The Dating Game
Ron L. Deal
“It’s a new year with new possibilities, Ron. But it’s been so long since I was part of the dating game,” Kevin began, “I’m not sure how to play it anymore.” It had been some time since Kevin’s wife died and as we talked further I could tell that Kevin’s concerns about dating were not limited to him. He worried a lot about his daughter. “What do I say to her before I go on a date? Should I introduce her to my date? What if I get married again someday—how will it affect her?” He was asking a lot of good questions.
I think it is very important for single parents (or those dating a single parent) to understand that the goal of dating and/or remarriage is not to replace the divorced or deceased parent in your household. Don’t marry to give your kids another parent. Get married because you feel lead by God to a person who can companion you for life. This decision must be made with consideration of your children, but not for them. If your children’s welfare were the only consideration, you might want to consider remaining single until they are on their own. Children raised in single parent homes do as well or better on most measures of wellbeing than children raised in stepfamilies. But they aren’t your only consideration; balancing your needs and theirs requires that you step carefully, and wisely, and remove all fantasies that would blind you.
The first date is usually a tough one. It signifies to you and your children (no matter what their age) that another season following the death or divorce of the family has begun. To children, it feels like another layer of loss, therefore, expect some accompanying sadness.
Help your children prepare for each phase of dating (new date, steady dating, getting engaged, planning for life after the wedding) with a series of dialogues with your children. They should never be surprised by your actions. Use “what if…?” questions to help them prepare for the possibilities and begin getting used to the idea. The age of your children will determine how long and detailed the discussion. For example, “It’s been two years since your dad and I divorced and I know it’s been hard for all of us. What would you think if I decided to go on date?” What you are looking for is not necessarily your kids permission to date, but the emotions and thoughts that surround that possibility. Their response will give you information on their continued sadness related to the loss and help you decide the timing of dating.
- How do you know when you’re ready to date? When you don’t need to. Discontentment with being single and loneliness breads vulnerability and lessens your ability to be discerning about a dating relationship. Learn to relax in your singleness and trust God with it.
- A dating break-up is a flashing, yellow caution light. Couples who experienced a breakup during courtship are four times more likely to have relationship difficulties after the wedding.
- Dating bliss is not necessarily indicative of real stepfamily happiness. Premarital satisfaction only accounts for one-third of marital satisfaction; stepfamily dynamics highly impact couple happiness after the wedding more so than before. In other words, learn all you can about stepfamily living before you marry.
- Couples with children from previous relationships who date longer than five years have lower levels of marital satisfaction than couples who dated less than five years. Fear and anxiety about further pain may be what holds couples up from moving into marriage.
Casual dating is okay as long you define the relationship with the person you are dating (“I have no intention of moving deeper in a relationship right now. If you are okay with casual dating then let’s continue.”). And, let your kids know what to expect as well, particularly young children (age 5 or less) who are prone to quick emotional attachments.
Introduce your children to the person you are dating within the first few dates; don’t carry on a relationship behind their backs. Let them get to know each other a little at a time. Become more intentional about their level of contact and connection as your dating relationship progresses. Once you are serious about the future (including marriage), let the future stepparent begin “dating the children.” This means investing intentional, strategic time and energy into relationship building. This may require many months of time, perhaps even a year or longer if the relationship is progressing slowly for whatever reason (e.g., time limitations, ex-spouses who sabotage, etc.). Monitor this process as you make decisions about a wedding.
Many people ask me how long couples should date before engagement and/or marriage. I find definite time frames misguided so I generally make the following points:
- Time is not a good measure of quality. How long a couple dates is not necessarily indicative of the quality of their relationship. Couples can date six months or three years and have either low or high quality relationships.
- Couples with high quality relationships still may have poor stepparent and stepsibling relationships. Couple relationships and stepfamily relationships do not necessarily follow the same trajectory so don't make the blind assumption that your readiness for marriage will be matched by the kids'.
- Therefore, don’t determine your readiness to marry solely upon how much you are in love. It is much more difficult to be a family than it is to be a couple. Slow the pace of your dating and allow your children to adjust as much as possible before the wedding.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.