Dating During Divorce

January 23, 2014

A friend of mine asks, “Is it OK to start dating before my divorce is final?”  Well…

A significant percentage of my clients and friends going through a divorce start dating before it is final.  Everything you read on the subject says, “Don’t.”  There are, generally, three reasons for it being a bad idea:

1) Legal risk.  Most of the time, the judges don’t care whether someone is dating before the divorce is final.  Heck, they don’t even care if someone had an affair before the separation.  In short, they don’t want to hear about your broken heart;  they just want the kids taken care of and the property divided.  However, that doesn’t mean I tell my clients that it’s OK to date, because sometimes, seemingly randomly, judges do care.  Or your judge may not care, but the day of your hearing your judge is at a conference so you have a retired judge hearing your case, and he was born in 1933 and he does care, very much.  So an affair, even if it starts after you and your spouse have separated, could have a detrimental effect on your divorce, in terms of time with your children, child support, spousal support, and the property division.

And I can pretty much guarantee the judge will care if you are carrying on any sort of new relationship in front of your kids.  DO NOT introduce any new partners to your children during the divorce, don’t talk about new partners, and in general, keep your dating life completely away from your children.

“But we don’t have any kids under 18,” you say, “So that doesn’t matter to us.”  Do you have any community property?  Can your spouse argue that you’re spending it on dating?  There is a case pending here where the husband reportedly took his girlfriends on his private company jet to the Caymans on a regular basis.  He now has to account for the tens of thousands of dollars he spent on said girlfriends while the divorce was pending.  So there’s that – talk to your lawyer, and make sure there’s no chance of this coming back to bite you in the final divorce decree.

2) Emotional considerations.  Most experts agree that people are not ready to date or get involved with someone else until at least a year after the divorce is final.  Some say three years.  Of course this varies widely based on the length of the marriage, the reason for the breakup, and the mental health and self-awareness of the individual.  And this is definitely a case of “Do what I say, not what I do,” because I started dating too soon after my first marriage ended, and ended up getting divorced again.

I taught “Divorce Care” at my church last year, and I was amazed at the emotions that came up for me about my first divorce, 13 years later.  So any of us who think, “Oh, well, I’m fine, I can just shove that emotional garbage under the bed and not deal with it” are kidding ourselves.  There really is a rush of emotion that comes with the finality of the decree, and most people are not ready for it.  They think, “Oh, we’ve been separated a long time;  I’ve grieved; I’m over it.”  And maybe you are.  But it’s more likely that the day you walk out of the courthouse and you’re “free,” you will feel something – elation, pain, or something else.

3)  Religious and moral considerations.  Some people feel that it’s a sin to date or have sexual relations with anyone outside of marriage.  Some believe that in addition to the civil divorce, they have to get an annulment or a get before they get involved with someone else.  And that’s a valid and admirable position, if for no other reason than it helps them wait longer, and avoid the potential legal and emotional consequences of a too-early, “rebound” relationship.

So, if you ask your attorney or your counselor or religious advisor, “Should I start dating before my divorce is final?” chances are the answer you’re going to get is “no.”  Then if you conduct a poll of your friends on the subject, chances are most of them will admit, “Yes, I did.”  And some of them will say it was fine, and some of them will tell you a horror story about a bad rebound relationship, and some people will say they found The Most Wonderful Person in the World and are now deliriously happy.  In short, everyone says “Don’t do it,” and then everyone does it.

We are human, and have a basic human desire to be with other people.  And when you’ve just gone through a breakup, it can feel like you have a hole next to you, one exactly the size and shape of your former spouse.  So you try to fill it.  Chances are, if you’re successful, it will work out just about as well as your prior relationship did.  A much wiser choice is to wait.  Fill the hole with something else – friends, church, your kids, yourself.  Or leave it empty for a while, and see if it shrinks or goes away on its own.

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I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while.  As a divorce attorney, I see this behavior over and over.  It breaks my heart, frankly.  There are hundreds of articles about parenting during divorce, and so this advice is hardly new.  But on the off chance that one parent will read this, and stop the destructive behavior that harms their children, here are my top ten mistakes divorcing parents make:

10.  Giving up on seeing the child because the other parent is making it difficult.  I see this most often with dads.  Mom moves with the kids to a new location, or re-marries, or is just a screeching banshee at every drop-off and pick-up.  So, eventually, Dad gives up, deciding it’s not worth the trouble.  WRONG.  It is worth the trouble.  NEVER give up on seeing your child.  Even if she makes it hard, even if she calls CPS on you for no reason, even if she creates drama every time.  Do it anyway.  Never give up.

