Monday, August 30, 2010

Rethinking Remarriage

Every so often I find an article that quotes my book or an interview I've given. In the article below, Lynn Barton wonders if it is right for Christians with small children to remarry; she writes from experience

One Sunday as I was staffing my church’s book table, a divorced mom asked me if we had any books for someone like her. She said she had been unable to find any that applied to her situation. Since there are now many Christian books on divorce, I was confused at first. But after talking a bit, she explained that she had decided she would not remarry until her child was grown, and she had not been able to find any books that address her particular conviction. I couldn’t help her: I couldn’t think of a book for divorced parents that didn’t assume remarriage.

As someone who grew up in a stepfamily, I think she has made a wise decision. I have been waiting for a Christian leader to at least suggest that divorced parents consider holding off on remarriage while their children are young, but to my knowledge it hasn’t happened. Although there are now a number of Christian books written to help divorced parents, they simply expect remarriage will occur. They all focus on managing the many difficulties stepfamilies encounter, without questioning the wisdom of creating one in the first place.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who never shrinks from controversy, is the only person whom I have ever heard tackle the conventional wisdom on this subject. Perhaps others hesitate because to explore this honestly might discourage those who are in the thick of stepfamily challenges already. So here I am, jumping in where most apparently fear to tread, and I feel it too. I have remarried friends I love and respect, and I don’t want to offend or discourage them, or anyone for that matter. As for what scripture says about remarriage, I leave that to our spiritual leaders. I only want to share my experience to help parents better understand what it’s like for a child to go through Mom and Dad’s divorce and possible remarriage. Perhaps I can equip parents to better help their children through the ordeal by discussing some long-overdue but hard truths.

The first is this: inevitably, divorce is a crisis where adult desires have been placed above the needs of children. I say this not to beat up on already divorced people, but because it bears on the question of remarriage. I do understand that sometimes divorce is unavoidable. There may be serious sin that breaks the marriage covenant. Divorce may be imposed by one spouse on the other. But when divorce happens, at least one of the parents has placed their own desires over the good of their children.

Not surprisingly, the world is right there to support that path. How often have we been told by marriage counselors, magazine article "experts" or our own friends, that "children are resilient?" That if the parents are happy, children will be happy too? Three decades of promoting this nonsense has resulted in the destructions of millions of families: it destroyed mine.

Much research has shown the damage that divorce does to children, and catalogued the lifelong issues they struggle with as they try to recover from the breakup of their family. Yet popular culture has not caught up with these realities, and no doubt does not want to. Saddest of all, those in the church divorce at the same rate as those outside of it. We Christians have apparently absorbed worldly lies in place of God’s truth, and our children have paid the price.

The central defining event of my life was my parents’ divorce when I was nine, the same age as my daughter is now. In her face, I see something of my own: I see unquestioning trust in her parents to protect and care for her. It amazes me. How could anyone believe that divorce would not traumatize children, or if it did, that they would soon bounce back?

To have your world shattered and your heart torn in two at such a tender age teaches many lessons about love, trust, forgiveness, marriage and family, all of them negative. Children of divorce will need to spend a lifetime unlearning them as their implications unfold in the different seasons of life, but especially when making their own decisions about marriage and family. For those wrestling with the emotional fallout of their parents’ divorce, or divorced parents who want to better understand their children’s world, I recommend Generation Ex by Jen Abbas. She writes,

As I entered adulthood anticipating my hard-earned independence, I was stunned to discover that my parents’ divorces seemed to affect me more each year, not less. Even though I was successful academically and professionally, I found myself becoming more insecure each year about my emotional abilities....when it came to love, I was paralyzed because what I wanted so desperately was that which I feared the most.

As she describes her own experience with her parents’ multiple divorces and interviews many others, she shows that the past does not have to dictate the future, because "instead of choosing to focus on what we have missed, we have the incredible opportunity to embrace what we, as Christians, have gained." There is no hurt that God cannot heal, and her book helps point the way.

Let’s say, for whatever reason, a family has been broken apart by divorce. Now what? It’s very understandable that parents would look forward to remarriage. To be loved again after such painful rejection, to enjoy companionship instead of loneliness, to have help raising your children. But how do children feel about it? Listen to Charles, the protaganist in Barbara Park’s novel My Mother Got Married and Other Disasters, who describes it this way: "Stepfamily" means "stepping aside so that a man who’s not your father can hold your mother’s hand."

That’s exactly how I felt when my mother remarried a year after our parent’s divorce. My mom thought it would be good for us children to have a male role model, to grow up seeing how a marriage works. But I was still reeling from the breakup of my family and the relegation of my father to twice monthly visits. Now I lost my mom too. Suddenly her attention was focused on making this new marriage work. My two younger sisters and I had been replaced in her affections and priorities. We were now on the outside looking in. We each bore our grief and confusion alone, not understanding why we felt abandoned when our mom was still with us. It wasn’t until we were adults and began to compare notes that we discovered we each felt the same way.

