Wednesday, June 19, 2024 Jun 19, 2024
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Mixing and matching kids and in-laws

WHAT GOES WRONG with a second marriage, often as not, is that too many people expect it to be like the first time around. It isn’t. And it never will be, especially with children in the mix.

Josef Caldwell, a family counselor, offers three points of advice:

1. Be sure you’re completely finished with the first marriage. Don’t replay the oldarguments and the old feelings with a new partner. Settle all that inside yourself beforemarrying again.

2. Understand what you want. Is it a family with lots of dogs and kids? Or is it companionship, someone to share leisure time and travel with? Maybe it’s a combinationof the two, or something else entirely. But know what your hidden agenda really is.

Someone who didn’t know his feelings was a Dallas real estate man, a widower with a teen-age son, who took on a second wife with three young children of assorted ages. The kids were driving him crazy so he bought a bigger house on Beverly Drive, thinking he could isolate himself from the chaos if he had more room. That didn’t work, and neither did the marriage.

Another businessman, divorced for several years, married an old friend from San Antonio, whose mother, in fact, was his godmother. That’s how close the families were, how well they knew each other. But not well enough, as it turned out. The bride moved to Dallas, believing all the while that eventually he would return with her to San Antonio to live. He had no such intention. The marriage folded.

3. Talk a lot about the details of daily life: the management of money, the allocation of responsibility and above all, the kids. “You’d be amazed how little people talk about how they’re going to fit two households together,” Caldwell observes. “I did a chart once showing the numerous relationships that impinge upon a second family. It can be unbelievably complex.”

“Remarriage is like the merging of two corporations,” says therapist Gay Jurgens. “If management philosophies are radically different, the company will founder. A power struggle develops, usually based on money, sex or children, and the marriage is threatened.”

A special dependency often grows between parent and child after divorce or a death in the family, says Jurgens. When that dependency is tested by new rules and new ways of doing things, she warns, a parent may prefer the child to the marriage.

Compromise and negotiation are going to be needed, which may require the help of an experienced counselor. It might be wise to see a therapist before the wedding. Dr. Florence Wiedemann, clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst, says that some of her patients have brought their prospective spouses to see her. Sometimes they both take psychological tests to learn how they’re alike, how they’re different. “It means they can use more consciousness going into the marriage,” says Wiedemann, “and not rely on falling-in-love projections that are bound to be disappointing, causing anger when the person doesn’t fulfill those unrealistic expectations.”

Consider the case of Deanna and Ed Ray, both married for the second time. “We only had eyes for each other and visions of sugarplums,” says Deanna of her courtship. Yet constant conflicts over the rearing of their five children caused Deanna and Ed Ray to separate for five months. They considered divorce, but decided instead to try again.

“We finally understood that we had to present a united front to the kids,” Ed says. When Ed and Deanna were dating, he didn’t have custody of his two teen-age sons. Later, after the wedding, when the boys came to live with Ed, it was hard for Deanna to handle them. Her easygoing style was different from his; Ed was a disciplinarian, whose gruff ways with Deanna’s daughters didn’t set well.

Through counseling, they’ve learned to separate the discipline of each other’s children. She deals with her daughters; he rides herd on his sons. Most importantly, they’ve learned to talk to each other about their problems. “When you start talking, you can work things out,” says Deanna.

Take Lanny and Margot. They’ve had years of arguments and therapy, trying to resolve their differences in parenting, differences that have all but torn their marriage apart.

“Margot is opinionated, extroverted, high-strung,” says Lanny; “I’m low-key, tolerant. We have very different natures. That’s why we got married.”

Like Ed and Deanna, they spent no time at all talking about kids before their wedding, even though Lanny had custody of his two girls and Margot had a daughter and two boys.

“It’s funny what happens when you remarry,” says Margot. “I was single for six years, and my ex-husband’s input with the children was very little. He took them when he wanted, but he was into empire building, not fathering. Suddenly, Lanny was on the scene, teaching the boys to play ball and taking them to sports events. The boys got excited about having a father figure, and even started calling him Dad. Dave, my ex-husband, began paying more attention. At a family gathering one of Dave’s relatives heard my son call Lanny Dad and pulled him aside by the arm. ’Don’t you ever call that man Dad,’ he admonished. And he never has again. After we got married, Dave felt less threatened and reverted to his old ways.”

Margot’s ex-husband is a wealthy man. Although she and Lanny are by no means poor, their income of less than $50,000 a year has to be stretched to raise five children. When her kids must do without something, they sometimes threaten to appeal to their father for money. Though rich, Dave has been parsimonious with his children, partly from resentment of his ex-wife. He also has remarried and started a new family on whom he spends money lavishly. This, naturally, creates bad feelings among his kids from his first marriage.

“Her children are spared nothing,” says Margot. “The boys see that they’re second-class citizens. And they think if I hadn’t divorced him . . . .”

Then there’s the problem of grandpar-ents. Dave’s paternal grandfather, also wealthy, didn’t even send his namesake a graduation present. Lanny’s parents lavish gifts and attention on their two natural grandchildren, but pay less attention to Margot’s children.”I have to tell them that life isn’t fair and equal” says Margot. “Neither of us is go-ing to tell Lanny’s parents not to buy gifts for his two kids. It’s hard on them to have three extra grandchildren.”It takes spectacular diplomacy to keep all these forces in balance, and sometimes even that doesn’t work. Margot and Lan-ny make a conscious effort to put the family above everything. They have let their children know that for them another divorce is out. Whatever their problems, they’re going to work, them through. This has meant a lot of arguing and a lot of counseling. (“Our life has turned com-pletely around since we made that deci-sion,” says Margot.) They’ve also become involved in church activities.Lanny has had to learn to bite his tongue with his girls. Margot has learned not to be so protective of her boys. Both are learning not to let their children tear them apart.”Our relationship must be the primaryone,” says Margot. “The children are go-ing to grow up and leave and we’ll be lefttogether.”