do anything last minute are pretty much out of the equation. Plus, there’s the fact that your S.O. has other (incredibly important) priorities in their life that aren’t you.
It’s definitely more challenging to date a parent, says licensed marriage and family therapist Lesli Doares, author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. The needs and schedules of the kids will impact how and when you’re able to be together, and babysitters and custody agreements may be part of the equation. “It also becomes not just how you feel about each other that matters because you aren’t the only ones involved,” she says. “The person with the children will take into account how [the kids] are dealing with this relationship too.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t date someone with kids — it’s just good to know up front that it’s probably going to be a different experience than your last kid-free relationship. Here are a few important tips for navigating the situation.
1. Have realistic expectations
“Just because you and the parent get along doesn’t mean you and the children will,” Doares says — and that can be a deal-breaker for many parents.
There’s also a chance that the children could be jealous of you and your relationship with their parent and may even try to sabotage it, says clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time, but it can — and it’s important to be aware before you get in too deep.
2. You have to be OK with your S.O. not being reachable all the time
Kids require a lot of time, energy and focus — especially if they’re young. That can make it tough for parents to be able to answer calls and texts quickly at times. “Kids are the priority,” says Mayer, and that can be tough for someone who doesn’t have them to understand—at least, at first.
Doares recommends that you both get clear about your time constraints, not just with the kids, but with work, activities and life in general so you both have realistic expectations of how available you’ll be.
3. Things might move slower than you’re used to, & that’s a good thing
Your partner likely takes their kids’ opinions into account when it comes to dating someone new or whether they should even be dating at all — and it’s understandable they might be cautious about introducing someone new to the equation. Plus, you’re also dealing with multiple people, which can be a lot to handle. “Taking things slow allows you to deal with these extra challenges more effectively,” Doares says. Moving slowly also lets the kids get used to the idea of their parent dating and of you being in the picture, Mayer says.
4. Watch what you say about the kids
At some point, your S.O. is probably going to gripe about an experience they had with their offspring, but it’s best for you to take a backseat about things. “If they want to talk about something going on at home, try to only ask open-ended questions and listen without weighing in,” Doares advises. Responding otherwise could be seen as criticism of their children, which won’t go over well.
5. Be neutral about the ex
If the ex is still in the picture and things get serious, you’re going to need to interact with them on some level. Even if the split was bad and your partner isn’t crazy about their former S.O., it’s crucial for you to be civil about the ex, Mayer says. Bad-mouthing them or refusing to interact with them will only cause trouble.
6. Don’t push to meet the kids
It’s super-tempting given that they’d be yours one day if things work out, but it’s important to slow your roll. “Don’t be too eager to meet them [and] be prepared to let the parent take the lead about including the children,” Doares says. “They know their children best.” In a perfect world, you wouldn’t meet the kids until your relationship was super-solid, like after you’ve dated for at least six months, she says.
When you do meet the kids, keep it short and meet up in a neutral place like the zoo or a restaurant, says Mayer. This can help make the situation more comfortable and less threatening for everyone.