Divorce of parents is often a very difficult adjustment for children at any age. Many parents postpone their parting until their children leave home to spare them the day-to-day loss of the family unit. Yet, even adult children find their parents’ parting as a destabilizing and an emotionally draining crisis.
Loss of family continuity also occurs when a parent dies. Adult children grieve both for the lost parent and for the end of the life that they have known.
When a divorced or widowed parent elects to remarry, a new set of conflicting and painful emotions surface. Even those who are pleased that the parent has found happiness with a new mate may experience mixed emotions. Some adult children find it hard to endorse the parent’s new partner due to their own unresolved emotions about the meaning and consequences of this union.
Here are a few of the many reasons that adult children may be resistant to welcoming a stepparent into their lives.
The first and perhaps the foremost reason is that adult children bear allegiance to the original family unit. Whether the remarried parent is divorced or widowed, adult children tend to be loyal to their living or deceased mother or father. The introduction of the parent’s new love interest may feel like a deep betrayal of the love shared by the parents in the original union.
Not infrequently, the timing of the parent’s recommitment to another mate interferes with the adult child’s grieving process. While the parent may have intensely dealt with his/her loss on a fulltime basis, the adult child has only done so intermittently and has not yet fully adjusted to his/her new status.
Some adult children are protective of the parent. Due to their unfamiliarity with the stepparent, they worry that the new partner may not be a suitable match. They may question the partner’s character or intentions. The children may worry that the parent may have chosen the partner for reasons that may not best serve the parent, such as: loneliness, flattery, polite coercion or naiveté.
Adult children may also become jealous of the attention and importance the new person has gained in their parent’s life. The adult children may fear that this new love connection will reduce the parent’s interest in them and alter their existing closeness. The stepparent becomes a rival for the parent’s attention and loyalty.
Financial and asset interests may be propelling some adult children to object to the parent’s marriage. They may fear that the new spouse’s heirs will inherit what they feel is rightfully theirs.
A significant amount of research has been done about the adjustment of young children to divorce and living in a blended family. The studies about adults’ reactions to a parent remarriage have focused primarily on caregiving and family ties between the children and their elderly parents and stepparents.
Research reported in Susan D. Stewart’s book ‘Brave New Stepfamilies’ states: “Stepfamilies with adult stepchildren are associated with weaker emotional bonds and provide less social and financial support to each other than married, two-biological-parent families”.
Despite this and other similar research findings, adult children can create a solid bond with their parent and new spouse for the benefit of both generations.
• First avoid using the term stepparent. Your parent’s spouse does not have parenting responsibilities to you since you have already been raised. Removing this title frees you from an implied submissive status.
• Do not direct your grief and frustration about the loss of your original family toward the new partner. Most likely, he/she did not have a role in your parent becoming single.
• Accept your parent’s new mate as a person who is likely to keep your parent busy, happy and healthy.
• View your parent’s partner as a future ally in the daily care and support of your aging parent.
• You are not betraying your other parent by embracing your parent’s new spouse.
• You do not have to love your parent’s mate – you just have to be respectful of your parent and pleasant to both.
• Voice your concerns about financial plans directly to your parent. Remember that your parent’s money is not yours and that providing for the new spouse’s survival comes from your parent’s decency. He/she will be more generous with you, if you are kind to his/her partner.
• Your best chance of continuing your loving connection with your parent is by accepting and respecting his/her choice and being inclusive and cordial.
Next week’s column will address the challenges facing the stepparent.