By Hara Estroff Marano, published on April 1, 2004 - last reviewed on July 31, 2014
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 kids.”
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 made?
• 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 no 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 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 property.”
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 children.”