We gamely tried to embrace what we were told: we were lucky. We would have a new dad! But we didn’t want a new dad. We already had one, and we missed him terribly. Now suddenly there was this new person in my house, someone to whom I had no particular connection and did not want one, someone who immediately assumed the full rights and authority of a father. It was a triple whammy. First I had lost my dad, now my mom and even my sense of home. My home had become his castle. There was a new sheriff in town.

My mother did not at all understand my unhappiness. It angered her that I clung to my dad who didn’t deserve my loyalty (since he left us) and had no gratitude toward the knight who had come to our rescue. The fact that our stepdad was willing to take on a wife with three young children made him a hero in her eyes (our dad was, of course, the villain). I could intellectually understand her point, but I still loved my dad. I soon learned it was dangerous to tell her how I really felt. Every time I tried, I was chastised severely. Eventually I decided I would never again tell her what was really going on with me. And I never did. You can imagine what that meant for my teen years. She would plead with me to talk to her, but I wouldn’t. I knew she didn’t want to hear what was in my heart. Besides, by that time I had learned to be angry too.

My mom and stepfather were well meaning people. They wanted a happy and healthy family. But they had no clue how their marriage affected us children. I now believe that behind the fierceness of my mom’s anger toward me was really fear, fear that my unhappiness would break up this new marriage. I understood clearly that my stepdad was her first priority, and that made me feel unloved, that she chose him over us. There is a truth to this. She did choose to focus her attention on him first, rationalizing that it was ultimately for our good too.

And that leads me to the reason why stepfamilies are so very difficult, the secret that no one seems to want to bring to the light: remarriage with children sets up conflicting needs that are impossible to avoid or fully resolve. There is no way around this.

When my mom put my stepdad first, she was doing the right thing. For an intact family. Healthy families are marriage centered, not child centered. The marriage came before the children arrived and will continue after they have grown and left home. When children understand their birth is a result of their parents’ love, they draw security from the priority of their parents’ commitment to one another.

But a stepfamily is totally different. Since the children were there first and the stepparent came later, they cannot help but feel they have been replaced.When my stepdad became first, we became last. Despite romantic hopes that we would be one happy family, reality was quite different. As Kevin Leman likes to say, stepfamilies don’t blend, they collide.

In a stepfamily, if attention and priority is given to the marriage, the children feel abandoned and unloved. If the children get priority, the marriage suffers. And that’s on top of all the difficulties created by the ongoing effects of the divorce itself. If both spouses bring minor children into the marriage, the challenges will be vastly more complicated.

What if remarried parents go on to have more children with the new spouse? More hurt for the first children, that’s what. Especially if it’s the noncustodial parent (usually dad) who has more children. The new baby gets to live with him, while the children from the first marriage just visit. How can they feel anything but replaced? It happened to Jen Abbas, who writes, "I doubted that my parents really wanted me to be part of their new families because I felt like the leftover reminder of the failure of their old one."

A recent issue of Focus on the Family’s Tween magazine (Feb/Mar 2007) illustrates the blind spot I’m attempting to address. In "Ask the Expert" a mother expresses confusion that her daughter was fond of her stepfather before they were married, but now sees him as competition for her mother’s affections and hurts him by "showing more interest in her biological father" and telling him "you’re not my real dad." Dr. Bill Maier offers some helpful practical advice, but no insight into how painful this situation is for her child. He says, "These issues are common in blended families." I suppose that is intended to reassure this mom. But isn’t the fact that these problems are so common a clue that maybe children are not so much the problem as the situation in which they have been placed?

This mom entered into remarriage with no idea of how it would impact her child, and after reading his answer she will still have no idea. He tells her to stop "treating your daughter more like a peer than a child" and "back your husband when your daughter acts up." While these things must be done, I guarantee that child will feel ganged up on and resent it. That is the challenge this mom faces. She needs to know that her daughter’s heart has been broken all over again. Her daughter may have liked the stepfather before he married her mother, but she’s a child. How could she know how differently she would feel once he moved in? If her mother keeps the focus on what her daughter is doing wrong, without acknowledging to her that she understands the pain she feels, she will confirm her daughter’s fear that she is now on her own, that nobody understands or even cares about how badly she hurts. This couple may be able to enforce outward conformity to the "new family arrangement" for awhile, but an explosion is coming. My heart breaks for that child, because no one does understand her. Dr. Maier, wise problem solver that he is, has focused on the outward symptoms and missed the heart of the issue.

This leads me to the second hard truth: isn’t remarriage really a continuation of the idea that children do best if adult happiness is put first? Could it be that just as that we divorce too easily, we also remarry too quickly, and in both cases, our children suffer?

Once children are born, we adults have a responsibility to place their needs above our happiness. Children with divorced parents if anything need more of them than they did before the divorce. Remarriage at the very least dilutes the parent’s time and attention which now goes also, and possibly primarily, to the new spouse. From the child’s perspective, this is a painful loss, not a gain.

