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Stepfamilies: The Pitfall of "Instant Love"

QUESTION: I have been divorced for a year and am planning on getting remarried within the next eight months. My children love their new father very much, but our problem is that we will have to move to another state with this marriage. The children want to move, but their natural father has said that he is going to fight this action. I am prepared to battle that out if necessary.

How can I best handle this situation with my son and daughter (12 and 9 years old) so that they survive this in the best possible manner? What can I tell them and how do I help them deal with their emotions? They love their real father and I would never take that away from them but this move can't be helped and the children would, at least for now, be better off in a family unit. I realize that my son will be ready to move back with his natural father in the coming years. I feel like I am stuck here. I know this is best for the children but this is a really hard move for all of us! How can I make this easier on them?

ANSWER: Whoa!! Slow down. On what grounds do you believe that this move is best for your children? Or that it "can't be helped"? Choosing motherhood commits you to looking at this situation more honestly. You cannot instantly give your children another father. This is your fantasy, but not a reality! Did you know that more than half of all remarriages end in divorce because of insufficient understanding of the significant conflicts involved in stepfamily formation??? Your short-sighted decision-making is not only self-centered, but self-destructive!

There is no such thing as "instant family". Though your children may get along well with your new boyfriend now, it is only a honeymoon phase. You are suggesting catapulting them into (at least) three major life transitions at once! You are likely to be deluding yourself if you believe that this kind of move following a divorce is in the best interests of your children in the first place. And you are on a certain path to blowing-up your new stepfamily, assuming you even have a legal leg to make this move!

If you and your ex have joint custody it is not likely that the court will see it your way. Barring significant abuse that would disqualify your children's father of his parental rights, it is usually the case that removing your children from a parent's locale and taking them away from their community is not perceived as "in their best interests". If you consider the changes involved, you will no doubt see the reason for this perspective.

Your children have just come through a major upheaval and loss of their family unit. Adjustment to this change alone usually requires about two years for stabilization to occur. Mourning the loss of the intact family and adjusting to separate relationships with each parent is a plateful! Requiring that they make a geographic move that will not only reduce contact with their father at a vulnerable and unstable time, but cut them off from the supportive relationships of friends and familiar surroundings, while simultaneously plunging them into a "new family" situation is courtship with disaster!

You are not looking at this situation realistically or from your children's perspective. You are clearly putting your own wishes first and creating a fantasy picture to match your desires. This is not only being blind to your own children's needs but to your long term happiness as well!

As a parent, you are a leader in the family. It is your job to consider the future impact of your decision to remarry and move to another state on your children. Research the impact of divorce on children and what their needs are for adjustment to this traumatic event in their lives. Then, research the development of a successful stepfamily. You have already had one failed marriage.

Take responsibility for educating yourself to the task at hand. Remember, you are choosing to remarry. Choice includes responsibility. Your children do not have this choice. It is your responsibility to create an environment that works for everyone. You owe it to your children and to yourself. Without looking before you leap, you could very easily end up creating another scenario of suffering, leaving your children with a legacy of pain and little model for successfully coping with partnership and marriage.

Children can recover from divorce and thrive and they can experience a "good divorce". But this takes effort and commitment to their needs. Your decision to divorce may also require sacrifice from you in order to help them regain their security. It is likely that you are grasping at remarriage as an instant answer to your own insecurity and pain at this time. Seek your own counseling about resolving rather than "running away" from this situation. It is likely that you are avoiding deep pain of your own, which is making it difficult to see clearly for your own children's future.

Your children have been through one divorce. Statistics predict that it is already more than likely that they will endure yet another family break-up. Educate yourself to the pitfalls in your plan and what makes a stepfamily work, before you jump from the frying pan into the fire, taking them with you!

There is no "instant love" between stepchildren and stepparents. Over half of remarriages fail, in part because of highly idealized visions of becoming "one big happy family." Television shows like the "Brady Bunch" only helped proliferate these destructive myths. The lack of education about stepfamily development is largely responsible for unresolved tensions and failures in remarriages.

The other reason remarriage can fail is because unsuccessful ways of coping with conflict continue in the new marriage. Inability to resolve conflict results in fractured relationships. Your willingness to believe that your children "love" this new husband- to- be as a "father" and they would be better off in a "family unit" suggests that you are not dealing with the mourning and readjustment necessary after divorce, but attempting to solve the problem by "running away" from it. This coping style does not bode well for your future relationship.

Reconsider your move! Slow things down a bit. You can maintain your relationship with your boyfriend without rushing marriage. Let him know that you are a "package deal" which means that he may have to bide time, consider relocation or relate from a distance until things have settled and your future with him is clear. As a future "stepparent" it is his job to consider your children's needs as well as his own. This is a part of the real picture!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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