If you are thinking about remarriage, do you owe your children a vote?
That's what Janet and Jack, single parents in their forties, wanted to know. After six months of dating, they got engaged. It drew a mixed reaction from their kids.
Jack's two sons, 17 and 21, high school and college seniors, were pleased. Janet's two sons, 13 and 15 and in 8th and 10th grades, felt betrayed. They ran to their room, called their father and asked if they could move in.
Janet wondered if she had handled the situation poorly. Were the children entitled to speak their minds about Jack before the engagement was a fait accompli?
The names of this couple have been changed to protect their anonymity and their story generalized. If they sound like people you know, it's because their situation is not unique.
According to Barbara Wilson of the National Center for Health Statistics, based in Hyattsville, Md., 43.6 percent of the marriages that took place in 1979 (the most recent figure available) were remarriages for one or both partners. Most involved one or more children.
Two mental-health professionals -- who devote a good deal of their practice to family problems -- say questions related to remarriage and its effect on children are being asked more frequently.
It isn't easy to generalize answers, say Dr. Carl Feinstein, director of outpatient psychiatry services at Children's Hospital National Medical Center and associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School, and Arthur Bodin, clinical psychologist and research associate at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto, Calif. The circumstances of remarriage and bonds of closeness vary by family, but there are ways to get communication started with children.
Are children entitled to a vote?
There's no point, says Feinstein. "The parents didn't ask the youngsters permission to get a divorce. They don't need to ask permission to remarry. It would not be good for children to feel they have such power in a parent's relationship. That would just breed fantasy."
"Children are less experienced human beings," says Bodin. "It is perfectly okay for a parent to exercise the authority to which he or she is entitled in the hierarchical structure of the family."
How early in the dating relationship should the possibility of remarriage be mentioned to the youngsters?
Not until both adults view marriage to each other as a probable goal, says Bodin, but certainly long before an engagement announcement. "If the children like the individual, it could build false hopes. If they don't take to the individual, it could cause unnecessary fears and worries."
The best time and place to discuss remarriage?
Any time, in a private place such as the home, so long as the children are alert, says Bodin, in a good mood and not on the run to some activity. This is not a discussion to spring on youngsters during a trip to Disney World or the zoo.
Should the new partner be present and part of the discussion?
No, says Bodin. That might serve to silence candor. Children might not feel like showing negative reactions or raising questions.
The simplest way to start a dialogue about remarriage?
Gradually. "You wouldn't expect children to jump into a pool filled with 50-degree water," says Bodin. But the subject shouldn't come as a surprise if the youngsters have had sufficient opportunities during the dating period to get to know the new partner.
Feinstein offers this discussion opener:
"I've got something important I want to talk to you about. I've been seeing Jack (Janet) for a long time. We've gotten to know each other well. We've fallen in love. We've decided to get married."
There's no perfect script, says Bodin, comparing the discussion to one on sex. Let the children get used to the idea, ask questions and express their concerns and hopes. Let them know that you consider their opinions relevant and important.
Will the age of the youngsters affect their reaction to news of remarriage?
Yes, say both mental-health specialists. If children are college-age or older, they are likely to be more concerned with what is going on in their own lives and less attached emotionally to their mothers and fathers.
If children are less than age 2, they may not remember the other parent.
Children age 2-18 are likely to have initial difficulties adjusting to a big change involving a parent. The younger the child, the more important their attachment to a parent.
If alienation does occur, what's the best way to handle it?
Feelings take time and energy to work through, say Feinstein and Bodin. They stress the importance of being available to talk and to assure the children that you love and care for them.
But, adds Bodin, since unhappy kids can sabotage a relationship and make everyone miserable, it may be better to explore alternatives rather than force everyone together. Some choose to delay wedding plans. Others allow children to live with the other parent or a grandparent, or to board with a neighbor if the child is in the last year of high school and the family will move out of town after the wedding. Boarding school is another option.
Such measures, say Bodin and Feinstein, are taken only in a small percentage of remarriages. Many children, they say, view their mother's or father's remarriage as a positive experience.