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Making Adult Stepfamilies Work
Strategies for the Whole Family When a Parent Marries Later in Life
By Grace Gabe, Jean Lipman-Blumen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Grace Gabe, M.D., and Jean Lipman-Blumen, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Announcing the Good News: Why Isn't Everybody Happy?
I was so ecstatic when Arthur asked me to marry him, I could barely contain myself! I felt alive again, in a way that I never expected. When Roger died fifteen years ago, I thought my life was over. Of course, I had the kids and the grandkids, but I mean my own life. Now I feel like a schoolgirl again.
To tell you the truth, I wasn't expecting my kids' reactions. After all, they've all known Arthur for more than forty years. He and his late wife, Jan, were like an aunt and uncle to my kids while they were growing up. We were very close friends, family really. We went on trips together and everything. Both sets of kids played together all the time. It was like one big family.
When Jan died, Roger and I tried to console Arthur and keep him company. We spent a lot of time with him and his kids. They came to all our family events, just as before. When Roger died so unexpectedly, it was a huge shock. I felt so grateful and lucky that Arthur was there to help with everything. We just naturally began to keep each other company. The kids seemed okay with that.
Arthur and I have been together for fourteen years now. We have our own places, but we go on trips together, we baby-sit for the grandkids together, we go out dancing and to the movies. We keep each other company. So I really was shocked by my oldest daughter, Mary's, reaction. She asked, "Why do you have to get married?" My sister Annie, who was there at the time, jumped in and tried to explain how I felt, but Mary interrupted her, and said, "I'm asking my mother for an explanation." I didn't really know what to say. I thought she already understood. After all, she has a husband and children herself.
When I phoned my son in Chicago, he was out, so I told Joanne, his wife, the good news. She was all excited and asked when the wedding was going to be. I told her we were getting married in six months. She said she would tell Jim when he came in, and he'd call back. She asked if Hilda, their six-year old daughter, could be in the wedding. I thought I'd get a call from Jim that day, but I didn't. Not the next day, and not the next. That made me wonder what was going on.
When I finally called Jim again on the third day, he answered the phone. He said he'd forgotten to call and apologized casually. How do you forget to call your mother when she's called to say she's getting married? After all, that doesn't happen every day. I didn't say anything about that. But it was his next words that really shocked me. He said, "You're getting married in six months. This is so impetuous. What's the big hurry?" He acted as if we were teenagers who had just met! I reminded him we'd been together for the last fourteen years and had known one another for forty. That didn't seem so impetuous to me.
Finally he said, "Well, I hope you know what you're doing." We talked a little longer about other things. Just as Jim was about to hang up, he added, "Incidentally, don't forget to get him to sign a prenuptial agreement. Remember, there's your house and the land at the beach." I didn't know what to say.
These are the words of Mary, a middle-class Irish-American Catholic, aged sixty- five, mother of six, and grandmother of nine. But they could be the words of any of the men and women we interviewed, who spanned a broad ethnic, economic, and social spectrum. They all had adult children no longer living at home. This is how we define adult stepfamilies, to distinguish them from stepfamilies with young children, sometimes called "blended families." Some of the parents had been divorced, others widowed. For several, this was their first marriage. Everyone else was remarried or living with a partner.
Back to Mary: She had entered an enchanted new world — where happiness reigned. She and the other soon-to-be-remarrieds we interviewed all felt that they were living in a magical moment, about to embark on a journey to a new, somewhat foreign land. They looked forward to traveling in this unfamiliar territory, with its distinctive architecture and customs, even its own language, whose vocabulary did not yet roll smoothly off their tongues. They welcomed the challenge.
Most of our interviewees were charmed by the prospect of a new life filled with love, intimacy, and companionship. They felt increased emotional security and, for some, greater financial security, as well. Their enchantment often made it difficult for them to see that others did not necessarily share their joy. The very people whom they most wanted to join in their happy new odyssey — their own adult children — were often unable to celebrate their bliss.
In fact, whenever older people remarry, there is a strong possibility that their adult children will be decidedly unhappy at this turn of events, one that forces them into the unanticipated role of adult stepchild. There is also a good chance that this will be the beginning of a protracted struggle, unless all the parties have the requisite tools to work through the issues that inevitably arise. These tools don't always come naturally: our aim is to provide readers with the tools they need to survive in this increasingly common phenomenon — the adult stepfamily.
