Most people are very surprised to learn that adult stepfamilies (those that are formed in the second-half of life and include adult stepchildren) have just as many transitions as stepfamilies with younger children. Some of the transitional issues are different, but many are the same.
Lorain wrote asking how she might strengthen her relationship with her 19, 24, and 26 year-old stepchildren. “I was 49 when I married for the first time; my husband was 55. His first wife died a couple years before we met. My husband kept his children up to date about our relationship and things were pretty civil until we married. His oldest daughter cried loudly through the entire wedding ceremony. A few months later one of the children asked how my husband’s will was structured, implying that I shouldn’t get anything. From there things have continued to go downhill at a rapid pace.”
Lorain’s experience is not uncommon, nor is her idealistic assumption that the adult children in adult stepfamilies will not be impacted by the dynamics of loss and loyalty. Thankfully, adult children and stepparents do not have the same power battles that younger stepfamilies experience. That’s because the stepparent is not trying to get the children to pick up their socks or choose better friends.
But adult stepchildren and older stepparents still have many emotional issues to work through. They often feel threatened by each other and struggle with how the new marriage will impact familiar family relationships. Finding peace takes effort on both sides.
The new couple
When Daniel’s 35-year-old son told him that he “just wanted him to be happy,” the widower assumed his son was giving him permission to remarry. He wasn’t. What the son meant was, “I would hope that mom’s memory will keep you happy enough.” Daniel assumed he had his son’s blessing and got married. His son’s withdrawal from contact alerted him to the problem at hand.
As an older parent and stepparent, it’s important to realize that adult stepchildren—despite their age—frequently feel:
- Fearful of being abandoned or isolated from their only remaining parent. Unfortunately, they have already tasted grief in a very real way; marriage may renew or intensify this sadness.
- Loyal to their original family. Maintaining a strong family identity is important for adult children. Accepting a stepparent means the established family ties and special family holidays and celebrations must stretch to make room for newcomers. This isn’t easy and frankly it hurts. Please don’t take this personally—it’s not really about you. It’s about home no longer feeling like home.
- Disloyal toward the divorced or deceased parent and guilty about letting the stepparent in.
- Jealous and replaced by their parent’s new partner. They may have been the “apple of their parent’s eye” but now the stepparent holds the key to the parent’s heart (and time and energy).
- Concerned about the family finances. Money issues are common and must be addressed. Adult stepchildren have a right to know how their family inheritance is going to be managed (this is not “greed”) and we can be proactive in addressing these matters with the children so their fears can be put to rest.
- Resentful that their children (the grandchildren) may not receive as much time and energy from their parent as anticipated. If one parent of an adult child has died, it’s common for the adult child to invest heavily in wanting their children to spend time with the remaining grandparent. A new marriage threatens this and creates another loss for everyone.
As a new couple it helps to apply patience and understanding to these strong emotions. Do not be offended by them. When confronted with difficult responses from adult children, assume a humble position and listen to their fears and concerns. Accept them where they are and try to be responsive to their needs for information (especially about financial matters), emotional contact, and time as they adjust to yet another family transition they didn’t seek out.
It is important to begin by acknowledging the strong emotions about a parent’s remarriage. The feelings mentioned above are very common; if we don’t take ownership and responsibility of them, they may lead to withdrawal, criticism, or hurtful behavior.
Without question, a parent’s remarriage ripples through the generations of a family. It may take a great deal of time to open your heart to a stepparent and their extended family. Don’t feel compelled to feel love for them, but strive to act in loving ways. Resist the urge to withdraw in anger or judgment.
Finally, be sure to acknowledge a parent’s legitimate needs and desires that include pursuing a dating or marriage partner. Doing so does not diminish the importance of the other parent, family history, or relationships.
I strongly encourage both adult stepchildren and the new couple to educate themselves about stepfamily living. There is a labyrinth of emotional and practical transitions to work through and it takes understanding and effort by both generations. But it can be done. That’s the beautiful thing about love there’s always room for one more!