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Remarriage with adolescents: the perils of step relationship

Remarriage with teenagers create the hardest step relationships of all.

Although about half of first marriages end in divorce, most former partners are not discouraged about marriage itself since the majority elect to remarry. Many of them bring children into their next union, and this is how step relationships are made.

The rate of divorce for remarriages that are made with existing children is higher than for first marriages. Whether the child factor contributes to this increase, I do not know, but step relationships certainly add to the complexity of keeping a remarriage together.

After all, intolerance of diversity, competition of needs, pressures for loyalty, demands for adjustment, and difficulties with sharing are all grounds for contention. They inevitably create tensions and conflicts between the adult and children who are not biologically or historically attached, but are now family connected and are supposed to act that way.

I believe those adults who approach remarriage with children based on realistic expectations and not romantic or idealistic ones ("Our love will conquer all") increase their chances for marital success. In my recently revised book about step relationships, "Keys to Successful Stepfathering," I describe many understandings and strategies to help these challenging relationships work out well.

One important understanding is this: although step relationships with children are never easy, with adolescents they are more demanding still.

Why? Because it is much harder for an independent and willful adolescent to come to terms with living with a stepparent than it is for a more dependent and compliant child. The stepparent who the receptive child is prepared to welcome and accept the rebellious adolescent is more likely to resent and resist.

Age of the boy or girl makes an enormous difference. Where a young child is prepared to bond with a stepparent, an adolescent is more likely to bind. The potentiality for family conflict increases when stepchildren are in adolescence (usually beginning between ages nine and thirteen.) And the more family conflict that besets the remarriage, the more challenging to manage it can be.

Divorce and remarriage tend to intensify the natural grievance of adolescence. Sense of injury from feeling treated unfairly by broken parental commitment and disruptive family change can fuel the young person's resentment. The stepparent is an easy target for blame since in this relationship there is no history of love, so there's no love to lose. As for the hard trying stepparent, he or she feels undeserving of this hostility, and if it continues can feel resentful too.

Before remarriage, honeymoon harmony may have reigned among them all. Everyone was on best behavior, playing together but not living together. Once they actually form a family unit and begin sharing the same living space, however, the shine of hope quickly wears off and the hard reality of day to day relating sets in. Role changes change relationships when the father or mother's good friend now becomes a live-in parent.

Now differences between stepparent and teenage stepchild over household conduct, between parent and stepparent over child raising, between parent and adolescent over respect for the new marriage, begin to irritate family relationships causing conflicts as incompatibilities become hard to deny and harder to accept.

Soon common complaints can be heard from each member of the reconstituted family.

"Your teenager has bad manners and acts spoiled!"

"When you criticize my child you criticize me and my parenting!"

"My stepparent is always in a bad mood and acts so mean!"

"You care more about your new marriage than for your own kids!"

"Who comes first, your children or me?"

"Why can't you all just get along for my sake?"

To prevent the stereotypes of "mean" stepparent and "spoiled" stepchild from taking hold, there are three entry strategies the new stepparent might want to consider.

1)Rather than having less to do with each other (which is what they may want) stepparent and adolescent actually need more contact, just the two of them together, without the partner/parent around. Without having spousal/parental attention to compete for, this exclusive time together gives them a chance to establish communication, create companionship, and get to better know each other. The watchword for the new stepparent is: take uncontested time with your stepchildren.

2)At the outset, a major source of difficulty for most stepparents is not lack of effort, but trying too hard to make the relationship with stepchildren work. To this end, the stepparent can over give, self-sacrifice, and end up exhausted, only to get angry at stepchildren who take this effort for granted, and do not make a similar effort in return. The watchword for the new stepparent is: don't give more than you can emotionally afford, and don't assume the adolescent will appreciate your special effort or be motivated to make a special effort in return.

3)At the outset, if the stepparent can act as a contributive authority (providing and permitting good things) and the parent can act as the corrective authority (giving the supervision and discipline), step children, particularly adolescents, are more likely to see this parent figure in a more positive authoritative light. The watchword for the new stepparent is: at the beginning, define your family authority as a welcome source of doing good for stepchildren, not as an unwelcome agent of doing "bad."

It also helps if parent and stepparent can appreciate the range of adjustments that their remarriage is putting the teenager through because many of them can become cause for conflict.

Consider eight about which I have heard adolescents complain in counseling.

1)Remarriage means learning to live on daily intimacy with a stepparent whose ways are unfamiliar and who is in many ways a stranger. "Family feels less like home now that I'm living with some adult I hardly know."

2)In remarriage, caring from and for the stepparent is not unconditional like with the parent. "My parent and I love each other no matter what, but my stepparent and I don't have any love to fall back on when we don't like how each other is acting."

3)While the moving back and forth between households after divorce decreases access to each parent, remarriage creates even more loss as the resident parent is now preoccupied with the new partner. "I get less time with my parent now that my stepparent is around."

4)In remarriage, the adolescent gets to see the parent behave romantically with a new partner and this can seem inappropriate and feel embarrassing. "My parent acting loving with someone who is not my other parent doesn't feel comfortable or right."

5)Remarriage closes the door on any lingering fantasy that parents will ever get back together. "Seeing my parent and stepparent together just makes me miss the old days living with mom and dad."

6)In remarriage, the influence of the stepparent changes how the mother or father has always parented. "What's toughest about this new family is how my parent has changed!"

7)Remarriage causes an outside adult to take up residence in the family and sooner or later begin to exercise adult authority by making demands, setting limits, and creating household rules that did not exist before. "My stepparent acts entitled to tell me what I must and cannot do!"

8)Remarriage creates a resident parent figure to supplant and threaten to compete with the biological one that moved away. "I don't want to like my stepparent so much that I feel disloyal to the absent parent I love."

And these are just some of the adjustments an adolescent must make. So before you get impatient or angry with your teenager for failing to get with the remarriage program right away, you might want to have a talk and listen to his or her concerns about the hardships of this family change.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book,"SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Nagging the adolescents - Is it worth the aggravation?

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