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When a Parent Dates a Non-Parent



Donald R. Partridge



Bill, a single adult with no kids, has become quite interested in Shirley, a single mom. They are out at a restaurant on their first date and are having a very enjoyable time getting to know each other.


But Bill has a problem, a huge problem—only he doesn’t know it. You see, Bill thinks he and Shirley are alone at their table, just the two of them. He doesn’t know it, but they are not alone at all.


Shirley is a parent, meaning her mind and heart is bound up tightly with her daughter, Carole. And even though at this moment Carole is staying with her dad, in reality she is as close to her mother as if she were present. Bill knows that Shirley has a five-year-old daughter but has yet to understand what this means. He doesn’t realize that even though the mother and daughter are not physically together, the daughter is still very much with her mother. So in many ways Shirley’s daughter is in the restaurant with her. And with the daughter comes a whole host of people.


Connected to Carole are her dad, her dad’s girlfriend, her dad’s parents, and other relatives of her dad who care about Carole. And all of these people are in Shirley’s life as they all have an interest in the welfare of her young child.


Unknown to himself, Bill is dating a crowd.


And if Bill and Shirley ever decide to marry, it will not be just the two of them standing at the altar. Bill may not realize it, persons attending the wedding may not realize it, even Shirley may not realize it—but Bill will be standing there saying “I do” to a crowd.


Potential Clash of Environments


The truth is that Bill and Shirley live in completely different environments. They may themselves be quite compatible and find many interests in common, but what may not be compatible are their environments—which are actually worlds apart and are very difficult if not impossible to mesh. So it’s only a matter of time before Bill’s and Shirley’s environments clash. Initially what promises to be a very fulfilling relationship can easily prove to be the most difficult experience of their lives.


Look at Bill’s environment as a single adult. It does not involve children or a past divorce. It is self-styled and self-controlled. It is as simple or as complicated as he chooses to make it. It is consistent, scheduled, orderly, and predictable. At the end of Bill’s work day, what he does with his evenings and weekends are for him alone to decide.


When problems arise, he remains in control. With Bill, problems don’t last—they get resolved. Solutions are always found. Bill has never had to cope with issues beyond his control or life situations that require long-suffering and endurance.


Now look at Shirley’s life. Surrounding Shirley is a maze of issues and problems which will not go away. She has ongoing difficulties with her ex-husband, she is still suffering emotional heaviness from her divorce, and she has to bear all the responsibilities of providing a home, food and clothing and a vehicle for herself and her daughter. Add to the above Shirley’s loss of a traditional family structure, loss of having her child under her complete control, loss of a double income, and, especially, loss of self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. And Shirley must bear all of these burdens alone.


Imagine what’s going to happen when Bill, the problem solver, becomes part of Shirley’s complex and crowded life.


It won’t be the couple who are the problem—they are doing great together. It is their environments that will be at serious odds. This may sound really strange to say, but Bill’s success in life work against his future with Shirley. He has yet to experience unsolvable issues. Life for Bill is steady and controlled. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the patience or ability to handle ongoing issues; it’s just that neither he nor Shirley knows yet how he’ll respond.


The paradox for Bill and Shirley is that Bill’s success in life and his ability to control his environment may be their undoing.


Bill thinks to himself that he will be able to handle all of Shirley’s difficulties. Once he has the freedom to do so, he’s looking forward to helping Shirley bring her life under control the way he has.


Whoa! It is exactly such an attitude that will bring down this very good relationship. Let’s see what happens.


Plans Gone Awry


Planning ahead for a Saturday when Carole will be with her father, Bill has purchased two tickets to a professional sports event, and he and Shirley are eagerly looking forward to spending the whole day together. But when that morning arrives, Shirley’s ex-husband Greg calls to say he cannot pick up Carole due to demands from his work. He asks Shirley if they can change the scheduled pickup to the next week. Shirley is disappointed but reluctantly agrees.


When Bill arrives at Shirley’s apartment, he’s surprised to see little Carole and a clearly flustered Shirley. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that the presence of Carole means that he and Shirley will not get to spend the day alone and will not be able to attend the sports event together. As Shirley is trying to explain to Bill why Greg had to change the visitation schedule, all Bill hears is that Shirley has caved in to Greg’s demands.


Bill asks Shirley why Greg doesn’t work overtime on weeknights instead of weekends. Shirley has no answer. Bill asks Shirley if she can get a babysitter for Carole for the sports event—Shirley says she tried but everyone was busy. Bill demands that Shirley call Greg back and tell him that she is going to drop Carole off at his home according to their schedule. Shirley refuses, pointing out that she doesn’t want to do anything that will cause more difficulty in her and Greg’s already strained relationship.


