wise love words: 10 steps to a happy, healthy remarriage

Below is a reprint of an article describing 10 steps to a happy, healthy remarriage. The author of this article, Wednesday Martin Ph.D., is also the author of the acclaimed novel Stepmonster: A new look at why real stepmothers think, feel, and act the way we do. She was also a regular contributor to the New York Post's parenting page for several years, and her work has appeared in a number of national magazines. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature from Yale and taught cultural studies and literature at Yale, the New School, and Baruch College. Martin, a stepmother for nine years, lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons.

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Ten Steps to a Happy, Healthy Remarriage
By Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.,
Author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers

Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

Don't call them deadbeats. Research shows that today's fathers are spending more time with their kids than ever -- an average of nearly three and a half hours a day more than Dads did just a few decades ago. Kids and fathers alike are reaping the benefits of dad's greater commitment; more time spent together, experts say, sows the seeds of closeness. But the flipside of this trend is that it makes divorce more painful for fathers than ever before. As one man I interviewed said, "There are no words to describe the pain of not being able to tuck my kids in every night."

His dilemma is not uncommon. While dads are increasingly parenting on the front lines, custody is still more or less automatically awarded to mom. "Even when custody is technically joint, dad may get far less time with the kids," says Texas divorce lawyer Stuart Gagnon. And so they want the time they do get together to be perfect. "I don't harp on my daughter to pick up her towel since she's only here for a couple of days," one dad told me. Another said proudly, "My kids come whenever they want, and when they do, it's all about them."

It might sound good in theory (particularly if you're the kid of such a "Disney Dad"), but it can spell trouble when there's a serious romantic relationship on the horizon or in the works. For all the benefits that increased involvement confers, Uber-dads have a harder time than their fathers did when it comes to balancing their own needs and their children's. Over and over, women and men I interviewed as I researched my book Stepmonster told me of guys who felt confused, even guilty, about repartnering. "He and his kids won't let me in," women say. "I feel torn between my partner and my children," the men confide.

Here, then, are some guidelines for divorced dads who repartner while wondering, "Can I pull this off?" The short answer: Yes! You deserve to move forward not just as a parent but as a person. Here's how:

  1. Let go of the guilt. You're allowed to have a relationship. And it will not harm your kids. In fact, seeing dad in a healthy, happy relationship can be a powerful life lesson for the kids, reaffirming their shaky sense that lifetime partnership can work.
  2. Let go of the fear. Divorced dads are often afraid their ex-wives and their children will "punish" them for remarrying or repartnering. "It's a common anxiety, but have faith in yourself as a parent," advises therapist Martin Babits, L.C.S.W. "Yes, your ex wife might get angry and say some nasty things to the kids, like 'Daddy doesn't care about you anymore.'" Hard as it is, trust in your bond with your child while making it clear that he or she can talk to you about anything. "That way, if they have any doubts or fears, you can clear them up yourself," says Babits.
  3. Accept that it usually isn't easy. Kids and dads can become incredibly close post-divorce. That may mean more resistance to a serious girlfriend, no matter how nice she is: "Hey, she's hogging my dad!" If you expect that it's normal for your kids to be ticked about the change, you'll be less likely to blame yourself -- or your partner -- when you encounter such predictable (but trying) bumps.
  4. Ask yourself the tough questions about your parenting. Do you parent from guilt and fear? Are you permissive? Have you created a child-centric household? Might your kids even believe they have veto power over your choice of a partner.? All this sets her up to be the heavy, their opponent rather than their friend. Research shows that kids do best with authoritative parenting -- high levels of warmth and high levels of control. Shoot for that to give your kids and your partnership a leg up.
  5. While you're at it, get real about your kids. Know that if your situation is typical, they won't necessarily act in ways that make it easy for your partner to spend time with them at first. Indeed, it's only normal for your partner to become exasperated at how the kids treat her. Understanding that you kids aren't perfect during this transition will spare your partner the common snag of being the meanie who points out their flaws to you.
  6. Invite your partner to the center of the family -- pronto. One interviewee told me that, as soon as he knew he wanted to marry his girlfriend, he had to tell his teen daughter, "I love you but I also love Holly, and I won't let you be nasty to her any more." This spared everyone months of agonized fighting about whose place was where, and whose role was what.
  7. Give a "jealous" or resentful partner the benefit of the doubt. Stepfamily expert Elizabeth Church notes that stepmothers and stepmom figures often feel excluded and shut out -- because they are. Jealousy on her part is likely a sign not that she is a stepwitch, but that you have not yet invited her to take her rightful place with you at the head of the table, literally and metaphorically.
  8. Start from the ground up together. It's important to avoid what I call Barnacle Syndrome. Many well-meaning divorced dads just want to stick a partner onto their lives as they already are, without altering a thing about their own routines, family rituals, and habits. Sure, you have kids. But that doesn't mean you don't move into her place, get a new place together, or at the very least redecorate your place as a team. Acknowledge that things must change when you partner.
  9. Take time away from your kids. It's as important as the time you spend with them. You're taking the pressure off them, and teaching them that partners take care of one another, every time you do.
  10. Lose the unrealistic notion of "two firsts." Remarriages with children are tremendously vulnerable and need extra tending. The sooner you tell your kids of any age, "I love you, but Susie is here to stay and I love her too, so you can't be rude to her," the better. Nothing is more confusing to kids or more demeaning to a partner than a relationship that revolves around your children.
© 2009 Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

For more information please visit www.WednesdayMartin.com.

1 comment:

Kt said...

Wow - I can't say I agree with this. I think this may be accurate when the kids are young, but in my opinion, kids do come first, especially when they themselves are going through a whole world of change. I think this set of rules really depends on how things ended with mom and dad, and how soon after things ended, dad or mom started the new relationship.

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