Stepparent Seen by Adult Children as Parent’s New Partner But Not as a Stepparent.

Author John J. Hohn prior to Retirement, 2007

Author John J. Hohn Financial Adviser

#stepparent #blendedfamily  #stepchild

A reader from New York asked if I planned on commenting about the role of a stepparent when the stepchildren have left the home and are established as adults on their own. Great question! Great suggestion!

There is not a whole lot of actual parenting to be done once children have moved away from home, either out on their own or in residence at a college. The relationship between a stepparent and stepchildren is very different, but that is not to say all will be smooth sailing. Grown children’s acceptance of a stepparent depends upon the history of the natural parents. If their natural parents fought through openly, the home turf can still be strewn with bitter baggage and resentment. Children may know what issues divided their parents. They have probably already dialed in the cautions in their own search for partners. Their radar will be scanning the horizons for early warnings that Dad or Mom are about to do it again—make another mistake.

180 Degrees from Wrong is Also Often Wrong

One adult son described his mother’s choice of a partner as “Anti-Dad,” when she began dating seriously after the break up in a 19-year-old marriage with his father. Adult children will be more critical than minors of their parent’s choices. He could see that his mother’s decisions were in reaction against her experience with his father. The parent making a choice who is so out of step with his or her own experience is rejecting everything—good and bad—in their marriage relationship. Wisdom lies in recognizing and preserving what was good and identifying and avoiding the pitfalls of what was painful or damaging.

Comparisons with the former spouse are unavoidable. So is concern for the parent in question. Older children can be expected to believe they know more than the parent who has launched out into the hunt again. The world of dating and its conventions belongs to the young. The child becomes the mentor, but if not that, the critic. It is best that the parent not challenge the child’s views. Accept what they want to tell you as an expression of their concern.

Divorced Parents Demonstrate Fallibility

Adult children of a divorced couple know their parents are fallible. They want Mom and Dad to be OK. They want them to make wise choices. Children of a widowed parent will not have the same concerns. They will be eager for the surviving parent to move beyond the throes of grief and be happy again. If happiness comes in the form of another partner, they will be eager to see it work—sometimes to the point of refusing to judge on what others may see as areas of a serious mismatch. The difference is that the parent’s judgment likely not to be contaminated with anger or a sense of failure. The widowed parent’s choices in dating a less likely to be faulted as with the divorced parent.

In either case, the divorced or widowed parent will find children more accepting if time for grieving and adjusting has been served. “My God,” one adult son wrote, “my Dad was shacking up with this young widow less than a month after we buried Mom. This woman found a newly widowed doctor to jump, and he let it happen.” Grieving is a process. Anyone losing a spouse is expected to take time to move through it. When a parent does not give the grieving process its allotted time, loved ones can be expected to be concerned. Reluctance to accept a new partner is more an expression for that concern than a judgment about the new partner. The quality of the relationship between parent and adult child will determine how outspoken either party can be, but the parent makes a serious mistake if the child’s concerns are interpreted as dislike for or refusal to accept the new person.

My Adult Children Joe, Rachel, Jim, Eric and Greg, 2005

The parent who has become single again through divorce will be forgiven much less, as a rule. Adult children do not want to share either divorced parents’ grief. They don’t want their loyalties divided. They want to see parents exercise good judgment. One man confided in me that he and his brothers bet on how long their father’s remarriage would last because the father’s choice was so deplorably a mismatch. “I lost,” he said, “but I think the marriage lasted five years because it took Dad that long to find a better job so he could move out.”

The concerns and contacts with the children continue after the divorce. Conflict between former spouses can persist. Divorce, as in death, needs to be grieved as a loss. Taking on a new partner is a fresh start. Some ground rules need to be observed by the parent in dealing with adult children.

  • Be patient with yourself. You are OK alone. You are not going to miss out on anything.
  • Seek counseling with a professional. There is no stigma attached to it. It will help you move through the grief (and anger) more quickly and clarify your thinking..
  • Your children want to know you are OK but they do NOT want to take care of you emotionally. Respect their need for distance in this area.
  • Moving too quickly with a new partner will increase your children’s concern rather than lessen it.
  • Children are uncomfortable with excessive expressions of affection between the you and your date. If you are demonstrative, they feel coerced into accepting your new partner.
  • Children do not care how much you love your new partner. They see that as your business. They are more concerned about how wisely you have chosen than about your feelings.
  • Your new partner may eventually accept a counselor’s role in matters involving the children, but that takes time and it may never happen. Do not ask for your new partner’s opinion on an issue involving the children while they are present. The new partner needs to earn the right to be considered. Watch for the time one of the children asks your new partner for an opinion as it is one sign of acceptance.
  • Avoid putting the new partner in what was the ex spouse’s role. Your children do not need another parent. Until you marry your new partner, defer to a son as head of the table, Ask a daughter to say grace.
  • Expect mementos of the absent spouse to be displayed prominently in your children’s homes. It is a statement of their loyalty and affection and is not directed toward you.

The new partner also has ground rules to follow. That will be the subject of a posting at a later date.

My Stepson Matt McLeod at College Graduation with Melinda and John J. Hohn

Room to Breathe

67% of second marriages end in divorce according to one source. Finding a new partner is risky business. Those close to the couple who marry again share in the risk. A second broken marriage spells out another awkward relationship either to continue or to terminate. If you are a parent who is concerned about how your new partner and your children will get along, think about opening a bottle of fine wine. The best thing to do at first is allow the wine to breathe. The same is true of children with a new partner. Let the budding relationship between them breathe. Trust them.

If you have enjoyed this article, I invite you to look at the other pages on my web site. I publish every Friday, Sunday and Tuesday. A review of the archive is available if you clink of the orange RSS icon below. RSS will also allow you to follow my regular posts. Thanks for checking in.