As a specialist children lawyer I find that one of the common reasons for contact breaking down is the ‘’third party’’. It is a hot topic of discussion as it is difficult to raise and agree on how and when to introduce children to a new partner following a separation or a divorce.
When there are children involved the new partner doesn’t have to be the cause of the divorce or even to have done anything ‘’wrong’’ for contact and family relationships to become problematic when a new relationship starts. I am often asked for advice from parents who have been split up many months or years but they or their ex-partner are now struggling with the concept of someone else having a step-parent type role in their child’s life.
Family dynamics and emotions can get more fraught when the new partner comes with their own child or children so there isn’t just a new adult relationship for the child to adjust to but a new part time sibling as well.
I either advise parents who are opposed to the introduction of a new partner or parents who are in a new relationship but feel blackmailed by threats that they won’t be able to continue see their child if they let the child meet their new partner. In my experience listening to what isn’t being said aloud and the timing of any introductions are often the keys to sorting out what is a communication problem. The introduction of a new partner normally doesn’t generate a concern that the adult poses a risk to the child but does create a fear of change and trepidation about entering into unchartered parenting territory.
When I am helping resolve parenting arrangements on separation I mention the hot topics and the ‘‘what ifs’’, such as introducing new partners. Many parents can’t, at that stage in their separation or divorce, contemplate introducing someone new into their child’s life. However as their solicitor I probably won’t hear from them unless a problem crops up such as a dispute over the choice of the child’s school or if there is a new partner on the scene that they or the other parent has issues with. Early advice on tricky children topics can often avoid future Court proceedings.
When a couple are splitting up and agreeing on parenting arrangements it is a good idea to draw up some ground rules on future communication, such as coordination on gift buying and addressing the principle of talking about new partners. Unless there is a clear channel of communication things can quickly go wrong at a later date. I can’t count the number of times that an upset parent has sought legal advice after a child has told their mum or dad that they had a fantastic time at the weekend with the ex’s new partner and that he or she is going to be their new third parent. Equally common are the occasions that a parent finds out about the ex’s new relationship from pictures of their child and the new partner posted on social media.
Many parents assume that after a separation or divorce they are free to do their own thing with their child when the child is with them. That is legally correct and it is up to a parent to decide if their child meets up with a grandparent, aunt or a new friend during their parenting time. In much the same way parents can make decisions about a child’s diet or bedtime during contact visits. Most parents would accept that it makes sense for there to be consistency between households over parenting routines. However, parents are often a bit reluctant to talk to their ex about a new relationship. Ideally parents will discuss introductions to new partners and agree on how things should develop at the pace of the child, involving the ex as he or she needs the respect and the communication to be able to co-parent.
Sadly some parents can’t agree on whether a child should meet a new partner, perhaps because:
- they think it is too soon after the separation or;
- there has already been a series of short term partners and there is a concern about stability or;
- they haven’t come to terms with the separation or;
- they have genuine worries from what they have heard from their child.
If parents can’t reach an agreement about the timing of introductions or if contact is stopped as a result of a new partner being introduced then a Court application can be made. A Court application is very much a last resort. That is why I try to introduce the parenting hot topics such as the future introduction of a new partner to children or the equally emotionally fraught issue of school choice early so parents are able to think about how they can communicate with one another and reach an agreement.
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