“Blood is thicker than a marriage certificate”. This fact was learned well before the Queen’s and my future marriage became present reality. Back when we lived in different homes, had individual bank accounts, and spent nearly half of each month not sharing our lives; she and I began to understand there would be limits when we did become ‘one flesh’.
Of the Four Horsemen that can lay waste to a second marriage, there is none deadlier perhaps than children. That may sound sacrilegious. Aren’t children always a blessing? But in the context of a second marriage they can just as often be a curse to marital bliss. The reasons for second marriages failing at generally higher rates than first aren’t described in such detail, but I’ve seen enough, and at this point experienced enough, to know that children within a blended family can, and likely do, divide re-newlyweds more often than financial disagreements or the stereotypical ‘growing apart’.
The reason for this is twofold. First, few couples prepare for how kids might affect their marriage, and fewer know where to begin if they wanted. Second, it’s nearly imperceptible to the shrewdest couples. When most finally sense the problem, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.
We first noticed something lurking in the shadows a year or so into our dating relationship. By this point we knew our relatively short romance had a long-term future. So we began taking some of the seemingly minor points in our relationship more seriously. Things that traditionally had been considered ‘none of our business’ – child behavior, discipline, financial matters – suddenly became part of our business. As we saw it, if we were going to be ‘all in’, we needed to shed light into every corner of our lives, and especially those making us most uncomfortable.
This danger revealed itself most often whenever we were all together – the Queen, myself, and our four children. Usually during holiday celebrations, cookouts, or situations when we were together for several hours or days at a time. As every kid is born to do, and whenever that many people under the age of 18 share airspace, something will eventually be said or done that’s off color. Someone talks back, another is overly rude and disrespectful, or maybe someone’s roughhousing goes too far.
What I started noticing was how our reactions differed depending on whose kid was the culprit. If one of her kids became overly sarcastic or impolite, I felt more miffed than if one of my children did the same. It became so acute; we typically noticed those behaviors in the other’s kids more readily than we would our own. I developed a near sixth sense for picking up anything her kids might do wrong, while remaining almost clueless to whatever my own kids might be doing.
Therein lies the essence of this problem and how children can kill a second marriage. As parents, we will unwittingly hold our partner’s children to a different, and naturally higher, standard than we do our own kids. We express less tolerance for their mistakes while giving justifications when our own make the same. I expected, and sometimes still do, her kids to be more appreciative, respectful, and polite than what I might demand from my children. In turn, I found myself unconsciously looking for the behavior I expected in her kids, which was routinely pointed out and typically overblown whenever found. All while downplaying what I may have discovered from my own children. Her daughter’s back talking was a signal of worse things to come; while my son’s smart mouth was typical childish behavior that he would soon outgrow.
This often has lead to frustration, on both the Queen and my parts, because we never responded in the way the other thought was appropriate. If her son ignored something she had asked of him, and she did nothing to answer his disrespect, I would bristle with irritation believing her disregard simply aggravated the problem. Then to make things more tenuous, should I take it upon myself to correct his behavior, it would regularly lead to resentment on the Queen’s part as if I had crossed an imaginary boundary.
The effect children can have on a second marriage has nothing ever to do with them; it has everything to do with the parents. Because regardless of how noble and ‘fair’ we think we are, every parent plays favorites with their own, biological, children. It simply can’t be helped; it’s how we are wired. In the short time the Queen and I have been husband and wife, I’ve witnessed this frequently. It can be as simple as the expectation for keeping the house clean We will more readily pick up things after our own kids but we’re ‘not your maid’ for the other’s children.
I’m convinced this issue is the main reason blending families is so decidedly difficult. Our most valiant efforts at becoming ‘we’ can never entirely overcome the reality that within every blended family there is an undeniable element of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The language used in this essay is a good example. No matter how hard I try otherwise, I can’t help but use the terms ‘my kids’ and ‘her children’. Parents thinking about marriage must be sensitive to this small distinction and it’s big dangers. It serves as a barrier for two families trying desperately to become one. It underscores a marriage of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Most sadly, if ignored it chips away at the relationship leaving cracks that lead to fissures. Death by a thousand cuts.
To slow this down – it can’t be prevented – we must begin by accepting that favoritism is simply part and parcel of being the parent. We’re all guilty. Then a couple contemplating a marriage that involves children must begin talking about this topic honestly and early in the relationship. First by admitting our individual shortcomings, then being mature enough to accept the other’s criticism of it when given. Third, we must anticipate this will happen in the marriage and devise a plan on how to respond when it does. If I assume something, I’m rarely surprised or disappointed when it occurs. So when it does – it isn’t a matter of ‘if’ – how will it be handle between the couple?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there must be agreement for how each will discipline the other’s kids. What are the guardrails? When does one parent have the green light to say something to the other parent’s biological children and what are the times they should they stand back and let that bio parent step in? Without this clear understanding, problems are absolutely destined to ensue. Unless each partner agrees to those ‘rules of engagement’ someone’s feelings will get hurt and the relationship will inevitably suffer because it will lead to resentment and anger in one or both spouses.
One of my favorite cartoons as a kid ended every episode with, ‘knowing is half the battle’, and I can’t think of a better first step to keeping this horseman from riding roughshod over any second marriage.
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