Q: My wife and I have decided to divorce. She has a son from a previous relationship that lived with us full time. We have developed a close, loving relationship. What are my responsibilities to this child now that his mother and I are splitting up?
A: Legally? Nothing. Morally? Everything.
Many bonus parents don't realize the impact they have on the children in their care. They don't see that marrying someone with children is not only a commitment to a husband or wife, but a commitment to their children as well, and bail right after the breakup. But bonus parents live with the child, help mold the child's outlook on life and, hopefully, nurture self-esteem. The problem is, many based their attachment to their partner's children on their relationship with their partner. Once that relationship is over, they move on with no thought for the kids — but the kids are affected all the same.
Of course there are the kids who are glad to see the bonus parent go. The relationship may have been turbulent from the beginning and when it is over, they rejoice. But, more often than not, the child has bonded with the bonus parent and possibly the bonus parent's children, and when they leave, the child suffers another divorce — one that very few give the proper attention.
It's not uncommon for bio parents to be so angry when a bonus parent leaves that they refuse contact with their child. Legally, that is their right, but it does not help the child get over the breakup. A bonus parent and child may be so emotionally bonded that it is detrimental to the child if contact is interrupted. If this can be proven in court, a bonus parent has a chance for visitation after the breakup.
The best approach when a bonus parent wants to continue interaction with a child is to continue to maintain a positive relationship with the child's parent after the breakup. Consider agreeing on a visitation schedule between the two of you, and then allow the relationship to either progress at its own speed, naturally getting stronger or growing apart.
There also are the feelings of the child to consider. Does he want to continue contact? If the child is very young and a bond has been formed, the answer is probably yes, but you may not hear it verbalized. If he is a teenager, however, it's more likely you will hear in no uncertain terms if he wants to continue a relationship or he's glad to see you go. All three parent figures — his father, mother and you — must listen carefully, and then put a parenting plan in place that is in the best interest of the child.
Last, but not least, if you are looking for a way to demonstrate that you care even after a breakup, with his mother's permission, continue to support the child's extracurricular activities. Go to his games or meets. Let him see you have a general interest in him. And follow this ex-etiquette rule: "Be honest and straightforward." That means, do what you say you are going to do.