This is the last post in this series with author and marriage and family therapist, Judy Osborne about her book, Wisdom for Separated Parents. The interviewees in the book have all been through divorce but unlike most of my guests, there’s been a significant passage of time since the end of their marriages. For some, it’s ten years while others it’s over thirty years. Inevitably, there are stories about introducing new partners and truly rearranging the family, which must surely be the hardest obstacle to navigate post-divorce. Here Judy talks about how adding a new partner can help build kinship with your ex:
Change is the constant, I think, in families and one of the big hurdles for most couples—families—parents—is adding a new partner. If it’s a fairly friendly relationship as co-parents and then one or both adds new partners, it does change for a while and it may change in not a good way. It’s never neutral to add a new partner to these parenting partnerships.
It can help—I’ve interviewed several people where ultimately they have these three or four parent connections around the children and that it’s quite easy. They share details of their lives in caretaking and welcome new babies into the picture.
Then there can be new partnerships in which the new partner, it’s usually a woman, doesn’t want any of that connection, that friendliness to go on, and can be quite divisive.
Whenever there’s a new partner, there has to be some time for that new partnership to solidify and it usually takes two years for new partners to feel predictable and trustworthy of each other.
You can’t predict it, nor is there a rule or a formula, but you can know stories, so it can guide you in choices. One of the stories in the book is about how a new partnership just canceled out the old parenting partnership. It was quite cordial, but there’s just no way that the parents can be in the same room without the new wife getting furious.
When these changes come about, you sometimes are pulled off your center for a while or a long while. With a former partner, it’s very easy to go right back to the pain and the hurt.
When your former partner announces that they’re going to have a new baby or get married, it pulls you so it would be nice to think you can anticipate some of these things. I think the best you can do is to try to understand what you need to be soothed while things change and who you go to for support. Hopefully it will be people who understand these kinds of family dynamics.
I remember how difficult it was for me to hear that my former partner had a cancer on his back and I immediately felt like I had to go take care of him and he’d been remarried for ten or twelve years at that point, but I just didn’t think there was anybody who could take care of him other than me. It’s hard when you hear that your former partner, even though you wanted a separation and divorce, it’s hard to hear that they’re moving on sometimes.
I do a lot of work with stepfamilies and I think the younger the child, the easier that is for a couple of reasons. With anybody under five, there’s very little memory of the original family to feel a loss of. That aged kid is usually pretty open to adult attention, wherever it’s coming from, because adults are usually seen as somebody to read to them or go to the park, useful. And adults in fact, know more about what to do with little kids than they do with older kids.
The bracket between six and twelve is the most problematic for these new step-family relationships because the kids have a memory and a loss of one parent in one way or another through divorce or death or desertion and they may not be as willing. If there’s been a lot of trouble in the marriage before divorce, for example alcoholism or abuse, then that aged kid may welcome a stepparent who’s predictable and calm, but for the most part that’s the age where there’s a lot of tension. And the new stepparent may rush in too quickly to be too close to these kids and not recognize that they kids are really dealing with their parents’ separation, they’re not dealing one way or another primarily with this new person in their life.
Then the teenagers don’t want any parents at all of course, so it’s very hard for them sometimes to accept a new stepparent. Also teenagers can’t escape the fact that their parents are sexual and I don’t think any of us want to know that our parents are sexual.
The older kids have the hardest time because they may not be able to have the daily-ness of living with this new parent and seeing how the relationship works and how it might be helpful to their parent. There are always questions of inheritance and the new stepparent may be closer in age to the adult child, it’s very complicated but it’s usually easier for everybody if the kids are younger because they can build this history together, this new kind of family.
The Divorce Coach Says
This is a bridge I’ve yet to cross since I haven’t dated, and at least according to my kids nor has my ex. My son did tell me he’d like me to wait until he’s gone to college (three years) since the thought of his mom with a boyfriend is just “too weird.” I’m not planning on waiting that long but it’s a warning to tread carefully. I think this is what Judy was talking about with teenage kids.
One of my guests, Bucksome experienced a change in her ex’s attitude toward child support when he had a new partner who had children and was receiving child support. He gained a better understanding that his payment wasn’t making Bucksome rich. At the time I interviewed Bucksome, she’d been divorced for eighteen years and I found it interesting to hear her talk about how her relationship with her ex had changed over the years. It was her talking about her son’s college graduation that got me thinking about how my ex and I should jointly celebrate my daughter’s high school graduation. If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to read her story.
Another of my guests, T is currently navigating accepting her ex’s new partner into their parenting partnership. She talks about some of the changes the new partner has made already made to her and her ex’s relationship. She’s planning on calling for a sit down meeting with her ex which seems like a great way to be proactive about managing this shift. You can read T’s story beginning here with her realization that divorce isn’t a failure.