You’re a mature adult. You spent years in a loveless
marriage. The kids are grown. It’s your turn now, your last shot at
love and happiness.
You find the partner of your dreams. He has grown kids and you do
too, and you’re as happy for them as for yourself.
You’re not alone. As we live longer in better health and
change our expectations about what’s ahead, an estimated 500,000
people over the age of 65 remarry each year in the U.S., and many more
between 45 and 64.
Many remarrying couples are delighted with their new-found love.
But there’s a strong possibility that the adult children will be
decidedly unhappy with the turn of events and stewing with resentment.
And that usually comes as a nasty, unsettling surprise. What’s
more, it can often be the beginning of a protracted struggle.
“There’s a difference in the timing of acceptance of
the relationship,” warns Grace Gabe, M.D., who has not only
experienced the problem first-hand but written a new book about dealing
with it. It’s called Step Wars: Overcoming the Perils and Making
Peace within Adult Stepfamilies.
“The couple wants acceptance right away. The kids reject the
relationship early on,” she explains. “The couple is in a
bubble of love. And they don‘t get a response from the
And by the time the kids are ready to take on the relationship, the
stepmother is so burned out trying, she’s no longer interested in
them. Bad as that sounds, things are even worse if an adult child is
living with the new couple.
Gabe’s sage advice: Those who are so eager for acceptance
right away should pace themselves. “The rhythm of acceptance is
exactly opposite for the two generations,” says Gabe. It takes
years. “You just can’t rush trust.”
The trouble is, couples are almost always blindsided by the
problems that erupt. They figure things will be easy, since there are no
children around to discipline. “They’re not prepared for the
toxicity and its intensity of resentment,” Gabe found in intensive
interviews with 24 families, including her own.
Typically, anger among the adult stepchildren coalesces around five
issues. Gabe calls them the Five Furies:
• Fear of abandonment and isolation. They fear that will lose
a relationship that they depend on for emotional and/or financial
support. They fear being pushed aside and left in a lonely limbo. The
fear is often expressed as resentment: “She’s blocking access
to my father.”
• Fidelity to family. They worry about changes in loyalty.
Fidelity problems occur when members of the original family worry that
the parent will lose his/her loyalty after remarriage. The children may
also feel that they themselves are demonstrating a lack of fidelity by
supporting their remarrying parent. In the new stepfamily, other concerns
surface. Either spouse may feel that the other is overly committed to
his or her old family. Stepchildren may also feel that the new
stepparent’s biological family has too much influence.
• Favoritism. Adult children are concerned about who is the
new number one. Whose wishes get top priority when choices have to be
• Finances. For adult children, there is the fear that they
may lose money, property or pension rights that they expected to be
theirs. Parents fear that the children care more about an inheritance
than about them. The intensity of feelings has not relationship to the
amount of money or property.
• Focus on self to the exclusion of others. There is anger
that a parent or adult child is concerned only about himself and no
longer cares about the needs of others.
Gabe advises the adults to heed what they say. Speaking before
thinking can be highly destructive.
Whatever else goes on, whatever arrangements will get made with
adult children, Gabe insists, the spouse should be the first to know. You
need the courage to inform your spouse, “I want to give the my son
and his wife $500 for the new baby.”
Parents must be proactive in spelling out what the new life will be
like. It’s up to the adults to explain to the grown children what
their new role will be.
In response to the financial fury, a parent might want to reassure
an adult child, “I will be fair to you about money and
Regarding family fidelity, these words may work: “I am
bringing Arthur into the family as my husband. You are my son and
daughter and my marriage does not change my loyalty to you as my