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Q: How soon should I introduce my boyfriend to my children?

A: Unfortunately, advice is confusing about when to introduce your children to your new partners. My clients' experiences with this dilemma vary, but most of them share common factors. Read these scenarios and see if you can spot them.

1. When Allison met Al, she thought she met the man of her dreams. She fell hard. She had no idea how lonely she had been. Since her divorce five years ago, she hadn't dated. By three weeks Al was eating dinner with Allison's daughter Dinah and hanging around Allison's house every night. One evening Dinah didn't want to eat her broccoli, and Al rose from the table, grabbed her plate and dumped all the food on it except the broccoli into the garbage. "Eat this and then you can have dinner." Allison was appalled. Later she defended him.

2. Paul loved his two boys and was relieved that he had at least shared joint physical custody with an ex wife who was immature. He was reluctant to fall in love again, so he decided to have almost all his dates meet his boys right away. One Sunday afternoon at the park, his oldest boy, who had been sullen all day, lunged between Paul and his date and pounded on their hands until he pushed them apart. 

3. Margie was very protective of her children ever since her divorce from an abusive man.  She dated once in a while, but she never brought any man home. Then she met Mark, fell in love and dated for seven months before she introduced him to her children. A few days later, she told her children that she and Mark were engaged. Her thirteen year-old boy knocked all the books and knickknacks off the family room shelves and shattered a family photo.

Think about your reactions and see if you came up with the following observations.

1. Be aware of the power of your loneliness. Being a single parent requires focus, commitment and priorities. It's tough parenting on your own. Even when your ex is supportive, the buck usually stops with you. Some single parents forego dating for a long time while others rush into it. Regardless of your approach you are probably struggling with balancing your responsibilities with loneliness. If you've sworn off love, you run the risk of your fear of being alone sneaking up on you with unexpected force. And if you've dated a great deal and couldn't find anyone suitable, you risk plunging over Lover's Leap too quickly. 

In the stories above Allison's avoidance of dating allowed her people-reading skills to get rusty. When her loneliness unknowingly became too high, these weakened dating skills made her fall hard for a man she couldn't read.  

2. Use caution about unsuitable partners wisely. Both Paul in story number two and Margie in number three had good reasons to be wary of new partners. They each had married troubled spouses, and the experience created fear of making another serious mistake. Yet, they each misapplied their caution. Vigilance about fears only works if you know what to look for and how to find it! 

Paul erred by bringing almost all his dates to meet his children. This attempt created an endless parade of new people for the children. His boys were angry that these strangers were cutting into their Dad-time. On the other hand, Margie had isolated her children for too long from her serious relationship with Mark. No wonder her son reacted in anger when he learned of his mother's engagement. He felt, amongst other feelings, cheated out of being included in a crucial change in his family life.

A better solution is to introduce only new partners as soon as you feel that the relationship has real promise-and then to spend increasingly more time together so you can observe potential problems. If you expose your children to new partners too soon, you not only may experience Paul's over-load problem, you might also not learn very much about the interactions between your children and new partners since both parties might be on "best behavior."  

3. Use affection sparingly. Paul's son crushed through his father's hand-holding because he had enough of the constant flow of women. His father's affection to the woman provoked the son's feelings of being "shut out" of closeness with his father.  

A wiser strategy is to display affection only for healthy and loving partners you have known for about two months and with whom you are serious-and happy. (I actually prefer waiting longer.) Most importantly, however, is the type of affection you display. Avoid love pinches and lingering kisses and hugs. Make sure you still allow your children to sit next to you. Keep your physical displays small, casual and far less emotionally charged. 

4. Don't chase a bad emotional investment. In the first story Allison saw a side of Al that she didn't foresee—even though, in retrospect, she realized she had missed signs of Al's controlling and abusive nature. But now that Al was spending so much time with her family, she was reluctant to break up. Besides, she hated dating and knew that finding someone was difficult.  She eventually did break up with Al, but she spent too much time defending him. She said, "I didn't want to be the kind of mother who has lots of men.  And I was lonely." 

5. Talk out your relationship issues and rules with both your partner and children. All the single parents in the examples above failed to maintain a dialogue with their children about dating and new partners. Check in with your children about their reactions. I am not implying that you should stop dating the moment your children express negative feelings. Many children don't want any new partners. But you should listen carefully so you can distinguish normal discomfort with real problems, such as Al's abusive nature in the first example and the reaction of Paul's boys in the second example to feeling overloaded and left out.

And if your children really like your new partner, you should always discuss the ground rules with your new love. Allison did not give Al permission to discipline her daughter, and his eruption at the dinner table caught her off-guard.

Blended families and remarriage have a much higher divorce rate than first marriages.  Improve your chances of success in love by being mindful of introducing new people to your children. 

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."