As a single mom to a toddler, I knew I wanted to be in a committed relationship at some point. What I didn’t want was for my future partner to have children. I know, I know, the hypocrisy! I was turned off on dads because the men I had previously dealt with didn’t handle the relationship with their ex in a mature and respectable way.
But in came my future husband in 2011. He had a whole ex and two children! I immediately felt a connection with him but was very apprehensive about pursuing a commitment with him.
As time went on, I started to get to know the person he was, the type of father he was committed to being, and the interactions he fostered with his ex. What I saw as a dating red flag was more insecurity and fear about having a blended family. My now husband’s partnership and love was a commitment I didn’t want to be without. There were more signs for me to proceed than there were to slow down.
Navigating life as a blended family can be a daunting and oftentimes frustrating, especially if you don’t have children of your own. While your one-on-one relationship with your partner is important, there are some factors beyond that relationship that can either set you up to transition into a positive situation or a negative one.
If you’re dating someone with children, watch out for—and address—the following red flags. (Some of these I have personally experienced prior to meeting my husband.)
1. Your partner rarely spends time with their child.
Do they show up for parent-teacher conferences? Hanging out on the weekends? Do they know their kids’ teachers and schedules? Are they picking up and/or dropping off at school if their schedule allows? (Holidays and birthdays are obligations, so those don’t count.)
If you and your partner have plans to have children of your own, pay close attention to how they treat their existing children. Should your relationship end after children, you want to know that they are a committed parent.
The interactions with my husband and his ex were often divisive and combative in the beginning of our relationship. But he always showed up at the agreed upon time to pick up or drop off his children. He modeled what consistency and fairness looked like.
Ask questions and do your due diligence to ensure you are in a relationship with a mature, responsible person. Your partner having a relationship with their children shouldn’t be based on the condition of a romantic relationship with the mother.
2. Your partner doesn’t consult the other parent when making important decisions about the children.
Major decisions like school enrollment and medical care shouldn’t be made in a silo. Are they taking the initiative to engage and get the perspective of the other parent? If the other parent is active in the child’s life and healthy, including them on decisions should be a baseline expectation. Not doing so may mean your partner is a poor communicator or doesn’t respect or value the other parent. (And the latter may mean there is a deeper issue happening with the ex.)
Further, while asking your opinion about the children is normal, yours shouldn’t be the only one taken into consideration. When in a new intimate relationship, the ex shouldn’t be kept at bay. As the potential step-parent, you are not a substitute for the biological parent.
3. They give you liberty on how to manage your relationship with the kids.
Prior to having my daughter, I was often unexpectedly alone with an ex’s son and given no guidance on how to interact with him.
“Oh, just do what you think is best with him,” my ex told me.
Not only did I not understand his son’s needs or interests, I was left to fumble and fail repeatedly without any guidance from my partner.
Your partner may assume you have a certain skill or intuition simply because you are a woman. Assuming this—and that their child is comfortable with you—can lead to feelings of resentment from many sides.
My husband talked me through many of the early interactions with his children. And he was always sure to get the kids involved, asking questions like, “Hey son, maybe Tiffany can play with you. Do you want to ask her?” Or, “The kids may like that. If it’s ok with you, ask them if they want to help.”
Raising children is a collaborative effort. Talking about the kids’ interests, personalities, and challenges should be a part of the relationship. Participating in activities together and interacting with children as a unit is important before branching off with alone time with the child.
4. They let you discipline their child(ren) however you want.
This is a big no-no.
Everyone’s views on discipline are different. Your partner should make it known up front what the expectations are for disciplining their child. Further, they should be modeling the behavior to you to set the bar on how to interact with his child. This shows you they are concerned about their physical, emotional, and mental well-being, and doesn’t want to leave anything up for interpretation.
If you witness physical, emotional or mental abuse from your partner to his children (or any other person for that matter) you should leave the relationship immediately.
5. Your significant other wants to wait until after you’re married to talk about family dynamics.
Marriage is a commitment you make after you have fully vetted and interacted with a person over a period of time. This includes family dynamics. A healthy blended family relationship doesn’t happen overnight. It takes intention, communication, connection, and time. The celebration is the wedding day. The work should begin long before you said “I do.”
These tips are just a general guide. It doesn’t rule out going with your gut or instinct. Ask questions. Listen. Observe. Ideally, you want to enter into a relationship where there is mutual respect between your partner and their ex. Their new relationship with you shouldn’t change those dynamics. It should amplify and compliment.