Step-by-Step Guide to Co-Parenting While in a Relationship

How to determine what's best for your child and co-parenting relationship.
By:
Chelsea Williams
July 1, 2021
A

fter you’ve recently been through a painful separation or divorce process, it can be difficult to take on a new relationship, especially when you’re also co-parenting. Like many of us who’ve been divorced, you may have even sworn off dating for good at some point.

If you and your new partner have been enjoying each other’s company and you feel your connection growing deeper, you could be imagining a future with them. You might be allowing yourself to get excited at the thought of sharing your beautifully complicated life with this person. Of course, that means meeting your children.

Taking this big step doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience. With careful planning, a cooperative approach, and boundaries in place, you can comfortably manage co-parenting while in a relationship.

In this article, we’ll give you some guidance on setting up this new arrangement in a way that truly works for everyone. We’ll cover how to:

  • Thoughtfully assess your co-parenting circumstances
  • Introduce a new partner to your child with compassion
  • Prioritize healthy co-parenting while in a new relationship
  • Maintain boundaries for the whole family

Thoughtfully Assess Your Co-Parenting Circumstances

Mom holds child while talking on the phone

Healthy co-parenting in a stepfamily or blended family situation starts before you’ve ever brought your new partner around the kids. When you’re having tons of fun in your new relationship, it can be easy to forget that your children and your ex-spouse may not see that as a good thing.

Moving too fast through the steps we’re about to cover can have huge consequences when children are involved.

So, let’s slow it down and talk about the prep stage that comes before the practical stuff. The best way to ensure a smooth transition for everyone is to take time to reflect before making any major decisions.

Here are a few important steps to take prior to making this big change to your children’s lives:

  • Review your state laws and/or check in with your attorney if you’re concerned about the legalities of dating, especially if you’re currently separated. Laws can vary widely and you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised or unknowingly have this decision affect your parenting schedule.
  • Think about how much time has passed since your divorce or separation. How long have your children had to adjust to their parents not being together? There’s no perfect amount of time, and every family situation is different. However, it’s best not to add someone new into a co-parenting dynamic when the situation is still fresh for everyone.
  • Be ready for any kind of reaction from your former partner. Have you ever had a conversation with them about the inevitable day when one or both of you would be in a new relationship? What do you anticipate they will say or do, and can you separate this from your own true desires? Even if you aren’t aware of it, they could still have a lingering attachment to you that makes it hard to see you with someone new. Manage your expectations about their approval, and be sensitive about where they stand emotionally. In the end, don’t be afraid to make an autonomous decision about moving on, but be aware that your ex-spouse may not be on board.
  • Evaluate your own emotional and mental health. Consider whether you’re ready to involve the whole family in your dating life. It’s crucial to ensure you’re in a good place personally. You’ll need to be stable enough to provide support for your children throughout this transition.

Move on to new partner introductions only after you’ve determined you’re in good legal standing to do so and ready to balance co-parenting while in a relationship.

Introduce Your Child to a New Partner With Compassion

Man meets new partner's daughter

Some children find it stressful to discover their parents are dating again post-divorce. After all, they aren’t the ones deciding to bring these new people into their lives. The thought of a future stepparent they didn’t choose can make them feel powerless. Your kids might push back, but there are ways to enter this phase gently.

First, ensure you’re committed to this new partner before deciding to introduce them to your children. This is nonnegotiable. Bringing casual partners into a child’s life is risky because they could get attached to someone who won’t stick around for long. So, be honest with yourself about where you see this new relationship going.

Instead of assuming the other person is committed, have at least one explicit conversation with them about where you stand. Any partner who’s going to become a considerate co-parent will understand the need for this type of discussion.

Together, determine a specific time period for introduction that would be least stressful for everyone. Ideally, it won’t coincide with any other big events or ongoing commitments and will allow time for your children to gradually adjust. If they also have children, discuss how you both envision blending the families in the long term.

After you’ve talked about the future of your relationship and feel good about your decision, it’s time to plan the first meeting. Consider an age-appropriate environment that will make each child feel as comfortable as possible.

If your children are under 10 years old, make the first meeting casual and fun. Choose a setting they’re familiar with — away from home. This way, they won’t feel like your new partner is infringing upon their safe space. A playground, park, or favorite dining spot are good options.

If your children are tweens or teenagers, involve them in the decision about where to go. A hands-on activity like mini golf or bowling could be a low-pressure way to connect. Again, keep it outside your home. With this age group, you also don’t want to try to force the fun. They’ll be able to sense this!

What if you have children in both categories? Talk to the oldest ones and have them help you figure out what their younger siblings would prefer.

