Dear Dr. Chani,
I am hoping that you can help me deal with some issues I am having in my second marriage. Before I explain what I am concerned about, I think it will help if I share the background of my first marriage.
I suffered the tragic loss of my first husband when I was in my late thirties. We did not have a perfect marriage. We fought a lot, but we shared the responsibilities of taking care of our three children. When my husband died, I devoted all of my mental and physical energies to taking care of my children. I did not even think about remarrying for the first five years. Eventually, my friends and family encouraged me to start dating so that I would have a partner in life. It took me three years of dating until I finally found my second husband, Ari.
Ari was previously divorced and he has two older married children who live out-of-town. He rarely sees them except on long vacations or holidays. I thought that Ari would be the perfect person for me because he would not be distracted by his own children. He has a kind and warm personality so I thought he would make a great father.
Unfortunately, after one year of our marriage, I realized that Ari and I were looking for different things in our second marriage. I was looking for a partner and co-parent. He prefers to spend time just as a couple and go on vacations together. While it is relaxing and a relief to have fun alone with Ari, I always feel guilty leaving my children. It seems like I am abandoning them.
My children have a strained relationship with Ari. They avoid talking to him and get really moody whenever he is home. I have tried to create one big happy family but it is not working. Even though Ari is a nice guy, he is not genuinely interested in getting to know my children. I guess they feel it.
What can I do at this point? I would love to have the best of both worlds – be a great mother to my children and have a happy marriage. Is this too much to expect? What can I do to bring the people I love closer together?
Thanks so much,
[In Part 1, we analyzed Gali’s feelings of guilt and her former habits. We discussed how both of them might be contributing to some of the difficulties she is experiencing. We also talked about how she can deal with them.]
You are wondering how to create “one big happy family.” You would love nothing more than for your children to embrace Ari as their father.
The first ingredient for success is to continuously explore the perspective of your children. It is difficult for them to fully accept Ari right now. They are probably still mourning the loss of their father. No one can replace their father. Even if Ari is the most exceptional stepfather, it can be difficult for your children to fully accept him because by doing so they may feel they are dishonoring their father. Also, until one year ago, all they knew was their life with both of their parents followed by their life with you as their single mother. It can be difficult for them to adapt to an outsider who can never really share their collective memories of their original family unit.
Remember that your feelings towards Ari stem from a different experience than your children had. You had an adjustment period. You waited until you were ready to get remarried, you got to know Ari while you were dating, and you chose to marry him. On the other hand, your children did not make a choice. While you are expecting them to go along with your decision and to accept Ari, it is understandable if it takes time for them to warm up to him.
This past year the people in your family experienced a huge change. Although a year might seem like a long time, it takes a lot of time to develop a comfortable dynamic with your new family. Although you would like Ari and your children to be closer to one another, it may be that the way Ari and your children are behaving is “good enough.”
Sometimes, when you try too hard to make people feel closer to each other too soon, it creates tension and resentment that has the opposite effect. Try to give Ari and your children breathing room to just be themselves and respect their feelings. Allow them to get used to each other and create a natural relationship over time, at their own pace.
It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the ways you can help your children transition to their new reality and accept Ari as part of their family is for you yourself to share time alone with them. Even though you are married, you can take them out to eat or go on trips alone with them so they feel the nostalgia of being together with their original family. Your time alone with them is an opportunity for you to focus completely on them. They can feel relaxed and comfortable in the presence of their original family members who know them best.
It is also important to speak to each one of your children individually about his or her experiences. Give each child the opportunity to express his or her feelings and validate them. These times together will help them feel you share their pain over the loss of their father, you care deeply about them, and you have not moved on in life without them. As you talk, keep in mind that your sole goal is to listen to each child and understand his feelings, not to change them. Listen intently and make sure that they each feel understood.
At the same time, it is important for your children to spend quality time with you and Ari as one family. There are real benefits of having your children see you developing a healthy marriage with Ari. When you are together with Ari and your children, allow your children to see how you love, respect, and care for one another. Allow your children to experience and understand why you chose to marry Ari. Keep in mind that when they see the way you respect and care for one another, it is a stabilizing force in their lives and will prepare them to create their own healthy marriages.
It takes wisdom, patience, and faith to navigate the balance of being a great mother to your children and a wonderful wife to Ari. Strengthening your own relationships with your children and with Ari, while allowing them time and space to develop positive feelings for each other naturally, will go a long way to creating the happy family you desire.
Wishing you much success,