This is how Frank, a forty-five-year-old white Protestant upper-middle-class married man with two grown children, described the moment of truth, when his father announced his plans to remarry.
When my father called and said he had something important he wanted to tell me, my heart sank. At the time, he was seventy-two, living alone as he had since my mother died two years before. His voice was so serious that I thought he was going to tell me he had cancer. Instead, he said he and his girlfriend, Edith, had decided to get married. To tell you the truth, that didn't make me feel all that much better. None of us, my brothers and I, really likes Edith. She's so different from my mother. She's a little too stylish, in good taste of course, but still she seems to spend a lot on herself. Besides, my mother's only been gone barely two years. You'd think he'd have a little more respect for her memory. I said, "You're not really over Mother's death. Do you think this is a good idea?"
According to the adult stepchildren whom we interviewed, the sinking feeling that Frank reports is quite normal, or at least extremely common, for adult children of divorced or widowed parents who never imagined that they would become stepchildren. For adult children who have gotten used to their parent's single existence, the whole idea of remarriage may catch them off their emotional guard — even after many years of seeing the parent in a romantic relationship with the intended spouse.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT CRISIS: NEW CHANCES AND RISKS FOR EVERYONE
The announcement of the decision to remarry sets off an avalanche of feelings. (We'll talk later about parents who decide simply to live together.) There is no avoiding it. If you are an adult child who learns that your parent is getting remarried, you are going to be thrown. As a result, you will learn things about yourself and your family that you never imagined, whether you like it or not. Even several professional therapists whom we interviewed reported being upset by a parent's plan to remarry. No wonder. As an adult child, you didn't ask for a new family. You never dreamed that you would have to deal so intimately with so many new people, each of whom has his or her own opinions and self-interests. In fact, the only real choice you have is whether to stew and be miserable or to grow stronger, wiser, and more independent as a result of your parent's remarriage.
You have two basic options, whether you are an adult stepchild or a remarrying parent. The first option is to take a passive role, letting it all happen to you or silently hoping it will just go away. If that is your choice, you could remain muddled about how to behave. You'd also be more likely to feel rejected and become less confident. In addition, you'd probably resign yourself to chronic pain and frustration about your new family situation.
If you remain passive, you avoid determining what you want in your new circumstances and what decisions you must make. You let others decide how the new family will develop. As a result, you are likely to resent the choices others make and become disgruntled and unhappy.
The alternative is for you to work your way proactively through this family drama. Selecting this option helps you to become stronger, more realistic, and more certain about what is really important to you. You will have to decide which way to go, because even if you refuse to recognize your stepfamily, you cannot divorce your own family. In this second, more active and effective option, you will develop new skills that will help you understand your own fears and other emotions and will maximize your chances of getting positive results.
We are not advocating either acceptance or rejection of your stepfamily. That's up to you. Instead, we shall try to help you determine what you want. Once you are clear about that, we'll help you find effective ways of achieving your goals. We'll also teach you valuable new strategies for communicating with members of your new family — strategies that lessen tensions and misunderstandings.
The unadorned truth is that something very basic within a family changes when a parent remarries. Even when the children are adults with children of their own, they are forced to reexamine their often complex feelings about their parent. Ultimately, a parent's remarriage forces the adult children to become much more independent of their parents. The parents, too, must learn to be much more independent of their adult children.
If this process founders, the fearful parents may slip into a clinging dependency on their adult children. For adult children, it may mean backsliding into the dependency of childhood. After all, whether you need constant approval or if you are always furious at your parent or adult child, it boils down to the same thing. Being furious is just hanging on to that person through anger, rather than affection. This produces the same result: increased dependency coupled with decreased self-reliance and self-esteem. Is this the direction you want for yourself?
As a remarried parent or an adult stepchild, you have an important role in determining how your original family maintains itself while simultaneously making new connections. You will have to determine what you want to hold on to and where you can comfortably loosen your grip. From the beginning, focusing on the long view, the bigger picture, is key to finding your best direction. You carve your path with your first moves and decisions. It's hard — but not impossible — to go back and take another path once you start down that initial road.
New chances and risks emerge for everyone. You will have to choose to be courageous or cowardly, honest or deceptive, realistic or deluded about achieving your desires in your stepfamily. Will you approach this new, unfamiliar land as dangerous territory to be avoided or as an exciting foreign country begging for intrepid exploration? That's what this book is about. So let's suit up. This will be quite a journey!
