To the Adult Who is Struggling with Their Parent's Remarriage
Mike and I were recently having dinner with some friends of ours, Bryce and Denise. We've changed their names to protect the innocent…or is it guilty? :-)
We decided to pick their brains about an aspect of stepfamily life that doesn't get much press — but is significant to many.
Bryce and Denise each have parents that have remarried later in life after their spouses had passed away. Bryce's mom recently remarried. Denise's dad has been remarried for many years.
Typically when we talk about stepfamilies, we focus on young kids struggling to adjust and accept the presence of a new stepparent in the home. This scenario isn't the same; however, there are often difficult emotions and challenges — even when the 'kids' are adults.
I wrote an article to help parents navigate this transition and support adult children to cope with their remarriage. In this article, I'd like to consider the concerns of adult children, which is why we initiated this conversation with our friends at dinner.
What Bryce and Denise shared was insightful…and real!
Prepare for Change
Denise: "I realize now that I had some unrealistic expectations that my step-mom would be generous and engaged with our family and my kids".
Denise's mom and dad often lavished their grandkids with thoughtful gifts and lots of attention. Following her mom's death, her dad went through a period of mourning and disengaged for a time.
After he remarried, Denise was expecting her dad and new stepmom to pick up where things had left off…but this was not the case.
She shared with us something along this line: "It's been years now, but it sometimes still hurts my feelings when they don't acknowledge things like my kids' birthdays. Everything is just so different now and I feel like my kids get gipped — they're missing out on so much".
Anytime a family "blends", regardless of the dynamics, you can count on one thing: There will be change! Hand-in-hand with change comes loss and even grief.
Adult children need to anticipate the changes ahead, and the inevitable feelings of loss. When the remarriage is a result of divorce, there will be significant shifts: loyalty issues, jealousies, role confusion and friction.
All of this can shake the family's identity and disrupt the status quo — especially if step-siblings are now part of the family's story.
Ditch the 'Score Card'
Bryce: "I've noticed my stepdad's children (Bryce's adult step-siblings) keep track of all kinds of things - how much money their dad spends on my mom, who they spend time visiting and stuff like that. I've just decided not to keep a score card. As long as my mom is happy, I'm not going to worry about it".
Early on, Bryce chose to trust his mom's judgement. He doesn't engage in any drama that pops up, instead he simply allows his mom to live life with her new husband, regardless of the decisions they make and how they might impact him.
For most of us, this is easier said than done — Bryce seems to be an exception. It's hard to fend off feelings of resentment when it feels like your parent has new priorities that don't seem to include you…or when you believe that your inheritance is being spent on the new spouse and their kids.
Ditching the score card might be difficult, but it can also be freeing! Right away, Bryce was able to release control over the situation. This has turned out to be a healthy approach for him and we can all benefit from his example.
Attempting to control how a parent chooses to spend their time and money will most likely increase the tensions and cause damage in your relationship with them.
Instead, choose to view the situation from a different lens…
Focus on the Big Picture
When we asked Bryce how he was able to 'ditch the score card' and not harbor resentment, he said that it was helpful for him to stay focused on the bigger perspective.
Bryce realized that his mom deserves to enjoy this season of her life. For many years she worked hard to ensure that Bryce and his siblings had a good and stable upbringing. She's sacrificed for them and supported them through all of life's ups and downs.
Bryce understands that this current situation isn't really about him — it's about supporting his mom and sacrificing for her now. He accepts whatever his mom and stepdad are able to give and he chooses to stay focused on the big picture. Bryce trusts his mom and truly wants her to enjoy life with her new husband.
If your grieving lost time with your parent, directly ask for what you need from them. They may not be able to give you the same amount of time you've enjoyed in the past, but even a regularly scheduled phone call or Facetime will keep you feeling connected.
Process Your Emotions
It was interesting to see the difference in how Bryce and Denise experienced each of their parents' remarriages. This is typical among others we've talked with as well.
Emotions will vary — even within the same family of origin. Some adult children struggle to find their place within the new family structure, and others tend to be more detached from the situation simply accepting it for what it is.
Those that are especially close to a parent may experience conflicting emotions. They want their parent to be happy — yet feel they must now compete with the parent's new spouse and their growing emotional attachment.
This can cause adult children to become territorial, insecure or overly protective. They might be fearful of how their relationship with their parent (and that of their family) will be impacted.
These painful emotions are legitimate and many adult children will need a safe space to process through their discomfort and express feelings of resentment, loss, rejection or fear.
If you've found yourself in that position and your parent isn't able to listen as you verbalize these emotions, then talking with a trusted friend, spouse, coach or counselor can be beneficial.
Don't let difficult emotions build up or go unresolved. Owning your true feelings and allowing yourself to grieve will alleviate tensions and help you move toward acceptance.
But it will take time…
It All Goes Back to the Crockpot!
Regardless of the dynamics or whether the "children" are still kids or grown adults — every stepfamily needs to stay in the 'Crockpot' mentality. LOW and SLOW!
Low pressure will keep expectations in line and allow everyone to gently ease into the new family structure at their own pace. Time and patience will naturally open up opportunities for relationships to gradually develop, as heightened emotions begin to fade.
This process is not a quick sprint or a microwave meal…it's a marathon that will hopefully, eventually lead to a unique 'crockpot feast'!
During our dinner conversation, Denise also expressed love and appreciation for her stepmom. She's moved beyond her disappointment and grief to embrace her stepmom and step-siblings, but it didn't happen overnight (by the way…Bryce and Denise are both marathon runners).
Be patient with yourself and everyone else in your 'blended' family story. Anticipate the big changes ahead, ditch the score card and open yourself up to see the bigger picture. As you take things slow and process your own emotions along the way, you might end up discovering a bigger, 'blended family buffet' that's worthwhile and satisfying.
QUESTION: What's your next step to move toward acceptance of a parent's remarriage? Leave a comment below…