Today many couples get married for the second time after a divorce or the death of their spouse. It is usually an exciting time for them as they feel blessed to have a second chance at love. They feel as though everyone should be happy for them and embrace the new person in their life.

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, and others in the family may not be ready to accept the new spouse. Adult stepchildren are sometimes very open to their parent’s remarriage, but in other cases, there are hard feelings that result in conflict. I am thankful that my children, both in their 20’s, have accepted my new husband completely and they have a good relationship with him. I attribute this to the fact that they love me and they want me to be happy. They can see how kind and respectful he is and they appreciate him. I’m grateful that they have never been disrespectful, suspicious or unkind to him.

Here are a few things that need to be kept in mind if you are entering a relationship with a person who has grown children:

No step-family situation is going to be easy, no matter the age of the step-children. The fact that they are grown adults doesn’t imply that they will be able to assimilate this new person in their parent’s life easily.

Don’t take the step-children’s reactions personally. They may still be dealing with their own loss and grief, or the feelings that are associated with their parent’s divorce. There may still be a lot of anger about their parent’s divorce or the loss of a parent to death. There may also be anger that their parent seems to be “moving on” too easily. The pain that their parent suffered upon losing his life partner may be forgotten when they see him with someone new.

Sometimes step-children assume that the new spouse is “this” or “that” without really getting to know them. Often the “evil step-mother” label is clearly at play no matter who the person. Assumptions may be made about the new spouse’s motivation or intentions, often related to finances. In the case of a divorce, kids may assume that the new spouse had something to do with the divorce through infidelity.

Often the negative feelings and actions of stepchildren toward the new spouse are the result of anxiety and fear. Adult children tend to feel protective of their parents, especially after the loss of their other parent or their parent’s divorce. They may fear that the new spouse will hurt their parent, or “take them for all their worth”. They may also fear that their parent will forget about them as he moves ahead with his new life or that the new spouse will distance their parent from them. All of these fears are legitimate although most often not based on reality.

Any good relationship takes time, especially when there are obstacles to overcome and healing that needs to take place.

For those who are entering in to a relationship with someone who has grown children, I suggest:

  • Don’t expect it to be easy or pretty in the beginning.
  • Read all you can on the topic of adult step-children!
  • Realize that most of the difficulty has nothing to do with you.
  • Be yourself and don’t try to be what you think they want you to be or what you “should” be.
  • Don’t defend yourself and bite your tongue when you feel like lashing out.
  • Realize that your spouse is caught in the middle-he loves you and he loves his children.
  • Encourage your spouse to communicate regularly with his children and give him time alone with them- they need him to be “Dad” (or Mom) even though they are grown.
  • Send letters, emails, cards, and gifts regularly and don’t expect a reply. If you expect reciprocation you may be disappointed which will only make you feel more hurt.
  • Realize that you’ve done all you can and you have no control over how they will receive your gestures of friendship nor how they will respond.
  • Set boundaries when necessary if you feel that your goodness is being abused.

In time hopefully the anger will heal, assumptions will fall away and anxieties will be laid to rest and the outcome will be a respectful relationship with your stepchildren.

No matter how good our intentions or how pure our motives though, we only have control of our attitudes and actions, and the outcome is not always what we hope for. There are times when it is necessary to give it some time and space, and let go.

Deborah Pinkston, Ph.D.