Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

After divorce children still need both parents

Working out agreements with a former spouse regarding financial arrangements; health, education, moral development and visitation for the children can be a trying experience.

If it were easy to agree and communicate on these issues, chances are the couple would still be together.

Why go through this pain? Because the experts say that children need to feel love and have regular contact from both natural parents.

They do best when there is minimal post-separation discord between them.

THERE ARE CONFLICTING LOYALTIES as families tentatively develop new relationships. Children and parents alike will be suffering from losses and feeling hurt, anger, fear, jealousy and betrayal. Feelings of being left out or being torn apart are common. .

How about discipline? It is resisted, of course. Whose habits or traditions are followed? Who adjusts? Who doesn’t? How do step-siblings work out their relationships? How does one deal with the differences of values and lifestyle of the other family? Step-parenting has more than its share of chaos, confusion and craziness.

Parents are confronted with these situations calling for superhuman maturity at time of self-doubt, heightened emotions and vulnerability.

No wonder they come face to face with their own humanity. They lose control. They are not always rational. They make mistakes.

AS ONE WOMAN put it after getting involved in the stepparenting role, "I never had to confront as much in myself that I didn’t like.”

• One of the good things about successful coping with stepparenting is the tremendous personal growth that people have to go through just in order to survive.

A person is forced to look at himself or herself and examine deep feelings and attitudes. A stepparent is forced to learn forbearance and tolerance in great measures.

The new family is not a nuclear family.

It is a family linked to another family and to the history, traditions, experiences and expectations of each of its members.

There are many things to work out...the ways anger and affection are expressed, how privacy is handled, how holidays and birthdays are celebrated, and how discipline is handled.

It is all up for grabs and everyone has an emotional investment in the way it used to be.

NO MATTER HOW PAINFUL and inconvenient it may be, the unpleasant fact of life is that the former spouse is and will continue to be an important person in his or her children’s lives.

The amount of post-divorce conflict between parents will affect the children’s capacity to bond with a stepparent. They generally entertain fantasies about the parents reuniting. The remarriage is not welcomed. Bonding to the stepparent is felt as an act of disloyalty toward the natural parent.

The children are grieving the loss of the absent parent. In addition, the children may have feelings of being displaced or of being jealous of the intruder’s presence in the family. This is true for the new sibling relationships as well.

The children’s identity has been threatened. They need time to learn how to be themselves in this new environment and new constellation of relationships.

All the old familiar rules are gone and they no longer know how they fit in.

They offer resistance and hostility to the new regime. They manipulate for what they perceive to be in their best interests, which is generally "what feels good now.”

Both sets of parents will end up feeling betrayed by the self-serving behavior of children using the situation to their advantage. Loyalties will switch with little consideration of parental feelings.

The oldest child will feel displaced in the executive system of the family. Teenagers will be pushing for independence and separation at precisely the time when the parent and stepparent want to express love and experience family togetherness. 

Despite all these apparent negatives and rough beginnings, children eventually adapt quite well to the stepfamily environment. They accept reality and reposition themselves with the two new family configurations. -

The psychic wear and tear of stepparenting seems to be much harder on adults. 

It begins with a honeymoon in a fishbowl and ends sometimes four to seven years later when all the normal adjustments have been made.

Some parents want to make up for past traumas by having "instant love” and closeness. Stepfathers are anxious to prove themselves as fathers and stepmothers want to express their maternal feelings and love.

Both expect too much, too soon. Children need time for their emotions to settle.

If this isn’t complex enough, the issues of discipline and the development of a working relationship with the other parent offer challenges that are fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. These issues will be considered in a followup column.

What is the good news? Besides being thrust towards sainthood by the demands of stepparenting, husbands and wives find their marriages strengthened as they stand beside each other and love each other enough to work through all the problems. 

Stepparents who make it through the four- to seven-year trial will find loving relationships and special bonds with their stepchildren. This love is a special gift and a tribute to the tolerance and forbearance of parents and children who stuck with it and made a stepfamily work, It didn’t have to happen.