Now I know that God has individual plans for people, so I am speaking about general principles, not specific situations which may be exceptional. Certainly nothing is impossible with God. And ours was not a Christian family, so we did not have access to God’s grace to help us. I can imagine that remarriage could even be good for children when there is little or no relationship with the biological father. In that case remarriage would not set up the same divided loyalties of having "two dads," and a loving stepfather could help fill the need every child has for a father. I would expect some bumps though, based on the natural feeling that the child will likely have that their mom has chosen their stepdad over them.

For those who have already remarried, my goal is to explain, not to criticize. I hope this may help you understand how your children most likely feel, whether or not they say so. I hope that you will make it safe for them to share their hearts, even if it’s upsetting. If you are the stepparent I hope you will make every effort to connect with your stepchildren, and don’t take rejection personally. If you are the biological parent, I hope you will continually reassure your children that your love and loyalty to them is unchanged.

My mom and stepfather stayed married through all the turbulence of our teen years and beyond. They had a happy marriage spanning three decades, until my mom passed away a few years ago. My two sisters and I all enjoy long term marriages. We each married men from intact families, which I strongly recommend for children of divorce. Even though our stepfamily never really blended, we all acknowledge that despite our parents’ mistakes, they also did many things right. But it was a very rough road.

Not long ago I asked a teenage girl I know how she felt about her mom’s recent remarriage. She said, "I’m really glad my mom is happy again." That’s very telling. I asked about her feelings, and she responded with her mom’s. She’s making the best of it. And I do believe her when she says she is glad to see her mom happy. I too was glad my mom found happiness with my stepfather. I just missed her so much.

Remarriage when children are grown is much easier for children. My dad did not remarry until we were adults, and our relationship with our stepmom has been wonderful. She has never had to fill the role of a parent, never had to bear our resentment for taking our dad away from us, but has instead become our friend.

So I support the decision of that divorced mom not to remarry while she is raising her child. I wish more divorced parents would consider doing the same. In a flash our children will be grown. While they are with us, we need to make the most of our fleeting time with them. How we do that will be different in an intact family than when divorce has occurred. Much as divorced parents might long to start over with someone new and create the family they always hoped for, children will most likely experience that as a loss and not a gain.

If divorced parents do choose to remain single, yes, their children will miss seeing what a marriage looks like from the inside. But a second marriage and a stepfamily is quite different than a first marriage and intact family. And the even higher divorce rate of second marriages (due to the emotional minefield created by stepfamilies) makes remarriage a very high risk indeed. A second divorce would reinforce the negative lessons taught by the first and make it that much harder for children to heal and to imagine that they might ever enjoy a permanent marriage themselves.

The decisions my parents made, first my dad’s to divorce my mom and then my mom’s to remarry while we were young, hurt me and my sisters. How much better would it have been if we had not had to spend so much time and energy and emotion working through the fallout from their choices. Still I can say with the psalmist, "It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees." (Ps. 119:71). The adversity in my life brought me to God.

That’s the perfect theme with which to end: God’s grace. Lest I discourage the remarried, I remember that as Christians we know that even after trusting Christ we remain fallen creatures, so our mistakes and failures ought not to surprise or overwhelm us. Wherever we are, whatever we have done or not done, we can rejoice in hope, because through Christ we have God’s forgiveness and access to his love and wisdom for every need. So with confidence in God’s love and favor toward us, we can face the truth - even hard truth - wherever it leads.

Written By: Lynn Barton


Utah Divorce Attorney said...

I think, every divorced parents should be open to remarriage. It's a great post.

Unknown said...

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In most jurisdictions, a divorce must be certified (or ordered by a Judge) by a court of law to come into effect. The terms of the divorce are usually determined by the courts, though they may take into account prenuptial agreements or post-nuptial agreements, or simply ratify terms that the spouses may have agreed to privately (this is not true in the United States, where agreements related to the marriage typically have to be rendered in writing to be enforceable). In absence of agreement, a contested divorce may be stressful to the spouses. Contested divorces mean that one of several issues are required to be heard by a judge at trial level—this is more expensive, and the parties will have to pay for a lawyer's time and preparation. Less adversarial approaches to divorce settlements have recently emerged, such as mediation and collaborative divorce settlement, which negotiate mutually acceptable resolution to conflicts. This principle in the United States is called 'Alternative Dispute Resolution' and continues to gain popularity.
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Unknown said...

My father, a COGIC minister, remarried twice, and all three of his marriages failed. My siblings and I are still reeling from the toxic, dead end relationship he and my mother exposed us to, as well as my half siblings from my father's later divorces. I don't think the divorce is what traumatized us most, however. It was the selfishness and narcissism of both parents, traits they carried with them into each of their new relationships. Divorce hurts, but it's merely a symptom. People could stay married for decades, or divorce and remarry multiple times, but it's their own personal unchecked wounds that cause the greatest pain to children, not the divorce per se. Ironically, I learned as much from my father's most recent lawyer, Mckinley Irvin of Washington and Oregon (, a divorce veteran who shared much wisdom with me on this very subject.