June 1, 2016

Adult Step-Children & Late Life Marriages: It’s Complicated.

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“She’s not my mother,” the man who worked with me was saying, “I have a mother.”

The woman he had introduced me to had just left the room. “And she’s not my step-mother either. I’m too old to want or need a step-mother.”

“How then do you see her?” I asked, his disdain barely contained in his tight voice.

“As far as I’m concerned, she’s my father’s wife. That’s what she is. She may be something to him, but she’s nothing to me.”

Almost two decades later, my new husband and I would be discussing the best ways to integrate our own respective children into our late in life marriage and I would remember my friend’s words.

“As far as I am concerned, she’s nothing to me.”

While my husband and I had hoped that there would be some kind of familial bonding with our respective adult children we realized getting there would involve a lot of care, patience, and attention.

The truth is this, however:

Whether a family changes because of divorce or death, adult children don’t want to see a new person in the family circle—not really. They may “try” to be friendly and welcoming, but in most cases, especially if the death of a beloved parent is involved, it is not a situation they chose and it is easy for the new marriage to become nothing more than a reminder of what was lost.

Despite the fact that my husband and I talked a lot about fostering a congenial blending of our families, we realized that when it comes to such blending—especially when the adult children are well into their 40s and 50s—certain issues can get in the way of that congeniality.

An adult child’s grief over the loss of a beloved family member can play out in unexpected ways.

A new marriage signals the end of the family the adult children had known and rather than an event to celebrate, it becomes a painful reminder causing another trigger for grief. The old family system and ways of relating being gone makes way for unexpressed hurts, resentments and anger to rise to the surface.

Adult children no longer feel the constraints of loyalty to either parent that the old system imposed and feel free to express what it is they “never liked” about the remaining parent.

A late-life marriage with adult children can bring about changes in income and death benefits can cause stressors. And adult children of one of the partners can actually view the adult children (or grandchildren) of the other partner as threats to the amount of inheritance involved.

I was having lunch with a woman I know who, like me, had married a widower.

In the beginning, her husband’s adult children sent my friend presents for her birthday and for Christmas, and even sent flowers for the wedding.

It wasn’t the gifts themselves that had pleased my friend so much as it was the time, care and attention it took to select them. It felt to my friend like her husband’s children were saying, “Welcome. Come on in. Let’s get acquainted.”

Then, the anniversary of the death of her husband’s late wife came and out of the blue, the welcoming attitude of the step-children stopped.

My friend wondered aloud if she had “done something.” More than likely however, she hadn’t “done anything.” More than likely, reality had set in. The former family was gone, so were the old ways of relating and so was the former mother.

When that reality hit, the landscape changed for everyone and congeniality suddenly disappeared.

Neither my husband nor I wanted that for our lives and realized that in the end we could not control anyone’s response to our union. What we could do was to define our priorities to each other.

1. Our marriage was the primary relationship in our lives and yet, we would each participate fully in the other’s family.

2. That being said, We would give our adult children the time and space to determine the kind of relationships they wanted with us as a couple or with their parent’s new partner as an individual. In other words, they would define the quality and extent of the relationships. We would have no expectations that we be be called “mom” or “dad” or even “grandma” or “grandpa;” and

3. How we managed our combined incomes and our wills was ours alone to decide.

Ultimately, I had learned from what I had read, what I had experienced and what I had heard from my friends was that—even though for the most part there are all adults involved—blending families late in life was not easy. The best a newly married couple can do, is to keep learning the language, the food and the customs of each other’s family—and to keep being available.

What may result is not merely the poor replica of the old family, but a beautiful version of an entirely new one.

Given the response my husband and I have had from our families, our discussions and decisions paid off and we’ve had a wonderful blending of our families.

In the end, my husband and I embraced as our motto the following statement by Ron L. Deal, President of Smart Step-Families:

“There is a labyrinth of emotion 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!”


Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: via Imgur






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