A friend sends me an advice column written by psychologist Karen Young from her blog Hey Sigmund. In the column, Young offers encouragement and advice to people in life partnership/marriage in a blended family. One or both partners bring children to the love affair. Complicated? Often! Impossible? No! Second-chance romance and marriage can, should and does often thrive.
Let me pause here and say I had never, up until now, been introduced to Young’s work. I explored the blog and was heartened and appreciative of Young’s advocacy for healthy families. It’s good work. I respect people who make me think. Which is what I’m going to do now, out loud, in this column …
Young writes: “The alliance between the parent and child in a biological family is potentially stronger (understandably) than the couple. If you want your relationship with your partner and your new step-kids to work, you have to learn to be OK with this fact and avoid getting in the way of the impenetrable parent/child bond.”
I think she overstates her case. Said another way, I don’t think she is embracing an important paradox, which I will try now to describe …
Yes, on the one hand, were a woman ever to ask me to choose between her and my sons (in the existential sense), I would tell her that ain’t happening. Ever. I won’t choose. And I wouldn’t choose a woman who would ask such a thing.
N o t h i n g could ever make me abandon my sons or deny my love for them.
Illustration: If all my children were over for dinner, and one of my sons leaned over the table to my wife … or to me … or to any of my guests … and said [insert explective], I would ask the offender to leave. I would later demand he account to the victim and the whole family for his behavior.
But still, I would not abandon him. Nothing could make me say, to any of my children, “I will never speak to you again.” Whatever their sins, I would spend the rest of my life opening doors of hope for them to redeem inexcusable behavior and make things right.
As I would hope they would do for me.
I will always be committed to my children’s best interest. To their well-being. Especially when/if they disappoint me or break my heart. I would want a life partner who would likewise practice this commitment to her own children.
Were I to marry into a blended family, and my mate’s son or daughter to say to me, “[insert explective]. I’ve never liked you,” it would hurt. I’d be sad and disappointed. But, in the end, I wouldn’t personalize it. I don’t give people – especially people who are not my peers – the power to tell me who I am or who I love.
I would say, in so many words, “Got it. And I’m not going anywhere. I love your mother, she loves me, and we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together. So, boy (or girl), I’m here for you. Disdain me. Or don’t. Love me and trust me. Or don’t. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. I will always be committed to your best interest. And, in service to your best interest right now, I’m not going to let your ego machinations have jurisdiction over my ability to love and serve you. Or have jurisdiction over much of anything, thank you.”
“And, by the way, your ego machinations are not much different than my own when I was your age.”
Something like that.
I want to amend Young’s advice. Parents thriving in blended families would do well, I think, to adopt a stance more like this:
Your bonds with your children are not, in fact, “stronger” than your bonds with your beloved. Just different. In fact, it would not (in my opinion) be in your children’s best interest for your “strongest bonds” to be exclusively with them. You should be weirdly embarrassed, not to mention concerned for your children if, into adulthood, their strongest bonds were still with you! For that would not speak to healthy differentiation.
Healthy differentiation? Yes. You brought your children into this world in service to the expectation your children would each someday leave you. (“And a man shall leave his mother and father, and a woman shall leave her home, and the two shall become One Flesh.”)
Likewise, if you are to thrive in the gift of this new love and second chance at happy marriage – that is, if you are to understand marriage – then your beloved becomes your primary, fiduciary responsibility of love. This is what marriage is. This is what marriage deserves, not to mention it is also in your children’s best interest.
If you insist on keeping your children as primary – your strongest bond – then it would be emotionally dishonest (not to mention theologically flawed) to marry.
And healthy, well-differentiated children would say to you, “Get a life. You taught me to find and walk my path. So, now, walk yours.”
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at email@example.com. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)