Sometimes significant others are on the radar at the time of the divorce (or before) and sometimes it is an afterthought. If there are children of the marriage, this arrangement should be anticipated and discussed prior to the divorce. Often, the more is not the merrier. Third parties change the dynamic of the family unit and each person’s relationship with the other – good and bad. Children – even older/adult children – have a hard time with their parents’ new relationships. If the new relationship is present before the child has adjusted to the divorce, it compounds the issue. These are delicate matters and, for a variety of reasons, many good parents are blind to the need for children to process their new reality. For many parents, the marriage was unhappy – or “over” – for a long time. By the time the divorce is complete they are more than ready to move on. Not so for many children. They didn’t get to wrap their brain around the idea of divorce before it started. They were not (or should not have been) privy to all the back and forth negotiations and considerations that go into crafting parenting plans. At a time when parents are finally settled and accepting of their new reality, the children are still in the initial stages of processing it. In addition, it is not uncommon for children to try to comfort their parents and not vocalize their uncertainty or discomfort, thus appearing as if all is well. Often, all is not well. This comes to a head when third parties are introduced too soon or if the other parent takes offense at the new relationship. Some children will immediately take the side of the “hurt” parent and reject the new individual/relationship. It is not uncommon for a child to feel as if the parent in the new relationship is ignoring them or – if that other person has children – replacing them. They resent not being able to spend one-on-one time with the parent and/or having to include other children into their family time. The new person is often caught in the middle and caught unawares when trying to navigate the new family dynamic. It is often a no-win situation which either strains or terminates the new relationship or causes fractures or irreparable harm to the existing relationships. There is a way to minimize the damage.
Discussing the inevitable third party relationship during the divorce is a good option, although difficult and uncomfortable. Trying to reach a mutual understanding/agreement as to when a third party should be introduced to the children, how it should be done, what discussions/notice between the parents should be given, the importance of establishing boundaries and maintaining alone time with the children, feedback to be provided by the other parent, how to handle any resistance from the children, etc should be a goal. Identifying and agreeing to attend coparenting therapy to address any (often many) issues in a positive, goal-oriented, and childcentered way is often advisable and a very helpful. It helps to address matters in a timely fashion and fosters productive communication. Should the third party become a step-parent, that person should also be involved in the therapy/communication so they, too, can have the benefit of professional assistance in navigating often difficult matters. They have a special relationship with the child that also needs to be fostered for the benefit of the child.