I’m about to get engaged to Joel. We are both widowed. I’ve been alone for over six years, and Joel’s wife died close to two years ago. Joel is a wonderful man, so kind and good-natured, and we have a lot in common. We’ve both been through a lot and we can both commiserate over our pasts. Things are good between us.
The problem is with his children. He has four children in their thirties and forties, all married. Over the past few months, Joel has tried to introduce me to them and has tried to create some kind of connection between us. I met his daughter about two months ago. The three of us went out to dinner. It was a little uncomfortable, but I could deal with it. His other daughter refuses to even meet me. I have met his two sons, and they were downright rude and disrespectful to me. I was horrified! My own two children are very happy for me and excited that I met such a nice man. When they met Joel, they were both very respectful and lovely.
I’m shocked over this whole situation. His children are grown with families of their own. I don’t understand how they can get in the way of their father having a happy life of his own. I can’t even imagine what is going through their minds when they are trying with all their might to get in the way of our “happily ever after.”
I’ve told Joel that I love him and want to marry him, but that I’m very concerned that his children will rock the boat and create a situation wherein our happiness will be affected. I’ve asked Joel to speak to his children about their behavior. It seems to me that Joel is trying to please everyone right now and is pleasing no one! From what I can tell, he seems to be almost afraid of his children. He doesn’t want to confront them or upset them. I’ve heard through some mutual friends that his sons are talking about me and saying all sorts of terrible things about me. I asked Joel to talk to them about it, but, honestly, I don’t think he let them know what a terrible thing they were doing to me and, frankly, to their father as well.
You don’t know me, but I’m such a nice person! All I want is to get along with everyone and be happy and make everyone else happy. I know that if I marry Joel like this, my life will get very complicated and be far from happy. I know that Joel is one of a kind and I’m not likely to meet anyone like him anytime soon. So I realize that walking away from him probably is something I would regret horribly going forward. During the time I was dating, before I met Joel, I didn’t meet one man who could hold a candle to him. But I’m seeing the writing on the wall and getting nervous.
Most probably, Joel will officially propose soon, and even with all my complaining about this, I’m sure I’ll say yes. So what advice can you give me that will help me create the best environment possible, and if nothing changes with his children, do you have any tips for surviving mean-spirited stepchildren?
Scared Future Stepmother
Dear Scared Future Stepmother,
Unfortunately, the situation you describe is not as unusual as you might think. Second marriages that involve divorced parents are experienced very differently by their children — whether the children are 4 years old or 40 — than the way in which children of widowed parents react to their remaining parent’s remarriage.
When there is an untimely loss of a parent, most children carry around the trauma of their loss for many years thereafter. It creates a hole in their hearts that cannot be filled by anyone else. Logical or not, when their remaining parent decides to remarry, it can feel as though someone is trying to take the place of their lost parent. No one can take the place of a lost loved one. That doesn’t mean that a stepmother or stepfather can’t be wonderful in many ways, and even exceptional, but they will never actually be the birth parent, no matter how hard they try.
And maybe that’s the key. You’ve asked me for tips for if and when you join this apparently unwelcoming family. To begin with, be clear about your role. Though Joel’s children are old enough to not need mothering, per se, make sure that you never even slightly assume that role, unless invited to do so. You will be their father’s wife, but not their mother. If they come visit, treat them respectfully, as you might treat any guest. But keep your expectations low in terms of hoping to grow close to any of them. It may happen over time, but prepare for less and be pleasantly surprised if you receive more.
I don’t know if you’ve thought about where you will be living, but I’ve noticed that it can be a big mistake to remain in the home in which the children grew up. You don’t want to be sleeping in the same bed their mother slept in, cooking in the same oven their mother cooked in … There are too many painful memories associated with that space, so, if possible, it’s best to start fresh in a new home that you and Joel find together.
Regarding Joel’s desire to please everyone, we both know that this strategy never works out too well. No doubt Joel will continue to be soft on his children, probably because after losing his wife, he fears giving his children any reason to be angry at him, anxious that on some level he may risk losing them as well. So, like many individuals in his shoes, he will bend over backwards to please them. Expect that he will cave in to them in ways that may feel unfair to you.
You must discuss your bottom line with Joel — in no uncertain terms, before the ring gets slipped onto your finger. For example, allowing his children to treat you disrespectfully will never be OK under any circumstances. If his children speak to you in such a fashion, you will expect Joel to call them out on it. Also, I don’t know if you’ve given much thought to how your children fit into the mix. It sounds as though they are happy for you and will not stir the pot in any negative way. But what happens if Joel decides he wants to spend every Shabbos with one of his children rather than yours? Or holidays, vacations, Sundays? What will these times look like? Again, before any “I do’s” take place, you need to preempt potential tensions that could arise by working together now to formulate a game plan that works for both of you.
Marriage is not easy. Second marriages are that much more “not easy.” Second marriages that involve a widowed individual has the potential to ramp up the discord that much higher. But if you go into the marriage with realistic expectations, agree on basic civility that will be non-negotiable, plan in advance how you will be handling important moments in terms of each of your children, you should be able to make a go at it. It won’t be perfect; nothing is. But hopefully it will be good enough. Joel sounds like a keeper. We don’t throw away keepers so fast!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.