Q: I was married 20 years ago to a man with children from a previous marriage. The children were 15 and 23 when we married. The children struggled with their parents’ divorce, loyalty conflict and accepting their parents’ new partners. The children (on behalf of their mother) rejected me as their father’s partner. We struggled to work through the challenges for 22 years; we’ve been separated the last three years.
Can you offer any advice on how parents can support new partners while their children struggle with chronic loyalty conflict? My husband expressed that the constant conflict made him feel put in the middle. He now feels he has done the noble thing by leaving our marriage and “putting his kids first.” We did not meet because of an affair. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: It is true that Ex-etiquette rule No. 1 is “Put the children first,” but these kids are well into adulthood. That rule must be put into perspective, however, based on what you have told me. I think many can relate, so let’s talk about the things that have to be put into place in order to successfully combine families.
Successfully combining families includes acknowledging the past, present and future. And it sees each family member as an individual who contributes to the combining. It does not blend everyone into a mishmash and call it family, but sees all new family members’ histories as what made them unique.
Success is based on respect. It doesn’t demand loyalty to the past. It acknowledges the past and sees the possibilities in love and camaraderie as the basis for the future. It does not force children to choose between past and present.
This can only happen if the divorced parents weigh in. They must want their children to flourish after their breakup — and they do that by putting the kids before themselves. If these kids were not properly prepared for the divorce and remarriage, and their father or mother never supported it — because of guilt, because of jealousy or because they just weren’t done with each other — how could their children move on to happy productive lives? And, to acknowledge your predicament, how could they ever accept someone else?
Dad probably was in the middle, but he put himself there. He chose to get a divorce from his children’s mother. The parents did not have a clear idea of what they wanted for their life after their breakup. As a result, neither did their children. Therefore, you were never quite right — even after 22 years.
There has to be a positive vision — a goal to work toward to successfully combine families. Without one, family members stay stuck — and kids have no positive role model for future relationships. Combining families is inclusive, not exclusive.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation” and the founder of bonusfamilies.com.