When children feel pressed to take sides, they may boycott a remarried mother or father, refusing to visit or to accept gifts from that parent. In extreme cases, adolescent and young adult children may refuse to even talk to the remarried parent or refuse to invite that parent who "betrayed" them to weddings, graduations, and so on.
Divided loyalties often appear where one of the parents has not remarried but is living alone. One fourteen-year-old girl refused to respond to her stepfather's good-natured parenting, believing, "We're a family, but my real father is alone. He has no one to care about him but me." That was her misperception, because actually her natural father was leading a relatively happy bachelor's life. But it's another example of how divided loyalties can manifest in a child's mind.
Steve, now thirty, was thirteen when his parents divorced. His father remarried and had another son with his second wife. When Steve got married, he refused to allow his father to bring his wife and their son to the wedding. When his father said he wouldn't come to the wedding under those conditions. Steve argued that the presence of his stepmother and half brother would ruin his mother's happy day. As a result, the father did not attend his son's wedding. Steve's loyalty to his mother precluded a positive relationship with his father and his father's second family. Steve's mother had certainly engendered these feelings, though Steve couldn't recall any particular words or actions that had led to his loyalty conflicts.
Divided Loyalties with a Layer of Guilt
Frequently, stepfathers remain uninvolved with stepchildren because they feel guilt for having left their own children. As one stepfather put it, "I have to keep my distance to avoid the feeling that I give my wife's children more attention than I give my own kids. They already feel I abandoned them."
A mother often feels pulled between her current spouse and her children from a previous marriage. Maureen divorced her first husband when their daughter was thirteen years old. A year later, she married her current husband and had another daughter with him. He had never been married before.
She says, "I feel a tug-of-war between my husband and my daughter from my first marriage. She sees me as the parent in charge, the one responsible for her. When my husband disciplines her or tries to influence, for instance, her choice of colleges, I feel torn. No matter what, I'm 'betraying' one of them. There's even a conflict on what to spend for each child. When my older daughter wanted a car, my husband refused, saying it was an unnecessary expense, though I felt she deserved to have a car. It seemed only fair, since I have my own money, plus the fact that her natural father has offered to help pay for it. She's a good student and a responsible person, but I don't know what I can do to please both of them. My husband gets jealous if I take her side, and then tries to control the situation by having his way. He's punishing me for loving my own daughter and wanting her to have nice things."
Remarriage after the death of a first spouse brings its own forms of disloyalty and guilt. Remarried widows and widowers often have difficulty sharing activities, rituals, and experiences they used to enjoy with their deceased spouse. Sometimes they won't even talk to the new spouse about the first spouse, because they feel it's disloyal to reveal personal information.
But even a divorced spouse may feel protective of an ex. Janet becomes defensive whenever her current husband criticizes her ex-husband for making late child support payments or for failing to pay for the health care of the children from the first marriage. Janet feels her first husband was a basically good man who never had much education, but he had been her childhood sweetheart. "I feel as if my husband's criticism of my ex is directed at me for being stupid enough to marry a man who couldn't make a good living."
These are just some of the land mines that can strew the ground on which newly blended families tread. However, when you understand your partner's feelings about his or her past, his or her kids-and yours-you're better prepared to navigate the terrain. Leftover emotional baggage almost always resurfaces in a blended family, and it's likely that everyone involved is carrying at least one suitcase. Awareness that these problems are going to arise is a big step in the right direction. Making the assumption that they won't arise for you-and then being blindsided by these conflicts-is a sure route to failure. Having reasonable expectations can go a long way to defuse loyalty conflicts and guilt.
Home Is Where the Toys Are
There are those people who negotiate relationships on unconditional terms, hold all the trump cards, and seem to control everyone around them. One couple I interviewed had been previously married but did not have custody of their respective children. For many happy years, they seem to have escaped all the usual problems of divided loyalties, unreasonable expectations, guilt, and other burdens of the past. But wait!-circumstances have a way of changing.
Gerald is a frantically busy man, a senior vice president of a publicly held corporation. Like many men, he was reluctant at first to talk candidly about his personal life. He agreed to an interview, however, because he wanted to get some problems off his chest. As a corporate executive, he was accustomed to problem solving, and he had never before faced a situation in which he felt virtually powerless. His domestic life was in shambles. And he was distraught.
Gerald was in the midst of a department overhaul when we spoke. "There's not enough of me to go around" he began. "The calls from colleagues are just a minor part of my day. The interruptions from my wife, my ex-wife, and all the kids are about to drive me up the wall."
Gerald admitted to being at a loss in his role as stepfather to two teenage boys who had never wanted him in their mother's life. "Frankly, I can't wait until they both go off to college so I can have my wife back. The boys were supposed to live with their father, but these kids have a much more luxurious life at our house, so when they were old enough to choose who they wanted to live with, they chose us. They've got fancy cars, a big house, money in their pockets, and a mother who feels so guilty about breaking up their home that she virtually lets them get away with anything. If I try to discipline them, they just smirk, wait till I leave the house, then resume whatever they've been doing. And I've got my own kids to contend with as well. It's 'gimme, gimme, gimme' with all four of them, her two boys and my two girls. If it weren't for the kids, Arlene and I would be tine."
Gerald described his divorce from his first wife and mother of his daughters as a case of "uneven growth." She was totally dependent on him. "I gave her enough to keep her happy and moved out. Now she won't leave me alone-can't make a decision about anything without calling me. No wonder my daughters want out. too."
Arlene. Gerald's second wife, also wanted to explain why she divorced her first husband, the father of her two sons. When Arlene met Joe, she was working as an account executive with a high-powered Madison Avenue advertising agency. Joe was a psychiatric social worker. Within the next three years, their two sons were born, and Arlene decided to become a stay-at-home mom. The absence of Arlene's salary meant that they had to drastically reduce their expenses. They needed a bigger place but had to move to a smaller one. As soon as the boys were old enough to go to preschool, Arlene returned to work. Before long, she found herself dreading the end of the workday, when she had to pick up the children and go home. The boys became the focus of intense competition between her and Joe. He wanted athletes. She wanted academic wunderkinds.
"There's nothing more sanctimonious than a man who's been jogging for ten years," Arlene said. "His idea of success is to get the whole family running around all hours of the day and night, being chased by vicious dogs."
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