THE FIVE FURIES
Although the adult stepfamily members we interviewed told many different stories, a set of common problems emerged. One or more of the following five concerns came up time and again. These five recurrent issues, which we call the Five Furies, will reappear throughout the book. Both parental couples and adult children had these same five basic fears and concerns, although they often had opposing views of who was causing the problem. The Five Furies are:
1. Fear of Abandonment and Isolation: the fear that you will lose a relationship that you depend upon for emotional and/or financial support and the fear that you will be pushed aside and left in a lonely limbo.
2. Fidelity to Family: worry about changes in loyalty. Fidelity problems occur when members of the original family worry that the parent will lose his/her old 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 new partner is overly committed to his or her old family. Stepchildren also may feel that the new stepparent's biological family has too much influence.
3. Favoritism: concern about who is now number one. Whose wishes get top priority when choices have to be made?
4. Finances: for adult children, fear that they may lose money and/or property that they expected to be theirs; for parents, fear that their children care more about their inheritance than about the parent.
5. Focus on Self to the Exclusion of Others: anger that a parent or adult child is concerned only about himself or herself and no longer cares about the needs of others.
We have one initial piece of advice that is too important to put off any longer. One of the most valuable things you can do in dealing with your new stepfamily is to distinguish between what you think and what you actually say. What goes on inside your mind is your business. But we strongly caution you against blurting out the first thing that pops into your head. Words can be terribly destructive, especially when either the speaker or the one spoken to is in an agitated or a fragile state. Instead, make a habit of thinking about what you want to say before you say it. And remember, what you say invariably will elicit a response in the other person. In fashioning your words, you want to remember what you hope to achieve, as well as the information you wish to convey. Something more tactful and less inflammatory than detailed candor usually works best.
Here are some examples of what you might feel in situations involving the Five Furies, and, later, what you might say.
Mary, who was marrying her companion of fourteen years, and Frank, whose widowed father was remarrying, were reacting to several of the Furies — the fears and potential dangers that are usually lurking inside adult stepfamilies. As a first step in taming the Furies, you must recognize and identify each Fury accurately and honestly. Only then will you be able to construct an appropriate response.
FIVE FURIES FOR PARENTS WHO ARE REMARRYING
Let's go back to the first story about Mary, widowed for fifteen years, and see how the Five Furies come into play. Surprised that her children don't share her happiness at the prospect of her remarriage, Mary might feel the following:
Fury #1: Fear of Abandonment and Isolation
It's hard for me to believe that my own grown-up children are reacting as though my getting married means abandoning them. This is crazy. And they are parents themselves. I know it's the right thing for me to do, even though they might not like it and even though I might really need them in the future. They are behaving as if my getting married means I'm deserting them. I'm worried. Could this really cause a permanent rift between us?
Fury #2: Fidelity to Family
I've given my children and their children so much consideration all their lives and never dreamed they would treat me so harshly. My daughter has no right to demand an explanation from me. She's treating me like a teenager, instead of like her mother. Fourteen years is not sudden. Jim's got a problem with that? It would almost be funny if it weren't so disloyal.
Fury #3: Favoritism
My marriage does mean that Arthur has priority for me, but when my kids had to make a choice between me and their spouses, I didn't have to guess whom they would pick.
Fury #4: Finances
My son's first thought is about protecting his inheritance. After all, it is my money. Why can't he trust me? I have a pretty good track record.
Fury #5: Focus on Self
For the first time in my life, we are not part of the same team. Suddenly, I'm seeing a pair of tough, self-interested children whose first reaction is to look out for themselves. You would think they'd care more about my happiness. When I became a widow, it was all "poor dear Mom, we'll always be here for you." But now that I'm taking my life in my own hands and making a change, I've got to deal with their disapproval and stick up for what I want. We don't want the same thing. After all, I didn't just automatically love the people they chose for mates, but I learned to adjust.
WHAT A PARENT MIGHT SAY IN RESPONSE TO THE FIVE FURIES
So often we think of what we should have said only after the moment has passed. We may hesitate to speak because we don't want to do permanent harm to a relationship while we are still shocked or uncertain about what is happening. Thinking before we speak is a good thing: We need time to process our intense feelings.
Excerpted from Making Adult Stepfamilies Work by Grace Gabe, Jean Lipman-Blumen. Copyright © 2004 Grace Gabe, M.D., and Jean Lipman-Blumen, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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