When a parent remarries a much younger spouse, the main dynamic that comes into play with adult children is sibling rivalry, says Paul Hokemeyer, a Manhattan-based marriage and family therapist.
Intellectually, adult children understand a stepparent is not a brother or sister, but intuitively, Hokemeyer says, they are pulled into destructive relational patterns with them.
“At the top of the list are resentments, as well as overt and covert hostility,” he says. This is because children are hard-wired to compete with their brothers and sisters for their parents’ emotional and physical support. “When they see their parent devoting his emotional and financial resources to his spouse, the children feel betrayed and threatened. Eventually, they can make peace with the situation, but it takes awhile, often decades, for full acceptance of their parents’ marital choice to take hold in their psyche.”
Relationships between two people with a large age gap violate cultural norms, said Jonathan Bennett, a certified counselor in the Columbus, Ohio, area, and may even be viewed as “gross, improper or even immoral.”
“Adult children are not only processing their own complicated feelings about the relationship, but also must contend with the negativity of others,” he says. “Some adult children might be embarrassed enough to cut off contact. Others might not be thrilled but continue to do their best to support their parent.”
Experts agree that both the parent and adult children need to be open to making it work. The parents have to understand the pain such a relationship could cause their adult children. Likewise, the adult children need to understand that such an unconventional relationship might meet the parents’ needs.
“A lack of communication and failure to understand the needs of each other will cause the biggest roadblocks in any relationship like this,” Bennett says.
Whether a family’s relationship stays intact is also influenced by earlier circumstances, says Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. What sort of relationship existed before the new spouse came into the picture? Has the relationship with the children’s other parent ended? If so, how? Was the younger spouse a cause of marital disruption? How does the younger spouse attempt to relate to the adult children?
“An overly vigorous younger spouse trying to break into a friendship role with the adult children may not feel good to the children,” she says. “Is the new parent a soft touch, or trying too hard, or not trying at all?”
A younger spouse may also mean new children, and in some families, this can relate to how assets may be allocated. In addition, the new spouse may be perceived to be after something other than a healthy relationship with the parent – for example, money, comfort or status.
“The relationship your adult children have with a new partner can be smooth sailing or a deal breaker in your relationship,” says April Masini, a relationship columnist and author. “Children from a prior relationship can be just as difficult in a marriage as in-laws.”
But, for all the obstacles, it can work. Masini says that if the adult child is happy and healthy, chances are he’ll be happy for you. Your relationship with your ex-spouse and the mental health of that person also factor in.
“If your ex is miserable and blames you for his or her misery, there’s a good chance that will affect your adult children,” Masini says. “If you’re ex is happy and healthy, you’re more likely to have smoother sailing.”
Under any circumstances, a second marriage is never a simple endeavor.
“Ultimately, (it’s) better (to have) a younger spouse who authentically loves the marrying parent and tries to connect with his children than a more ‘appropriately’ aged spouse who is dismissive or not good for the marrying parent,” Durvasula says.