Dating a Divorced Dad: Patience and Bravery Required

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a sixth grade teacher and one of my students became very attached to me during the school year. Her parents divorced eight years ago and I began emailing with her dad a couple months ago. We started seeing each other but didn’t let many people know because we wanted to wait until school was out. The daughter got wind that something was going on and told her dad it was wrong for him to date her teacher and begged him to date anyone but me. I wasn’t expecting this reaction and we stopped seeing each other. He said he had to do what was in his daughter’s best interest. I completely disagree with this, because the girl has not liked any of the past girlfriends either. I’m absolutely devastated. He thinks she’ll come around now that school is over but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Is there any hope? What should I do?

A: Being a single dad myself, I can assure you that dating a divorced father is never easy (that’s what women I’ve dated have said and I know I’m not the only one…). We come with plenty of baggage and there are always unforeseen complications. Plus, children tend to be very protective of their dads (interestingly, they’re often more protective of dads than moms—perhaps because they see that moms already enjoy much more social support than dads).

Part of problem may be that the girl feels betrayed by you. Because the two of you had such a strong bond during the year, chances are good that she looked at you with admiration and respect and even considered you a friend. To have you suddenly dating her father might have made her feel that you were just using her to get to her dad.

It’s also possible that the girl is worried about betraying her mother. Most kids with divorced parents secretly hope that mom and dad will get back together—even if the divorce happened long, long ago. And there’s nothing like having dad start dating someone else to show a child that (a) she has no control over the situation, and (b) that her fantasy of a reunited family might never happen. So the fact that the girl really likes you muddles things even more by making her feel that she’s actually helping shatter he own dream.

As far as the dad goes, you need to understand that his first responsibility (and loyalty) will always be to his child—as it should be. And while it’s certainly worth trying to convince him to give things another go, his primary motivation will be to do what’s right for his daughter, whatever that looks like to him.

One thing you can do to help both dad and daughter come to grips with the situation is to slow the relationship down. In other words, be friends instead of dating each other. While it would have been better to have started the relationship from this angle, going the friend route now might work by giving everyone a little extra time to get used to the new dynamic.

At the same time, be sure to give dad and daughter some space to talk things over alone. I know you want to be there to give your side of the story and try to show them that you’ve got the best of intentions, but don’t.

Dating a divorced dad can be frustrating and infuriating, and the key to success is being very, very patient. Rushing things will only backfire.

You Know I Love You More Than She Does, Don’t You?

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m dating a single father who says that his relationship with me means the world to him. But is it normal for him to leave in the middle of a number of dates to cater to the whims of his almost 18 yr. old daughter? He’s left to drive her to the mall, pick her up or drop her off at friends’ homes, and recently to attend to a tummy ache. Is this just some kind of a teenage power struggle and response to her dad dating? Do you think that this guy will ever stand up for himself?

A: It’s pretty clear that your boyfriend’s daughter has got some real problems with her dad dating. If she were 10 or 11, I’d tell you that her behavior, while hurtful, isn’t all that uncommon and that she’d probably outgrow it within a few years. But when an 18-year old does what this girl is doing, it’s a lot more troubling. To start with, she should have gotten over daddy’s dating by now. That doesn’t mean she has to like it—or you for that matter. But it does mean that she should be mature enough to deal with it.

This is where your boyfriend comes in. It is absolutely NOT normal—or healthy—for a dad (or any parent) to be wrapped so tightly around his teenage daughter’s finger. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and she’s deliberately timing her helpless act to coincide with—and disrupt—your dates. Unfortunately, by continuing to provide chauffer and nursing services (a tummy ache? Really? Come on!), he’s actually encouraging her to keep manipulating him.

You’re in a tough spot: If you demand that he stop catering to his daughter, you’ll be confirming what she’s probably been telling him: that you’re trying to come between them. However, the reality is that she’ll never stop unless he takes a stand and draws some pretty clear boundaries.

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m dating a man who is over 50 and has a young daughter. The weird thing is that he’s still best friends with the “baby’s mama” (he won’t refer to her as an “ex”). He often invites “mama” out to dinner and brings her to family gatherings. She calls him when she’s had a bad day and he talks to her for hours—he says it’s just to keep the peace for his daughter. I had a particularly rough day one day and was expecting to talk with him and instead he had made plans for dinner with “mama.” Is this normal?

A: Given that there are so many tales of horror story divorces and warring ex spouses, it’s nice to hear about two people who are civil to each other and have put the needs of their child ahead of their own. But what you’re describing is way, way over the top.

One possible explanation for this is that your boyfriend simply isn’t ready to let go of his previous relationship. If that’s the case, you have two choices: either give him an “it’s her or me” ultimatum or break things off.

It’s also possible that “mama” is trying to do exactly what the teenage girl in the first letter is doing: put a wedge between you and your boyfriend. And, as with the teenager, nothing will change unless papa decides to draw the line. That means fewer (if any) invites to dinner and family gatherings as well as referring “mama” to another shoulder to cry on.