Bill has just been baptized into Shirley’s environment.


Bill wants Shirley’s environment to be controlled and disciplined just like his. He doesn’t understand management and compromise. Bill labels what Shirley did as weakness. According to Bill, Shirley should call up Greg and tell him straight out that they are going to stick to their agreed-upon plan. Her standing up for herself will cause Greg to apologize humbly, cancel his decision to work overtime, and come over immediately to pick up Carole—and never try to change the schedule again!


And, according to Bill, if Shirley refuses to confront Greg and will not force him to submit to the original plan, then she’s the problem. The tone of Bill’s attitude and demands are crystal clear to Shirley. The blame for their spoiled special day rests squarely on her shoulders.


What NOT to Say


Listed below are some beginning phrases frequently used by a non-parent like Bill toward a parent like Shirley:

You must…

You should…

I insist on it!

You have to…

You ought to…

How can you…

Why don’t you…

Why didn’t you…

If I were you, I’d…

Why do you allow…

I suggest that you…

I wouldn’t have said that!

How come you didn’t say…

You go back to him and say…

What you should have said was…

How could you let your ex-spouse…


Get the tone of these phrases? Accusatory. Blaming. Inflammatory. Punishing. Also strongly implied is that Bill is the one with wisdom and understanding, the one who knows what is best for Shirley and Carole. Also implicit is that Shirley is the poor, needy individual who doesn’t know how to manage her life effectively.


Bill asks Shirley, “Why do you allow Greg to impose what he wants over what you want?” “Why do you have to adjust your schedule to accommodate his?” “How can you just give in to him like that?” “Why doesn’t Greg adjust his schedule to fit yours?” “Call him up and tell him he cannot always have what he wants.” “I wouldn’t ever allow anyone to push me around like that!”


If Bill truly cares about Shirley and wants to continue their relationship, he must never approach her with this kind of authority and power.

Instead, he must learn all he can about Shirley’s environment and her ways of operating within it. He must accept how Shirley has decided to manage her life and allow her to make her own decisions, even if she is, in his opinion, making mistakes. This is her environment, her child, and her ex-husband and he will need to approach Shirley and what is happening in her life with caution and humility.


What TO Say


Bill might choose to say things like:

Don’t be disappointed…

We can do other things...

Please don’t worry about it…

I’m happy just to be with you…

Being with you is more important…

Maybe we ought to check with Greg…

The important thing is we’re together…

We probably should always have a plan B…

I appreciate your desire to be with Carole…

I will always support your decision to put Carole first…


If Bill cannot approach Shirley as a learner and if he refuses to allow her to make her own decisions regarding her life and Carole’s life, then they shouldn’t date. He absolutely must not come into the relationship with an attitude of acquisition, treating Shirley like some employee subject to his demands and control. He must be very supportive of Shirley and take the trouble to understand the complexities of her environment and her ways of managing it. If he does have any suggestions, he can certainly take the time to talk with her about certain situations, with the understanding that it is Shirley who will always make the final decision.


Imagine what would have happened if Bill and Shirley had married early. Bill would likely have destroyed their blending family with his attempts to dominate an environment completely alien to anything he had ever encountered.


Equal Environments


As we noted in our previous article titled, Understanding the Environments of the Stepfamily, the formula for two parents marrying is 1+1=2, or, one extreme environment of one parent plus one extreme environment of another parent equals two extreme environments.


Interesting, however, is that with a single adult dating a single parent the formula remains the same: 1+1=2!


The single adult becomes an extreme environment for the parent due to lack of understanding and insistence on behaviors that simply will not work.

We can see that Bill exhibits all of the characteristics of becoming an extreme environment for Shirley. Everything he is doing is putting more pressure on Shirley’s already pressure-filled life. So, if she marries Bill, instead of living in just her own extreme environment, she will have to contend with two extreme environments, which will possibly dismantle their relationship.




© 2009 Dr. Donald R. Partridge

All Rights Reserved


Dr. Donald Partridge’s first marriage lasted thirteen years. Divorced and with two very young children Don remarried and has been in a highly successful stepfamily with seven children for the past 22 years.

Dr. Partridge has committed himself to working full time with single parents and stepfamilies. You can find more information and helpful literature written by Dr. Partridge at www.blendingfamily.com.


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