When Jean fell unexpectedly in love 11 years after her cherished husband’s death, it felt like an incredible blessing, a life bonus, after years of grief and loneliness. “I felt alone during the last two years of my husband’s life, when I was his primary caregiver, and the kids didn’t visit much. In the years since, they’ve urged me to get on with my life and to devote myself to being a loving mother and grandmother—which I have done,” she says. “But when I met Steve, who is a widower, at church a year ago, I felt a whole new dimension of life re-open for me. Loving Steve doesn’t take anything away from my kids and grandbabies—at least from my perspective—and adds so much to my life. But my kids don’t see it that way. They think I’m dishonoring the memory of their father, among other things. It’s very hurtful to me that they’re begrudging me this chance to love again.”
Ben is sensing a similar lack of enthusiasm among his adult children for Alicia, his first serious girlfriend since he and their mother divorced nearly a decade ago. “They have no interest in knowing her,” he says sadly. “I’m welcome to visit the grandkids, attend family weddings and such but only if she is not included. I can understand that they feel loyal to their mother and don’t like to see a new person with me. But that’s reality. My ex-wife remarried three years ago without the psychodrama I’m seeing here. I love my kids and don’t want to hurt them. But, at the same time, their unwillingness to give Alicia a chance hurts me.”
Unfortunately, the situations in which Jean and Ben find themselves are not that unusual. According to Wednesday Martin, the single greatest predictor that a marriage will fail is the presence of children from a previous marriage or relationship—and it makes no difference whether the children are minors or adults. In a survey of professional studies of the impact of adult children on remarriages, Martin found that adult stepchildren resent stepmothers the most, even if the stepmother came into the picture years after their parents had divorced. She found that adult children can harbor unresolved anger and grief over a parental divorce, hostility to the new person and anxiety over the impact this new marriage may have on their relationship with their parent and the financial changes this new marriage may bring to their lives.
Research by Richard Warshak has found that the underlying dynamics of this conflict can include jealousy, narcissistic injury, desire for revenge, competitive feelings, and parent-child boundary violations.
What can you do to enjoy your new love and keep peace with your adult children?
Be realistic in your expectations. Don’t expect your adult children to be immediately delighted at your news. They have an attachment to how things were before. No one can or should try to replace their other parent. And know that when a new person comes into a family system, there can be a lot of anxiety among the children—both minor and adult—about how they will fit into your new life. Introduce your new love to them gradually, at ordinary times rather than at major family events, as your love and commitment deepen. Don’t expect—or demand—that your adult children share your enthusiasm. Give them a chance to know this new person over time and to develop their own relationship with him or her without ultimatums. At the same time, let them know that you expect a certain level of civility toward the person you love even if they may never feel close.
Make one-on-one time with adult children a priority. A lot of conflict between adult children and a newly-in-love parent comes from the adult child wondering how he or she will fit into your new life, worrying about a loss of closeness with you. Let them know that your love is consistent and forever. Don’t insist that your new love be part of every get-together with your adult child. Giving a high priority to time alone together can make a huge difference in your son’s or daughter’s acceptance and support.
Keep clear boundaries. Even though they’re grown, your kids are unlikely to relish hearing all the details of your new life and love. Grown or not, children don’t really want to think about their parents’ sex lives. Respect the parent-child boundaries and don’t regale them with TMI.
If your new love seems to be trying to isolate you from your family and long-time friends, discuss this with him or her now. Let your new love know that, as pivotal as he or she is to your life, your kids are right up there, too. Invite your love to talk with you about feelings she may be having and what perspective he has on closeness with family and old friends. Discuss how to resolve any disagreements about these relationships without cutting off important people in either of your lives.
Let the kids know that your door is always open. Don’t slam it shut by not inviting them to the wedding or boycotting theirs because they’re reluctant to include your new love. Leave room for compromises and agreeing to disagree while being there for one another. Let them know that your love for them is unconditional and forever—even though you may be disappointed in their behavior at the moment. Reassure them that they will always hold a special place in your heart.
Wednesday Martin, "Guess Who Hs the Power in a Remarriage with Children", Stepmonster (blog), Psychology Today, October 7, 2009.
Richard A. Warshak, "Remarriage as a Trigger of Parental Alienation Syndrome", American Journal of Family Therapy 28, no. 3 (2000).