Jack and Joan* called us one evening sounding frustrated in their remarriage…with one another. Interestingly enough, they shared, at the same time, they are doing fine and are very much in love. What? Frustration and love at the same time? They admitted that they are usually able to deal with the small stuff in their relationship, but this was big. So why the disconnect? “It’s “Those People” that are causing the problems”, Jack replied.
“Those People would be your kids?” I asked.
“Yes,” Joan said. “My teenage sons are siding with their dad and they don’t want to come over. I’m scared. My ex-husband twists things around and is involved with drugs,” (Joan’s voice trails off in agitation). “Jack is not helping as a step-father because he has such a different opinion of how to handle these situations with my kids. It’s starting to affect us! He just doesn’t understand what the boys are up against. And I am feeling trapped by my ex’s tactics. The boys’ dad is a master manipulator,” (Joan starts ramping up again with desperation in her voice).
In 34.7 seconds flat a familiar step-family dynamic has been expressed that is unique but common. You see divorce and remarriage don’t end the difficulties you faced in your first biological family; it multiplies, separates and usually brings up the emotions that created the break up in the first place. Now, it’s just worse! Your ex-spouse may still be in the picture but there is no motivation to bring unity or resolve. Kids suffer and adults are often confused as to how to bring peace, regardless if the child is 4 or 24 years of age.
There are new people in the picture now who were supposed to make things easier, better, or be the rescuer, but it just makes matters more complex. Those other people are your new family members who have no clue of the connections and emotional history with how you’ve always done “it!” The “it” would be the ins and outs of your family system of coping, discipline and interacting when conflicts need resolution. Now that you are remarried, this is new territory and the old way of doing things is broken! Jack and Joan are truly desperate and are uncertain where to turn.
Joan is torn between supporting and disciplining her boys and keeping peace with Jack. She wants him to understand that she feels like she is failing as a parent. She doesn’t want to be tormented by her ex-husband who knows how to push her buttons. Joan wants Jack to support her decisions with her sons or come up with some solutions to help. More importantly, Joan wants to feel she is protected by Jack in the middle of this storm.
Jack is frustrated with Joan’s boys. They do not show her any respect. The atmosphere in the house changes when they are over. His once peaceful home is now dominated by their attitude and disrespect. Jack wants to protect Joan but believes he doesn’t have a voice. Every time he makes a suggestion or comments it gets shot down. Jack feels like Joan is always putting her boys before him. Frustrated and ashamed, Jack doesn’t feel like the man of the house…in his own home.
For Jack and Joan, a sense of failure and shame is real. Failure because they are having a communication breakdown that feels so familiar. Out pops the phrase of “Oh no, not again! The problems I had in my first marriage (or prior relationship) is presenting itself all over again, yet this time, it’s worse!”
Here are three specific concepts to encourage Jack and Joan in this situation:
- Be married to your new spouse first!
- Couples need to “cut and cauterize” their relationships with their ex’s. Those connections you once had with your ex may have taken years to develop. Sharing life together physically, emotionally and spiritually is part of who you are now. When you are remarried, you need to be able to sever those connections with your ex. Here’s one way to do that: Quiet yourself before the Lord. Scoop up some water in both hands. Hold that water between your hands and think about all the good times and challenging times you have had with your ex. You may need to do this for each memory that you are reminded of. Pray over it, ask for forgiveness, cry, whatever you need to acknowledge it. Then slowly separate your fingers and let the waterfall. Let go…Let go of the negative memories and the emotion tied to it.
- The only relationship you have now with your ex should be all about the kids; like a business arrangement. Once you are able to separate yourself from your ex, and you don’t let them push your buttons, you get your heart back. Your new spouse wants all of your heart. Joan needs to put Jack before her ex.
- If you ain’t got the marriage you ain’t got nothing!
- Without a strong marriage, you will have a hard time. You will always be challenged by the kids, the ex’s, alimony, child support, schedules and life in general. Remarriage is far more complex than a first-time marriage. Joan and Jack need to be on the same team. Working through these situations will bring strength to the marriage. Even more important is the legacy you are building with your family now. Here’s a tough question: Do you want your kids to have the marriage you have today? If not, gather some resources and apply them to your relationship. It’s not just about the two of you anymore. “Those People” are watching.
- Listen to how to support your spouse with their kids.
- Here are two questions to ask each other: “How do you feel when I criticize your kids?” and “How do you feel when I compliment your kids?” When parents are heard and affirmed in their parenting, the marriage is stronger. The couple will experience a deeper level of trust and safety in their relationship. And when there are trust and safety, parenting insights can be shared easier. Jack may see some things in Joan’s boys that are truly a challenge, and Joan may not see that. But if Joan trusts Jack and understands that he just wants the best for the boys, she will be more open to hearing his thoughts.
- Joan’s boys may come around and be more respectful, loving and interactive. But they may not. Either way, Jack, and Joan need to put their marriage first. They need to support each other. When disagreements come up, because they will, they need to remind themselves that they are a team. And whatever decisions that need to be made, are for the benefit of the team. The attitude of “always forward” will develop a legacy for this new family that is strong, loving and Christ-centered.
- Jack and Joan’s marriage will flourish when they listen, work as a team and support one another emotionally. The best gift to give our children and our communities is a strong marriage.
*Names changed to protect privacy.