There is a big difference between bringing someone into your child’s life as part of a dating arrangement versus introducing them into the household through cohabitation. When they’re a live-out dating partner they are merely an associate to your children, someone akin to a family friend. When they are a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend they become a parental figure, and the situation becomes much more turbocharged, and much more complicated.
When a boyfriend or girlfriend moves into the house, their role changes into one of a parental authority figure. This can give rise to conflict and power struggles among older kids. It also means a period of adjustment for everyone, even in the best of circumstances. It will require adapting to this person’s personality, quarks, lifestyle, schedule, habits, and so on. Sometimes these adjustments go relatively smoothly. Other-times they don’t.
Moreover, it’s not just roles that change when the situation goes from a dating relationship to cohabitation. There’s an equally important aspect that parents must be cautious about: Potential partners don’t just result in attachments for you; they also create attachments for your children. The more the kids interact with a person, the more attached to that person they’ll become, and you don’t want to readily go around breaking strong attachments, especially in the aftermath of divorce. A live-in partner can become like a surrogate parent. Your kids will spend significantly more time with them. Simply on account of them being there, this person will begin taking on more caregiving roles and responsibilities: comforting their distress, taking care of basic needs, reading books before bed; all of which play a more powerful role in adult-child bonding. Young children are especially likely to bond quickly to a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend. “Young children often attach to new adults quickly,” notes Christina McGhee, author of Parenting Apart, “and can experience a sense of loss all over again if the relationship doesn’t work out.” (Parents, Nov. 2010, p. 215)
The worst case scenario occurs when parents continually rush into cohabiting situations, only to have these relationships peter out after a year or two. Some children of divorce are subjected to a pattern like this over the years, adjusting to 6 or 8 different parent figures over their childhood, devoting time and mental energy into building these relationships, only to have their attachment suddenly yanked away and have to start all over again.
This is unfair to them, and is more damaging than you might imagine. Such children may be better off than orphaned foster kids if only because they have at least one stable parent figure and a consistent home (hopefully), but it isn’t a whole lot better. If kids are enduring one loss after another, one break in attachment after another, the emotional toll this takes can be just as taxing as the traumas experienced by foster kids, whom are also yanked around from one home to another without ever getting a chance to form stable, lasting bonds. Children respond to such continued breaks in attachment in one of two ways: either they block themselves from getting too close to anyone to begin with, or they develop insecure, unstable attachment styles. Both of these come with severe and long-lasting negative effects.
Before Bringing a Live-In Partner Into Your Child’s Inner Circle
Cohabiting with someone should not be taken lightly. Before you bring a partner into the home with you, you should ask yourself…
- Am I serious enough about a relationship with this person that their likelihood of being a life partner is better than a 50/50 prospect?
- Are we taking this action with the idea that marriage is the next step?
- Do I expect this person to be in my life at least 5 years down the road?
- Have I been in this relationship long enough to know this person well? (Typically at least 6 months to a year of solid dating.)
If you can’t answer yes to these questions, then you should seriously reconsider whether it’s wise to have them become a parent figure to your kids.
Of course, one thing that causes people to rush into cohabitation is the sheer economics of it: it’s cheaper to share space and split costs than it is to live apart. It can also mean much more domestic help, and someone to help look after the kids. These things certainly do help parents, but unfortunately, studies suggest that the added economic benefits of such arrangements typically do not outweigh the costs in-so-far-as children are concerned. So for their sake, it’s better to err more on the cautious side.
If you do end up in a situation where a cohabiting arrangement doesn’t work out, do all you can to stay friends with this person after you break up. If they’re willing, invite them to stay involved with the kids as a family friend. This can help blunt the hurt that will otherwise be caused should this person they’ve grown fond of just up and disappear.