Great news: You just met a wonderful guy! He has an impressive-sounding job, a summer house by the lake, a nice car in the garage… and his three kids every other weekend. Oh, and did we mention an ex-wife who doesn’t love the idea of another woman making her children pancakes? Yes, you’re dating a divorced dad, and he’s a tricky species, indeed. Whatever rules you’ve applied to dating in the past, just throw them out the window. Because when it comes to having a relationship with a man who has kids, you’ll need to follow a whole new set of guidelines. To help you maneuver your way through this scenario, we asked experts and people who’ve been there for tips on the best way to date a dad.

Rule #1: His kids always come first — and you should be happy about that. “If he doesn’t make his kids a priority, that’s a major red flag for me,” says Susan Avery, 35, of New York City. “For example, if he says he would be willing to change his plans with them in order to be with me — well, that’s a bad sign. You want someone who makes his children the most important priority in his life.”
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Rule #2: The ex is here to stay in a co-parenting role, so try to get along with her if you can. She’s the mother of his children and if they’re both actively involved in their kids’ lives, then she’s not definitely going anywhere. “You’ve got to be prepared to deal with and interact with her regularly,” says Rhonda Findling, author of The Dating Cure. This could be as infrequent as answering her occasional phone call to regularly making plans for pick-ups or drop-offs and filling her in about anything that happened when her kids were over at your place. You don’t have to become best friends with her, but you should be able to get along and be willing to communicate when it relates to the little ones.

Rule #3: You’ll probably date in secret (at least for a little while). “Children shouldn’t be involved in parental dating issues until you’re really serious and both sure that it’s a committed relationship,” says Gilda Carle, Ph.D., relationship expert and author of Don’t Bet on the Prince! How to Have the Man You Want by Betting on Yourself. “Children become easily attached, and you don’t want to disappoint or hurt them if things don’t work out,” warns Dr. Carle. A single dad who adheres to this rule genuinely cares about the emotional well-being of his kids and isn’t just casually bringing women in and out of his children’s lives whenever it suits him.

Rule #4: His diaper-changing days may be over, so if your biological clock’s ticking, you need to discuss it sooner rather than later. Since he’s already got a child (or two, or three) that he’s busy with and responsible for, he may not want to have any more children. This is a big deal if you’re longing for offspring of your own (either now or someday soon). “Finding this out is easy and you should do so sooner than later,” says Dr. Carle, who suggests asking: “Would you consider having children again?” Just make sure not to add “with me” to the end of that sentence. Here’s why: “If it’s too early on, that may scare him away or you may not get a real answer,” says Dr. Carle.

Rule #5: Kids are part of the package deal; spending time alone with their dad isn’t always an option as your relationship progresses. This likely sounds obvious, but if your guy’s close to his kids (which is a good thing), then his little ones will soon become a part of your life, too. That means some of your dates may be closer to Chuck E. Cheese than wine-and-cheese and that sleeping over at his place may turn into a G-rated slumber party. It also means that his kids play a role in deciding how he feels about you as a long-term partner. “Though I’m not looking for a replacement mother, I do want to find someone who’ll be involved in my daughters’ lives and will help me as I raise them,” says divorced dad Marty Tate, 33, of Salt Lake City, UT. “I don’t want to get too far down the relationship road without seeing how a woman interacts with my children and how they feel about her, too.”

Rule #6: Money may be tight. Parenthood doesn’t come cheap, especially if he’s paying alimony or child support to an ex-wife. “You have to expect (and accept) that some of his resources — financial and otherwise — are going to be geared towards those children, which can mean less money to take you out on dates and treat you with little romantic surprises,” says Findling. While it may not exactly be cause for celebration, the fact that he pays child support tells you that he’s both responsible and committed to his loved ones — and that’s priceless.

Rule #7: When it comes to making plans together, flexibility is a must. The only predictable thing about life with kids is that it’s utterly unpredictable. Although your boyfriend may have pre-set times he’s scheduled to spend with his children, those plans can change at any minute if the kids get sick, his ex has an emergency or they’re home on a break from school (e.g., Thanksgiving, spring break or during the summer months). “That means he may not always be available to you when you’d like or as spontaneous as a kid-free guy would be,” says Findling.

Rule #8: You’ve got to have a life of your own outside of this relationship. Though you’ll hopefully get along well enough with his children to become a part of their lives, most fathers and their children will still crave some one-on-one time together. “You’ve got to be independent enough that this relationship down-time doesn’t bother you and ensure that you have plenty of other things to do that keep you happy and fulfilled as an individual,” says Dr. Carle. Sitting around waiting for your chance to spend some time alone with your guy will only breed resentment for all parties involved.

Rule #9: In the early dating stages, you may be cast in the role of wicked stepmother; just try not to take it personally. This is true especially if you’re the first relationship this man has seriously pursued post-divorce. “The guy I dated had a five-year-old daughter who wouldn’t talk to me and just scowled whenever I was around,” recalls Melissa Lane, 36, of New York City. “It was hard, but I kept reminding myself of all the pain she’d just been through when her mom and dad split — and gave things a good amount of time to settle down before she eventually warmed up to me.” Wise advice, Melissa, since patience is indeed a very valuable asset for anyone trying to juggle love with raising kids.

Michele Bender is a freelance writer living in NYC.