9.    Fighting with the other parent at drop-offs and pick-ups. News flash:  the kids can hear you.  Have those difficult conversations at other times – preferably, via e-mail, because then you can choose not to respond to any attacks.

8.    Not paying child support.  Hey, just pay it.  I don’t care if she’s getting her nails done with it, or if he’s using it to buy a new bass boat.  If you’re not current on your child support, you won’t have a leg to stand on in front of the judge on ANY issue.  If you lose your job or otherwise can’t pay, then go back to court and have the order changed.  Otherwise, pay it.

7.    Not allowing the other parent to see the child when scheduled.  This is just as infuriating to judges as not paying child support.  Unless you can prove that your children will be in danger with the other parent, then let them go.  They may not brush their teeth for three days, or eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, but they’ll probably live.  And you’ll get a break from them, and be a better parent when they return.

6.    Introducing the child to a new romantic partner. It stuns me how often people do this.  Mom and Dad aren’t even divorced yet, and here’s Dad with “your new Mommy,” or Mom announcing that they’re moving in with Bubba, the new boyfriend.  NO.  Just no.  First of all, it’s not good for you to start dating again so soon;  second of all, it’s even worse for your kids.  Don’t start dating until you and the other parent have been separated at least six months to a year.  Then, keep romantic partners out of your children’s lives for at least six months after you start dating – until you’re certain that this person is going to be around a while.  Don’t tell me your kids love the new guy, or that they’re mature enough to handle it.  Put their needs ahead of yours, and keep them separate.

5.    Confiding in the child.  Divorce is a lonely and traumatic time, and it can be tempting to imagine that you and your child are in it together, supporting each other through it.  But that’s way too much pressure to put on a child, even a teenager.  It’s your job to support your child, and it’s your job to find other sources of support for yourself.  I tell my clients that they need a whole team to support them through their divorce – a lawyer, an accountant, a counselor, a spiritual advisor, friends and family.  But your child is not a member of your support team.  Let the child be a child, and feel safe and assured that the adults are taking care of everything.

4.    Trying to get the child on your side.  Trying to persuade a child to live with you so you don’t have to pay child support, or so you do get child support, is just destructive and harmful to the child.  The best way to avoid making this mistake is to let go of the idea that there are “sides” in a divorce. There are no “winners” or “losers” in family law cases, because it’s not a contest to be won or lost.  It’s a transition;  a process of changing the structure of a family.  You and your ex are not on opposing sides.  You should be on the same side, and have the same goal of raising your children in the best possible way.  So instead of trying to pit your child against the other parent, try to work with the other parent in the best interest of the child.

3.    Making an older child care for younger siblings.  This can be very tempting, especially to a frazzled single parent with multiple children.  But it’s very unhealthy for the child.  Let the kids be kids;  make sure that what you’re asking of each child is appropriate for the child’s age and maturity.  It’s fine to leave a 10-year-old with a 13-year-old while you run to the store for half an hour;  it’s not OK to expect an 11-year-old to raise a 6-year-old while you fall apart.

2.    Not allowing the child to communicate with the other parent.  Repeat after me:  it’s best for your child to have a positive relationship with the other parent.  That means regular contact.  I don’t care how mad you are at him, or whether you’re trying to store ammunition for your next round in court.  Let the kid talk to Mom or Dad on the phone.  Every day, three times a day, whenever she wants to.  In fact, help the child remember to call the absent parent and share news, like a lost tooth or a home run.  Because it’s good for your child.

1.    Telling the child negative things about the other parent.  Children view themselves as a combination of both parents.  So every time you say something negative about the other parent, the child hears it as being about herself.  So if you say, “Your momma is a cheating, lying whore,” your little girl is going to hear you saying that about her.  Chilling, isn’t it?  Imagine saying to a little boy, “You are just a worthless, no-good jerk.”  You’d never do that, would you?  Then don’t say ANYTHING negative about the other parent in front of them.  And instruct all your family and friends to follow this rule as well.  If he really is a worthless no-good jerk, by the time the kids are adults, they’ll figure it out.  And they’ll realize you were a saint for not telling them so.

Look, I know you’re upset.  I know your soon-to-be-ex is a jerk.  I know you’re at the end of your rope. But please, don’t completely lose your mind and do things that will have a negative effect on your children.