When Debra, divorced and the mother of a pre-teen son and two older boys, married Jonathan, a widower and the father of two teenage sons and a pre-teen daughter, the weather smiled. They said their vows under a cherry tree, whose leaves were wafting downward around their shoulders. Their six handsome children seemed proud and excited, and I couldn’t help but think of the Brady Bunch and the film “Starting Over.” A line from Shakespeare ran through my head, “All losses are restored and sorrows end.”
But they didn’t.
A year later, Debra’s sons were acting out in troubling ways, and Jonathan’s daughter was in an angry depression. “We seem to be in therapy around the clock,” she once commented wryly.
What was wrong? Were Debra and Jonathan a mismatch?
They must have thought so at times, because there is so little understanding of the structural challenges that are faced by couples who are bringing children into a remarriage situation. What are these structural challenges? Let me outline them briefly:
1. The first is the powerful impact of Insider/Outsider forces. They tend to shift the members of the pair into polar opposite positions, because their early experiences of the new marriage are so different. One partner (the outsider) often feels left out and rejected when the mate’s children are on the scene. The other partner (the insider) feels torn between his lifelong commitment to his children and the person he has fallen in love with and married. The insider parent is carrying on an exhausting shuttle diplomacy—trying to mediate between the familiar ways the family used to operate and the different ways his outsider partner feels it should operate in the future. Both Insider and Outsider are stressed.
2. The second challenge has to do with children’s losses and loyalty binds. The children have already undergone some tough transitions (95 percent of remarriages follow upon divorce). The initial loss of the intact family has been experienced as a volcanic upheaval, bringing deep grief and fears of abandonment in its wake. Furthermore, the new marriage is highly likely to bring guilty feelings that harboring liking—or even loving—feelings for the “replacement parent is a betrayal of the “real,” biological parent (in reality or in memory if that parent is deceased).
3. The third major challenge has to do with parenting tasks, which tend to move remarried couples into hotly contested oppositional positions. The stepparent wants to make some changes to the way the mate’s single-parent system has operated—for over time, families with this type of structure tend to become too lax and permissive. Frequently, the single parent’s authority has slipped a bit, and the stepparent wants to institute more respectfulness and domestic order. However, the biological parent wants to cut the children a lot of slack, because he/she is so aware of the difficult times they have been through.
4. The fourth challenge has to do with the uniting of two family cultures. Every family is a small civilization with its well-understood habits, routines, and rules for behavior. For example, do you start eating before everyone is seated at the table? How much television is permissible? How much back-talk to parents is permitted? Do you hang up your coat in the closet or throw it over the end of the sofa? Do you love deep-fat-fried foods, or do you think they are poison? Such minor matters can cause huge outrage to the uninitiated. The problem becomes even more complex when different cultures are involved. And in America, some 50 percent of people marry outside their own ethnic group, and the rate of socioeconomic and cultural intermarriage climbs even higher in remarriage situations.
5. The fifth major challenge involves the extensions of family boundaries. In a first-marriage nuclear family the members include the parents and their blood and heart-related children. In the case of remarriage, the new household will not be complete as it stands, for there will be a family member living outside it (the other biological parent) who must be included within the overall system. Therefore there will be a “boundary with a hole in it” to offer this parent easy access.
Can this cause difficulties? You bet! Being aware of the challenges and willing to do the work to overcome them are the first steps to creating a successful remarriage.
Maggie Scarf’s new book is The Remarriage Blueprint: How Remarried Couples and their Families Succeed or Fail. The book is published on September 17 by Scribner and is filled with examples of how these challenges are played out in reality and suggestions for how to deal with them.