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Published April 30, 2010, 12:00 AM

Remarriage, parenting: traversing the minefield

Joan – all names are fictitious, the advice is real – has been divorced for three years. She is the custodial parent for her two children – Alexa, age 11, and Brandon, age 9. Joan is attracted to Bill, a divorced father of three children. Bill has visitation rights to his three children who are with his ex-wife and her new husband.

By: By Val Farmer, INFORUM

Joan – all names are fictitious, the advice is real – has been divorced for three years. She is the custodial parent for her two children – Alexa, age 11, and Brandon, age 9. Joan is attracted to Bill, a divorced father of three children. Bill has visitation rights to his three children who are with his ex-wife and her new husband.

Joan and her children have gotten very close during the past three years. Alexa has been a big help and has given Joan a lot of emotional support. Alexa seems angry and offish since Bill entered the picture.

A different kind of courtship. A slow courtship will help the children gradually accept the idea of a remarriage – and to get used to Bill being a part of their lives. Bill and Joan need to keep their public displays of affection to a minimum. The children are not used to seeing Mom as a sexual being. This is especially confusing for Alexa in her own sexual awakening.

Courtship is a package deal. If Bill can’t get used to sharing Joan with the children now, it is a sign of trouble in the future. The children are used to Mom meeting their needs and having her attention. Bill has to respect Joan and the children’s need to spend time together without him being involved. The children will resent the remarriage less if Mom still finds time for them.

Another red flag is Bill’s attitude about children and how they should behave. If he is easily bothered or irritated with them during courtship and starts to give critical advice about Joan’s parenting abilities, the stage is set for major conflict after marriage, when his role with be strengthened.

The past might mean problems. Each partner has had experiences with marriage, parenting, and the trauma of divorce. Their attitudes and emotions may cause problems as they form a new family.

Are they still angry with their ex-spouses? How do they feel about the parenting role of Joan’s ex-husband? Can Joan accept Bill’s need to be involved with his own children and the co-parenting role he plays with his ex-wife? Is Joan looking for Bill to take over some of the responsibility she has shouldered with the children? Does Bill feel like he needs to prove himself as a father?

Expect problems. There will be major adjustment problems for the first two to three years before the stepfamily stabilizes. It will take three to five years before there is a “sense of belonging.”

Alexa and Brandon will have to make adjustments during the first years of the new marriage. There will be continued mourning over the divorce, loss of the fantasy that Mom and Dad will reunite, confusion about loyalties, new patterns of living, additional new relationships and perhaps a new home, school and friends. They will resist authority and resent new rules and routines. They will exploit and manipulate parental differences to meet their own needs.

More than likely, Alexa will resist physical affection from Bill. Bill should be extremely careful about hugs and touching. He can show his affection through praise, recognition and attention.

All this is normal. The new family will be less intense and less close than families where these relationships developed over a long period of time. Everyone will do better if they give up the myth of the perfect nuclear family. It won’t be as close – at least for a long time.

The conflict between parent and stepparent. Both Joan and Bill may avoid conflict because of their recent traumatic divorces. They need to trust their commitment and love for each other and allow differences to be aired. This openness is also important for Alexa and Brandon. They need to be able to express their negative feelings.

The family will work better if Bill takes a back seat on discipline for the first couple of years. Bonds and trust need to develop before the children will accept him as an authority figure. More important, Joan needs to learn to trust Bill as a parenting partner. His biggest mistake would be to try too hard with Alexa and Brandon.

One rule of thumb is for Joan to handle all the major discipline problems and for Bill to voice his opinions privately. Gradually Joan will encourage and support his active parenting role. When Bill does get involved in discipline, it should be less harsh or punitive than Joan’s or the children will see him as the “heavy.”

Unless the nonresidential father has major problems with parenting, his role with the children should be supported. Bill doesn’t need to compete or try to take his place. Bill and Joan shouldn’t worry about loyalty. If they provide a warm, loving and accepting environment, everything will work out in the end.

Expect courtesy, not love. Joan and Bill can talk about their family life being organized around courtesy, civility, cooperation, respect and mutual consideration. Bill especially should set the tone and example by his courteous, kind, and non-intrusive manner. He should try not to overreact to their hostility toward him or take things personally.

Joan is pleased that Bill understands how critical his new role will be. Emotionally, she can let herself take a few more risks in the relationship. Her children will be all right. It will work. It just takes time and patience. A lot of both!


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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