On paper, we did nearly everything right. We knew each other almost four months before meeting and introducing the kids. Dated for three years, were engaged for another two, and never once considered living together during that time. She and I played our roles perfectly, acting the parent when we needed to be parents, and lovers when we were to be lovers. We solved the ubiquitous vacation conundrum by myself and the boys sleeping in one room, while the Queen and the girls slept in another. We gave our children a two-year ‘heads’ up’ that their parents would remarry. Our kids felt like step brothers and sisters long before they technically were so.
By every conceivable measure, our ‘I do’ should have been a natural next step without surprise or drama.
It did not turn out that way.
We have met countless remarried couples with their own ‘I do’ stories. It goes something like this:
‘The kids got along great with my girlfriend when we were dating, they would hang out, go shopping together, even ask her for advice. They got along so well we thought marriage would be easy. But after we said ‘I Do’ everything changed! Now they do not look at her and rarely acknowledge her existence. It was like someone hit rewind and we are back where we started.’
Our problems started at the wedding. Our youngest, my biological son, eleven at the time, was glued from the moment we landed at our marriage/honeymoon week on the beach. We had invited our closest family to a resort in the Caribbean, and there was plenty to do for the ficklest of kids, but it seemed that every waking moment he was hanging on me like a baby Koala does its mother. The beach, pool, and regularly knocking on the door of our room just to be nosey. While I liked the attention as a father. As a husband, I could not help noticing how the Queen was irritated-and rightfully so.
But after returning home, his focus shifted. It was no longer me he wanted, now it was the Queen he tried to avoid. He would avoid her whenever possible. When escape was impossible, he ignored her and would not speak directly to her. The Queen was dumbfounded and hurt. What had she done to deserve this? What had she said? Things continued this way for the better part of a year. I would try to talk with him, looking to understand what was going on that sandy blonde head. The response was always the same, ‘Nothing!’ It made family life uncomfortable and caused friction in our new marriage.
Thankfully things did change, but not without work on the Queen’s and my part. As I look back, two things occurred that became the turning point. First, he got older. As he turned thirteen and matured, his attitude towards the Queen started to change. He realized that she was not a threat to him or his relationship with me. Second, we, and especially the Queen, no longer allowed his standoffish, and disrespectful, behavior to affect us.
Our outlook changed as I was researching blending family life. The limited info out there seemed unanimous on one point we never knew but was experiencing every day.
A marriage can act as a reset button for a child.
It seems that a parent’s wedding can trigger old and new fears in many children. It does not matter how much trust or closeness was there between the child and future stepparent before that marriage. For some children, that ‘I do’ represents the death of a secret dream – that their biological mom/dad will reconcile. Furthermore, a marriage will leave most children wondering what the impact will be on them and the relationship with their biological parent. ‘Will I still be loved and will we do things we once did?’
This became very apparent for us because it was only after our marriage that we started sleeping in the same room and really acting as husband and wife. Our son had never seen much of that side of our relationship before, and it spooked him. (It should be pointed out that it does not have to be a marriage that can cause this, those couples who choose to live together, playing like they are married, can have similar experiences. All the child knows is that things have changed for them.)
Understanding all this came as a great relief, because in the vacuum of that knowledge was the fear we are doing something wrong and that things would continue like this indefinitely.
A child’s response will vary mostly due to age. Very young children may think all the change is exciting. Tweens may become withdrawn or depressed. Teenagers might act out and turn rude. Older teens may seem indifferent. (Most of them will be unable to articulate why they feel as they do.) We also realized that no amount of preparation can entirely prevent this from happening. It is a natural stage in the evolution of a blending family. So even when children have been prepared and perhaps seem happy about the marriage; when it happens an imaginary button within the child may still be pressed and the parents start feeling like they are back at square one. The best a parent can do, and what the Queen and I initially failed at, is to show understanding and patience during the transition.
Most couples entering into a second marriage have unreasonable expectations about how things will go, from the hope that a wedding will make their relationship problems go away, to the children will be as happy about the marriage as they are. Smart couples understand that their marriage will have some negative influence on their children no matter how happy a child seems in the moment.
Understanding that a child will likely be unhappy about all this change should help in resetting parents’ expectations for what things ‘should’ look like after marriage. There is less shell shock when we expect the grenade. Proper expectations also help soften the parents’ reaction should children become rude, withdrawn, indifferent, or act in ways we do not agree. The biological parent must reassure a child that while things have changed, their love and commitment has not. It is also recommended in the early stages of a marriage, the biological parent spends more time with their child(ren), as a way to reinforce the child’s priority in the parent’s life. It is also encouraged for the bio-parent and children to hold onto certain traditions they had before marriage, cutting those off immediately after might underscore the child’s fears.
It will soon be four years since that week at the beach. We have come through much since. We now have two in college and two in high school. Our bond as a family continues to grow, but we are still on the journey with a long way yet to go. Though we are encouraged that we have passed over the roughest waters and are hopeful to now be sailing on the smoother seas of blending family life.