No matter their ages, stick to these guidelines for easing your kids into the idea that you’re in a new relationship:

  • Limit physical affection with your new partner in front of your children. They need to be able to evaluate this stranger for themselves, without the complication of his or her romantic relationship with you. This applies for quite some time after the first meeting as well.
  • Keep the first visit short and make sure you have some alone time with your kids afterwards. Don’t ask lots of questions during this time. Instead, let the children share their feelings about your partner only if they choose.
  • Validate your children’s feelings, even if they’re resistant. Initial upset doesn’t mean they won’t come around to this big change in circumstances. Your first response will set the tone for how they feel about a possible stepparent. Be patient and empathetic.
  • Reassure the children that you’ll continue to spend dedicated time with them — without your new partner. There is often an underlying fear that their parent’s focus will be on someone else. At this time when your children need extra love and affection, it’s imperative to offer this reassurance AND follow through on your promise of quality time.

Prioritize Healthy Co-Parenting While in a Relationship

Once your children have gotten used to your new relationship — even if they’re not necessarily delighted about it — you should aim to balance honest communication with what’s best for their well-being. Regardless of your specific child custody arrangement, it’s possible to maintain healthy relationships for all parties involved.

Within your household, it’s all about having open communication. Even if your new partner doesn’t live with you and your children yet, their presence can still affect household dynamics. Your significant other needs to be aware of what you and your co-parent agreed upon in court (if applicable).

Someone who’s unfamiliar with divorce may not understand, for example, that the children need and deserve to speak with their other parent as often as possible. Ultimately, it’s your job to make sure you and your partner are fully respecting the details of your parenting plan.

This respect should extend to any communication happening between your household and your former spouse’s. Update them on any upcoming changes or big news, such as a stepparent moving in. Also, remember that time with the other parent is just as important as time with you, even if you don’t personally feel this is true. Don’t make plans that get in the way of your co-parent’s time with the children, unless you’ve made a special arrangement for them to make up the time.

All of this can be a lot to handle. This is not all on you, so we don’t want you to take our advice to mean that you’re solely responsible for everything going perfectly. Stress can creep up easily when you’re thinking about the whole family more than yourself, and it’s not the kind of stress that can be soothed by a bubble bath!

Stay aware of your own needs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by trying to gracefully manage co-parenting while in a relationship, reconnect with yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way if you decide to seek professional help or reach out to a friend or family member you can trust.

Maintain Boundaries for the Whole Family

Mother and daughter talk and laugh on the couch

It’s important to establish and monitor boundaries for every party involved in your co-parenting arrangement. Yet, it can be hard to understand what that really means in this scenario.

Here’s how to take boundaries into account in a co-parenting relationship:

  • Manage your new partner’s expectations about communication with your ex. How often are you required to speak to your children’s other parent? Do you communicate via email, text, a co-parenting app, or phone call? Being in a relationship with someone who’s actively co-parenting means knowing there will be some amount of communication with a former partner. Be real with them about the frequency of these interactions and let them tell you if they care to know details.
  • If it works for your situation, try to ensure that your ex-spouse is permitted and feels welcome to attend your children’s activities. The same goes for drop-offs and pick-ups when it’s time to exchange parenting time. Can your partner handle being in situations where they have to interact with your co-parent and can your co-parent be respectful to them? If not, your new partner might consider being the one to step back and choose not to go.
  • Make a thoughtful plan before talking about your co-parenting arrangement with or in front of your children. Kids can feel when things are tense, so aim for a matter-of-fact tone if you need to relay a message or explain some kind of upcoming change. Don’t bring up legal matters with younger children, as this could be frightening for them. With older kids, answer questions truthfully but maintain neutrality about their other parent. Above all, follow any court-ordered rules about discussing the other parent in your household, if they exist. Ensure that your partner does the same.
  • Listen to your children and consider their requests for boundaries. If your children indicate to you that they’re uncomfortable — especially with something your new partner said or did — take them seriously and talk about how to make a change. You know your kids well, but this is a new circumstance for everyone. Their feelings and attitude could seem out of character in periods of family transition, but this is perfectly normal. A child’s needs come first, regardless of their temporary behavior. Remind yourself to keep your children’s mental health and self-esteem top of mind.

You may not be able to do all of the above all the time. Focus on what you can control! There will be moments when boundaries fall out of sight, but it’s always possible to realign with them if you stay aware.

Have Patience as Your Family Transitions

Those dreams you had about building a new happy family after divorce don’t have to stay dreams. If you wait until you’re committed to a partner to introduce them to your children and regularly check in with your own emotions before diving in, successfully co-parenting while in a relationship can be a reality. In fact, co-parenting with stepfamilies involved can become a quite comfortable and enjoyable family arrangement after a while.

The co-parenting relationship looks different in every family. You get to decide how it looks in yours. Focus on communication and boundaries and you’ll move into this new stage as harmoniously as possible.

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.