Friction between adult children and a new romantic partner can do a lot of damage. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t.
Why isn’t my child happy for me?
It’s a question often asked by parents who find love with a new partner in later life. Friction stemming from the couple’s adult children—his, hers, or both—has been a continuous thread in my years of research studying family and romantic relationships among older adults.
Most therapists say that when newly formed older couples come to them for help, it is usually because they are having trouble with their adult children on at least one side. And in the worst cases, hostile children can become a destructive force.
None of this is surprising. Parent-child relationships are primal, complex, and steeped in histories that long predate late-blooming romances. In the luckiest cases, the kids will instantly like and welcome a new partner. But many can feel ambivalent, suspicious, or even angry about a parent’s new partner.
What follows are seven guidelines that can help later-life couples, and their families, achieve the best possible outcome.
1. Dispel your children’s anxieties about losing an inheritance
Maybe you think what you plan to do with your money is none of your kids’ business. But you can bet they care. And you can remove one source of potential friction between your kids and your new love by documenting your intentions and letting everyone know.
Signing a prenuptial or postnup agreement can ensure that your children get your assets, says Tammy A. Weber, an elder-law lawyer at Marshall, Parker & Weber in Williamsport, Pa. Another option is creating an irrevocable trust with your children as trustees. Whatever you decide, have a meeting with your attorney, accountant, children, and new partner, where you lay it all out and address everyone’s concerns.
2. Limit your expectations about “blending”
Start with this premise: We’re all adults. The “kids,” whether 20 or 50, have had mothers and fathers. They now have their own lives. Your dream of being paternal or maternal to the stepchildren? It could happen, but it isn’t likely.
Are you sad because your children don’t see how great your new partner is? Maybe they will see with time. Maybe not. What matters is that you and your partner each see how wonderful the other is.
Go slow with your stepchildren. Be friendly, but make no assumptions. Eventually, a relationship might evolve. As one 79-year-old widow told me, “I didn’t expect his kids to love me or even like me. Later his daughter said, ‘You didn’t push, and I got to know you over time and get comfortable with you.’ ”
3. Whatever your children’s ages, listen to their feelings
A 60-year old man feels crushed when his 85-year-old dad skips Christmas dinner to take his girlfriend to Paris. Ridiculous? Not really. A son is a son forever. You are a parent forever. Do not take the attitude: You’re a grown-up; get over it.
Understand that bringing in a new love will change things for your children, and change often means loss. Encourage them to say what they feel, what they fear. If they speak of jealousy or feeling sidelined, try to empathize. Tell them you’ll spend time alone with them, then make it happen. And speak to them adult-to-adult about your need for love and companionship.
4. Talk through the conflicts that can arise from divided loyalties
You want to please both your mate and your child, but that’s often not possible. The conflict can be minor: being forced to choose between babysitting for your daughter or having an intimate dinner with your mate. Explain to each how you feel. Live with a little discomfort.
Bigger conflicts can blow up your relationships. Psychologist Patricia L. Papernow, author of “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships,” describes a typical dispute. A dad and his daughter are close; they visit each other’s houses and Dad has fun with the grandchildren. Then Dad falls in love and marries a woman he adores. His wife feels excluded by his tight bond with his daughter. She tells him, “You have to get your daughter to accept us: I don’t want you to go there without me.”
Everyone feels terrible. The daughter feels a stranger is taking her dad away. The wife feels hurt and left out. The dad feels ripped apart; he loves his wife and his daughter and grandchildren. Dr. Papernow says that she advises each to help the other understand how they feel. “I say ‘both/and,’ not ‘either/or,’” she says. “Dad needs to get how hard it is to be left out and to offer his wife care and support,” Dr. Papernow says. “But Dad also needs to say, ‘I can’t fix this by cutting off my daughter. I love you both.’ ”
With his daughter, Dad must empathize. Dr. Papernow suggests saying, “I know this is a big change for you and sharing is hard. I will make one-to-one time with you, but I love my wife, and you need to be at least polite to her when we’re together.”
5. When your child treats your mate badly, it is you who must address it
If your child ignores your requests to be civil to your mate, you can be pretty sure that that rudeness is rooted in your relationship with the child, says Ellen Berman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. (For instance: Does the child blame you for the divorce?) The answer is to talk things through with your child—either alone or with a therapist.
If you’re being mistreated by your partner’s children, Dr. Berman suggests first examining your own behavior. Were you being inappropriately parental, for example, by asking intrusive questions or giving unsolicited advice? It’s imperative to relate to grown stepchildren adult to adult. If nothing changes, limit your contact with this child. You don’t have to attend every family event.
6. Talk to your mate delicately about his or her parenting—if at all
Parent-child relationships are very hard to change. Even if your partner complains about her son, she loves him. Your criticizing him will hurt her. If you feel you must say something, speak gently about what he or she is doing. Avoid describing their behavior in pejorative terms. Don’t say “You’re enmeshed with your daughter,” or “You’re coddling your son.”
“Parents always want more love and understanding for their kids,” Dr. Papernow says. Try to hear each other, she says, but remember: “The stepparent has input; the parent has the final say.”
7. Look to your partner’s strengths to help with a struggling or estranged child
If you are estranged from a child or feel unable to help a child who is struggling, you might find in your partner both the compassion and emotional skills to help. Sue Kolod, a psychoanalyst in New York City, has counseled two men whose new wives helped them mend their relationships with their daughters. “In both cases, the new wife reached out and formed a relationship with a daughter,” Dr. Kolod says, “and helped repair the father-daughter relationship.”
New mates can bring a fresh perspective. I spoke with one woman who helped guide her addict stepson toward recovery and helped her distraught husband understand the process. Her experiences with her father’s alcoholism had given her the insight and patience to help both father and son through that long struggle.
If you follow these guidelines, family relationships may evolve into warm ties. If that’s not possible, at least you can reduce conflict to protect and cherish your later-life love.