A common question when a client first comes in to see me is whether they can start dating. It’s a good question. In times past, when you needed to find a fault in order to divorce, a person who committed that fault could have legal consequences including those of support, property and rights to access to children. However, there are few states which still allow fault, and all states have provision for divorces to occur without fault. In Oregon, the only legal basis for divorce is “irreconcilable differences.”
If fault is not an issue, then things such as having another relationship while the divorce is pending is legally irrelevant, unless it affects the children. That does not mean that it is a good idea, or that it doesn’t have consequences in the divorce. My answer when I am first asked about dating is that it isn’t a good idea because it makes my job so much more difficult. Divorce is much more than the division of property, and the calculation of support. It is an emotional process, and when one party starts a new relationship during the divorce process, there is usually an emotional reaction from the other side. Suddenly, the cooperation that was building to have an amicable divorce is not there anymore, and there is a lot of stress that makes the process slow down. The process inevitably takes longer, and it is more likely that the only resolution will be by going to trial, because the other person cannot tolerate agreeing to anything, when all they can feel is their own hurt.
Having a relationship can impact parenting issues. It brings up issues as to whether the children should be allowed to have contact with the new partner, or what role that person will play in the children’s lives. Children also can have negative reactions to a parent having a new relationship. They are often still reeling from the shock of their home life being turned upside down. They are struggling to figure out what it all means that their parents have split up their households, and whether there are loyalty issues to one parent of the other. Suddenly there is a new person involved, and the confusion becomes more intense. Children are also black and white thinkers. In their world, there is right and wrong, and the news that there is a new person involved can turn the gentlest of children into a judgmental monster. That can result in a profound hurt to the parent child relationship, one which can be exasperated by the hurt of the other parent, who may or may not be trying to remain emotionally composed while dealing with his or her own emotional hurts. Some children don’t have any reaction to Mom or Dad’s new “friend” but others feel personally betrayed, and an emotional breach happens that is difficult to heal. This emotional breach significantly impacts the decision for custody and parenting time.
Of course, it is also common that by the time people are motivated to finally file for divorce by the fact that they are already in a new relationship. The breakdown of a relationship doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch, and people often find themselves emotionally disentangled long before they are willing to make the decision to legally disentangle. When people feel emotionally disentangled in the marriage, they are often open to a new relationship, something that makes them feel good, when being in the marriage makes them feel bad. When there is already a relationship in progress, then you have to deal with that fact. If the spouse and children are not aware of the relationship, it is a good idea to keep the relationship discrete and not out in the open until the divorce is final. If that isn’t possible, then you have to deal with the consequences that come with that. There may be no consequences, but it always makes the divorce process more complicated.
The other reason not to start a new relationship when you are in the process of divorce is … your own emotional state. You were most likely married for years, and have not had time to process your own feelings about the marriage, about the changes that it brings to your life, and what you want out of life, much less what you want out of a relationship. Bringing all of that baggage into a new relationship makes it more difficult for you to heal, and makes the new relationship more difficult to be anything but a short term “learning to reengage” relationship.
Relationships are complicated, and that emotional complication is amplified by the divorce process. Help yourself, and your attorney, by completing one relationship, and in the process work on making sure your are emotionally ready, before you start another one.