Q. I was married twenty years ago to a man with children from a previous marriage. The children were 15 and 23 when we married. The children struggled with their parents’ divorce, loyalty conflict and accepting their parents’ new partners. So, basically, my adult stepchildren rejected me as their father’s partner and we struggled to work through the challenges for 22 years; we’ve been separated the last 3 years). Can you offer any advice on how parents can support new partners while their children struggle with chronic loyalty conflict? My husband expressed the constant conflict made him feel put in the middle. He now feels he has done the noble thing by leaving our marriage and “putting his kids first”. (We did not meet because of an affair.) What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. It is true that Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #1 is, “Put the children first,” but these kids are well into adult hood. That rule must be put into perspective. However, based on what you have told me, I think many can relate, so let’s talk about the things that must be put into place in order to successfully combine families.
I take a little different approach than some. I believe successfully combining families takes a lot of preparation and a particular mindset. It includes acknowledging the past, present, and future, and it sees each family member as an individual who contributes to the combining. It does not blend everyone into a mishmash and call it family, but sees each new family members’ history as what made them unique. Success is based on respect. It doesn’t demand loyalty to the past. It acknowledges the past and sees the possibilities in love and comradery as the basis for the future. It does not force children to choose between past and present.
This can only happen if the divorced parents weigh in. They must want their children to flourish after their break-up—and they do that by putting the kids before themselves. If these kids were not properly prepared for this divorce and remarriage, and their father or mother never supported it–because of guilt, because of jealousy, or because they just weren’t done with each other–how could their children move on to happy productive lives? And, to acknowledge your predicament, how could they ever accept someone else? Dad probably was in the middle, but he put himself there. He could have gotten out of that position at any time simply by owning his life and setting the example. He chose to get a divorce from his children’s mother. For whatever reason, it appears they stayed stuck and passed that stuck legacy on to their children. The parents did not have a clear idea of what they wanted for their life after their break-up. As a result, neither did their children. Therefore, you were never quite right—even after 22 years.
There has to be a positive vision—a goal to work toward. Without one, family members stay stuck—and our kids have no positive role model for future relationships. Combining families is inclusive, not exclusive. Remembering that is good ex-etiquette.