One of the most difficult issues a divorced couple confronts in a custody matter is introducing a new significant other to the children. The party in the new relationship wants to move forward with his or her life and include the kids as part of it. Meanwhile, the other party may feel threatened by this new person and want to protect the children.
The new person may even be perceived as the reason why the marriage ended. Thus, the party who is not in a relationship may use this issue as a method of control—as a way to keep his or her former spouse from moving forward.
If the boyfriend or girlfriend is potentially dangerous to the child, certainly there are legitimate reasons why this person should not have any contact. More often than not, however, the third party is harmless, and the children may even like him or her. In that case, the issue is really more about leverage than safety.
Looking for legal clarity
In attempting to bring some sanity and uniformity to this problem, the New Jersey Superior Court recently issued an unpublished opinion in the case of Mantle v. Mantle. As part of their parenting plan, the parties in Mantle had mutually agreed to refrain from introducing any boyfriend or girlfriend to their 6-year-old son. This restriction was indefinite and contained no expiration date. So, it became a problem when the father, despite the agreement, had his new girlfriend spend time with his son.
The mother attempted to enforce the parties’ arrangement by requesting that the father be prevented from seeing his son in the presence of his girlfriend. The father responded that the motive behind the mother’s motion was alienating the child.
In its ruling, the court reviewed the relevant laws of New Jersey, which had remained unchanged since 1976. The court then determined that times had changed, and the social norms of the 70s were inconsistent with those of today. Assuming the new girlfriend posed no threat to the child, the court found no overt reason to prevent her from spending time with him.
The court further indicated that it could, however, limit the amount of time a significant other could spend with the child by, for example, allowing a gradual increase of hours or by initially restricting overnight stays.
Children come first
Despite the parties in Mantle previously agreeing to restrict boyfriend or girlfriend introductions, the court refused to uphold that stipulation, finding that the agreement was not “just and equitable.” Courts, which generally encourage divorcing parties to develop their own agreements, do not lightly disturb them. But in this case, the court found a persuasive cause on behalf of the children.
This is not to say, however, that a child should be forced to embrace a party’s new companion, nor should the party in the relationship have their boyfriend or girlfriend present during all parenting time. Clearly, every child reacts differently to divorce-related situations and altered family dynamics, and children should always be afforded time with their parent alone so they can slowly adjust to new circumstances. But in this case, the court seems to have realized that children should have the benefit of being part of their parents’ changing lives.
Unfortunately, not all courts have embraced the rationale of Mantle, and rulings on the matter vary considerably from state to state. In fact, decisions can depend heavily on the judge who is involved. This lack of uniformity is not beneficial to anyone, especially children who need protection from adult issues.
As in all custody matters, the needs of children are paramount and supersede the rights of both parties. This is difficult for parties to keep in mind, particularly as they weigh their own needs and feelings. But, if they can set aside their own issues and focus on the kids—and consider the other party’s feelings—they will be able to solve this problem and any other issues that arise as their family’s structure changes and evolves.
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