Q. I am a single mother with a 9-year-old son. Robbie’s father sees him on a regular basis, and they have a good relationship. I’ve recently decided to get married again. My fiance and Robbie also have a good relationship, about which my ex feels no jealousy. Can you help us anticipate some of the problems we may face as a new family?
A. You and your fiance are forming a step family, of which there are two types: the primary step-family and the secondary step-family.
A primary step-family is formed by the remarriage of a parent who has primary custody of his or her children. The children visit with, but do not reside with, their secondary-step family. Since most mothers retain custody of their children after divorce, most primary step-families are headed by a mother and stepfather. The two biggest hurdles facing a step-family - whether primary or secondary - are (1) establishing the new marriage at the center of the family and (2) affirming the stepparent’s authority. Unfortunately, in many, if not most, step-family situations, certain precedents have been set prior to the remarriage that interfere with clearing these hurdles.
The first of these involves the fact that after divorce, many single mothers form primary - often co-dependent - relationships with their children. In such instances, one finds the single mother overly involved with her children, and the children overly dependent upon their mother’s attention.
Enter boyfriend, who quickly perceives the strength of the mother-child bond and begins to court not only the mother but her children as well. In so doing, he strives to become their good buddy. He correctly realizes he must essentially obtain their approval if he stands a chance of having their mother accept him as a mate.
Unfortunately, these compensatory roles and relationships tend to “solidify,” causing predictable difficulties once the marriage takes place. Specifically, the once-single mother has difficulty moving out of a primary relationship with her children and into a primary relationship with her new spouse. As a result, the stepfather begins to feel like a “third wheel.” Making matters worse, the children resent his attempt to shift from friend to parent. They complain, and Mom sadly fails to support her new husband’s authority.
All this can be avoided, or at least minimized, if people planning step-families will, above all else, remember two things:
The marriage must be the most important relationship in the family. Step-families are no different from other families in this respect.
The stepparent must assume authority equal to that of the natural parent. This means, of course, that the natural parent must be willing to share authority equally with his or her new spouse.
The fact that remarriages, when there are children involved, are actually less likely to work than first marriages can probably be significantly attributed to people tripping over these hurdles. Anticipating them and talking them through in advance makes clearing them that much easier.
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