Dating Someone Who’s Divorced?

Are you seeing a single parent whose ex is making your life miserable? Here’s how to handle it so the kids—and your relationship—can thrive.

By Lisa Cohn

indy Copeland of Keene, NH, had just begun dating Wayne, a divorced dad, when she received a phone call she definitely didn’t expect: from Wayne’s ex-wife, who wanted to meet up. Wary, Cindy acquiesced but soon regretted it, as she sat there listening to the ex rant about how she and Wayne “would never last” and that Cindy had better “stay away” from her kids. Months later, the ex would follow this up with threats that Cindy had “better not dare” come to her child’s school meetings, even though Cindy had children at that school as well! “A lot of it was about wanting to be in control of him and the kids," says Cindy, who eventually married Wayne. “She liked being in charge, and with me around, she didn’t have as much control.”

Unfortunately, Cindy’s experience is hardly unusual—many single people who’ve dated divorcés with kids have dealt with an ornery ex-spouse. Since kids are involved, these exes often feel it’s their right to meddle in your relationship, no matter how new it is.
Ex-spouses often worry that new boyfriend or girlfriend will replace them as parents. So assuage their fears.
And needless to say, this can throw a major wrench in your budding romance. Fortunately, you can smooth things over, keep things civil, and even get along with your date’s ex-spouse. Here’s some advice that’ll help keep you — and your new relationship — as drama-free as possible.

Rule #1: Don’t assume things will improve on their own
If you’ve just started dating a single parent and have gotten rumblings that the ex is displeased — with how you deal with the kids or because you’re keeping your new amour away from family duties — don’t assume the situation will improve once you two become an official item or are married. “In the beginning I fooled myself into thinking things would get better once I was permanently in the picture,” recalls Cindy. “But the truth is, what you see is what you get.” In truth, you’re better off nipping this in the bud as soon as you sense there’s a problem. More on how to do that next…

Rule #2: Suggest a meeting with the ex to iron out issues
As nice as it would be to think that your sweetie will be able to smooth things over with the ex without your involvement, that’s rarely the case. If it were, it wouldn’t have become a problem in the first place! And unless all three adults are on good terms, there’s a good chance the kids will get caught in the middle and suffer for it. So for their sakes, tell your date, “I noticed there seem to be some tension with your ex that could impact your kids. Could you set up a meeting over the phone or coffee so the three of us can iron these things out?” Make sure you really tell your date this and not just mention it as a possibility, since your sweetie may try to talk you out of it! Just say, “I would really like to do this and hope you’ll support me.” Emphasize your goal—this is for the kids, not so the adults can air their petty jealousies and act like children themselves. Few parents would refuse.

Rule #3: Establish some ground rules
Ex-spouses are often possessed by the green-eyed monster, worrying that new boyfriend or girlfriend will replace them as parents. So when you do meet up with them, you’ll have a much better discussion if you allay their suspicions from the get-go. Tell the ex, “I think
If your date’s ex bullies or bad-mouths you, don’t play the game. Speak only in positive terms about the ex, especially in front of the kids.
you’ve done a wonderful job raising these kids and I don’t want to — nor could I ever — take your place. That’s why I thought it would be great to meet and see if you had any concerns.” If you have kids of your own, say so—this can help assuage their anxiety. Then, dive right into any questions you have about the kids, like “I hear that your son has asthma; is there anything I should know about if he has an attack?” You can also suss out whether you’d be welcome at children’s events, and which ones. He or she might not mind if you show up at an after-school soccer game, but might go ballistic if you attend a PTA meeting. Find out what the no-go zones are, and you’ll avoid a lot of misunderstandings down the road.

Rule #4: Never show up at a child’s events unannounced
That is, unless you want to stir up trouble and end up in a screaming match while entering the school auditorium to see Junior’s play. In any case, if it’s unclear whether the ex will be fine with you going, always ask your honey to check first. And in cases where the ex demands you don’t show? No matter how unfair or outrageous, ask yourself this question: How will my going affect the child? If there’s a big blow-up fight between you and the ex, the child suffers more than anyone, so keep this in mind as you put your pride aside and stay home that night.

Rule #5: That said, don’t let the ex walk all over you
Sure, you should try to be understanding and accommodating of an ex when it comes to his or her kids. But that doesn’t mean you should be shut out completely from your date’s family life. That’s what happened to David Abraham of Bethesda, MD, who was dating a woman with a 6-year-old child. She also had a jealous ex-husband who suggested that David’s presence would hurt his child. “I felt as if I had no say about anything that had to do with the child or Amanda's ex. Then I started to feel angry,” David recalls. Avoid his fate and be sure to set limits. It’s OK to tell your date if something upsets you, and to push back when the ex is out of line, provided it’s not in front of the kids.

Rule #6: Don’t stoop to the ex’s level
If your date’s ex bullies or bad-mouths you, don’t play the game. Speak only in positive terms about the ex, especially in front of the kids. Don’t obsess on the ex-spouse’s negative behavior and don’t give into the temptation to compete. Says Copeland, “Out-doing the ex-spouse is an empty victory. It allows the other person to have undue influence over your life. Don’t give someone that kind of power over you.”

Lisa Cohn is co-author of One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies ( and co-host of Stepfamily Talk Radio.
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