Dear Dr. Dan: Last May, my divorced son married a divorced woman with two children, a boy of 17 and a girl of 11. Her children join his three boys, ages 12, 8 and 6. He and his new wife are very well-suited, and we feel they will have a good life together. However, as you may have guessed, all is not without unpleasant happenings.
Our grandsons have never accepted our son’s divorce and are very attached to their mother. Even after all this time, the 8-year-old asked his father recently if he still loved his mom. Our present daughter-in-law has tried to have them accept her. She makes wonderful meals for them and is very caring and loving with them. However, with all that she does, they practically ignore her. They have been to a counselor who recently stated, “The tide should have begun to turn a while ago.” All this is beginning to affect the new wife’s health, both physically and mentally. I fear it will damage their marriage.
“Jean,” the first wife, really should have counseling, as she is very bitter about the divorce and has never taken time to get on with her own life. Our son also feels that she might be saying things in front of the boys to make them turn against him and his wife.
You will no doubt advise me to think of the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous, but I wonder if my husband and I can do something more than accepting things that cannot be changed. I thought of writing a letter to our oldest grandson about being kinder to his dad’s new wife, but that might hurt his own mother. Perhaps talking to the boys would be more helpful, but we live in a retirement home far away, so we don’t see them as much as we used to. Can you suggest anything that we can do?
Dear Rose: The counselor who said the tide should have turned was wrong.
At the very least, everyone in the system is the product of divorce and has feelings of loss, betrayal, anger or insecurity. Add to that the children’s complicated loyalty issues, normal developmental issues, the parents’ and children’s personalities, and we have a pretty complex system that is going to take more than just a few months to work smoothly.
Also, when your son remarried, he chose this woman. His children did not. Nor did they choose their new siblings. And they certainly didn’t choose to be divorced in the first place.
These children have had their lives turned upside down and have not had a vote. They probably need what all children need: consistency, predictability, safety and love.
Your son’s new wife should be playing a passive role in the boys’ lives (as should your son with his new stepchildren). Initially, it has proven easier for the children if the stepparents become more like aunts and uncles, friends and consultants, rather than parent figures. The biological parent should always maintain responsibility and authority. So let’s free your son’s wife to just be a friend and begin the process of learning to love them.
On your concerns about your son’s ex-wife, my advice is to continue to look toward what is best for the children right now. To ensure their mental health, the children need a good relationship with both their biological parents. Don’t focus on what she has done wrong or the work she still needs to do.
The critical factor is whether they have a mother who loves them and is available for them. One who they can trust will care for them. So, right now the whole family should try to be grateful that your grandchildren have a safe home with a loving mother.
Your son and his first wife are clearly still angry at each other. Those of us who have been divorced know that in the early stages all we can feel is anger at our ex. We can find creative ways of blaming them for almost all of our problems. But divorced parents have to love their children more than they hate their ex. Your son and his first wife should respect, honor and thank one another for devoting time, energy and their lives to caring for their children. That would be the greatest gift they could give their children (and themselves). Remember, wherever the boys are exposed to gratitude, love and serenity is where they will feel safe.
One of the most painful aspects of divorce for children is the feeling that they have lost their parents. When both parents argue with each other, the children feel even more alone and alienated.
When my wife left, I asked my 16-year-old daughter how she was doing. She immediately began to cry as she said: “Before Mom left, I was happy with my life and looked forward to the future. Now I don’t like my life and the future looks awful.” As she sobbed quietly, my mind went in a thousand different directions as I thought of the things I could say in an effort to make her feel better. But instead, I said nothing.
As I listened to my precious child cry, I realized how sad, helpless and guilty I felt. So I held her hand and we cried together. It didn’t fix the divorce, it didn’t fix her pain. But it did help us feel less estranged and alienated from each other.
And your job? Well, you are right. You have little influence here. Be available for your family, listen to their pain, and understand that if they behave in a kind and compassionate way toward one another, the wounds will heal more quickly.