Boundary Lines: Relearning Relationships and Dating as a Single Parent


I’ve always loved a good fixer upper project. But as a single parent I need a partner who can show up whole and steady. You do too.

I’m a ‘helper’.

Or, at least for me that sounded like a more fun way to explain a lifetime of jumping headfirst into solving other people’s problems, or attempting to pull them out of their emotional ditches.

That may sound familiar if you’ve always identified as a caretaker, too. And let’s be honest - becoming a parent (and especially a single parent) can throw our desire to take care of other people into overdrive. All of us took an incredibly brave leap into the unknown when we decided to bring another human into the world because we knew we have the courage, resourcefulness, and resilience to love and nurture. We’ve proven our ability to solve problems, soothe hurt feelings, and restore calm time and time again. The absolute truth is that our capacity for love and nurturing is expanding all the time.

But it’s our responsibility to cultivate and keep all that energy for ourselves and our kids. And literally nobody else. No matter how endearing, crisis-ridden, well-intentioned, (or hot) they are.

We need to recognize the difference between being asked to hold space for our partners, and being expected to carry all their emotional sh*t.

We’re swimming/drowning in other people’s expectations and stories about what it means to date or be in a relationship pretty much our whole lives. The movies and pop songs we use to define adult life and romance tell us love should be the most amazing rollercoaster we’ve ever been on - or it’s time to try the next ride. Meanwhile, well-intended family members tell us “relationships are work” when we see two people surrendering self to be in a partnership that no longer functions. It’s more than confusing, it’s a total mind f#$k. When we go through a break up - or the massive upheaval of a divorce - we’re left wondering if we should have given more, or if we sacrificed too much.

And then we venture back out into the dating world as single parents, wondering how we can carve out space for companionship without cutting too deeply into our energy reserves or financial resources. How do we find balance between getting lost in a romantic whirlwind, and finding time for laundry, soccer practice, and self-care?

We can start by defining for ourselves what the difference is between a dating situation or relationship that charges our batteries, and one that Totally drains the tank. Here are two simple questions you can ask to start the process.


First of all, dating should actually be enjoyable. You didn’t surrender your pass to the hormonal circus when you became a parent. You can still get lost in an amazing dinner conversation, the excitement of getting ready for a night out, or OH MY GOD YES, FUN SEX. You are a desirable, worthy human AND a parent - it’s not one or the other.

If that’s not there in the beginning, you have every right to say ‘thanks, but nope’ and move on. There are 110 MILLION single people in the United States. There are even 22 MILLION single parents. You don’t have to settle for a warm body when you are heat-seeking missile. Trust me on this one - and more importantly, trust yourself to know if the chemistry experiment you’re attempting has fizzled out.


It’s really that simple. As the dating evolves into a relationship, be incredibly mindful and aware of what conversations and interactions feel like. Does time with your new partner give you room to share what’s going on for you, and what you’re excited about? Or does it feel like unpaid work as his/her therapist? When you go home, do you have the energy to be present for your kids and build what you want for your life? Or does it feel like an energy vampire just sucked the life force out from behind your eye lids? Are you spending more time wondering WTF just happened than being excited about what could be on the horizon?

If you can’t easily answer yes to both those questions, you’re not holding space for your partner to be supportive. You are SCHLEPPING ALONG WITH all the baggage he or she doesn’t want to deal with.

How do you put down what’s not yours to carry? Be clear on what you want, and ask for what you need.

What do you want from dating or a relationship? Fun and light-hearted companionship or a partner to share your life/your child’s life? Get clear on that first. Because you have every right to go after what you want, and reject what doesn’t serve you.

And then be fearless in communicating when things are working or not. Look, I already know you have the courage to get through the endless sleepless nights of infancy and/or the crazy-making tantrums of toddlerdom. You can absolutely tell someone you’re allowing to share your time and your bed that you need them to show up for you. You have the right to let them know you’re not available or interested in helping them find closure from a past relationship. And you can certainly be honest and clear in moments when you feel like they’re asking more than you can give at this time.

If you’re clear about what you want and need from a dating situation or relationship, you avoid creating a guessing game, and your partner can decide if he/she’s in or out. While it’s never easy moving on, it’s a a hell of a lot simpler than hunting down a moving target.

Hold the line. You deserve someone healthy and aware.

Only you can only be in charge of your life, and your growth. You can’t make yourself smaller or less of who you are to please someone, and you certainly can’t give more than you have emotionally/financially for some expected ‘reward’ of love, support, or security in the future.

The right partner adds value - just like a business relationship. Take stock of your beauty, strength, and power. Name the ways you contribute to their well-being with your energy, compassion, and resources. And be clear on what you expect in return. You’re doing enough, and you ARE enough, as a single parent, so don’t fall off your path into someone else’s bullsh*t.

DatingShannon Hughes