Dating’s complicated when you have children — but don’t give up

If you approach it the right way, you’ll find a more fulfilling relationship the second time around.

Jody is single after 20 years of marriage. Her ex-husband has a gambling and pornography addiction that finally upended their marriage. Jody tried to make it work, mostly for the kids. But over time, she felt neglected, ignored and lonely. She finally threw in the towel.

Some adults, who marry at a young age, select the wrong person. After all, how well do we know ourselves when we first step onto the adult stage? At 18, I thought I knew everything there was to know. I didn’t have any adult life experience, but who needs wisdom when you know everything?

My wife married her first boyfriend when she was 21. Her parents questioned why she wanted to get married after dating for only six months. Their marriage lasted five years. It’s easy to make a wrong turn when you’re young and inexperienced.

But single in your late 30s and 40s is a different cup of tea. Many adults feel battle-scarred and fearful of making poor choices. Dating in the digital age is scary. Sure, everyone knows someone who met their intended. But how many toads did they have to kiss first? It’s overwhelming.

Moreover, by midlife, some single adults have baggage that’s hard to let go of. Filled with resentment and sadness, it’s challenging to take risks. What if she’s like my ex? What if he’s lying? How will I know? It’s difficult to keep the past out of the present. And sometimes, adults can feel damaged by their previous relationship. They don’t feel whole when they start going out again.

And then, many single adults in midlife have children, and many have teenagers. What if my kids don’t like her? When do I introduce my children to my new boyfriend? What if my kids hate her kids? Older children can have a harder time with their parents’ new partners than younger children. Teenagers, who can be a little snarky to begin with, can get positively obnoxious. Dating is so much more complicated when you have children.

So how can adults find their way in this new landscape?

Go slowly, and then go more slowly. And when you have gone more slowly, slow down a little more. Adults, after a long, lonely marriage, are hungry for love and companionship. They’re in a rush to meet someone. They want to settle down, and they’re afraid to miss the boat. And so hope becomes the enemy. Better to take time to get to really know the other person. Chemistry is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Don’t rush into a relationship. Take your time.

Know what’s important to you. By midlife, adults should know what they value and what’s really important to them. How we live is a better expression of what we truly value than what we say we believe. It’s our actions that communicate who we are. Ask yourself: What am I really looking for? What do I really want in another person?

Communicate what you need. It’s easy to want to make a good impression and not ask for much. Who wants to appear to be needy? But keeping your needs to yourself is a recipe for resentment. Most humans are terrible mind readers. Let your new date know what you want and need. It’s possible to be kind and generous and still ask for what you want.

It’s all about showing up. Does your new beau “show up” for you? Does she meet you half way? Is he open to hearing about what you don’t like? Are you both able to be flexible? Showing up is making a sincere effort to do what your date wants to do, even if it’s not your favorite thing. But that has to go both ways.

The good news? With age, adults often choose more wisely, with greater knowledge about themselves, with more realistic expectations of others and, along the way, they have learned a little something about communicating and listening. The net result is often a more fulfilling relationship the second time around.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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