Step-parents and the adult children who resent them

No comments
Category: Parenting Tips

Years after the death of my father, my mother met someone through a bereavement group. In the finest tradition of a sulky child, I put almighty effort into being hateful to him.

I avoided eye contact, maintained a sneering demeanour, was monosyllabic, rejected all peaceful overtures, took offence where none was meant and did my best to sour the atmosphere and see him off. Only I wasn’t a child — I was 28.

Seventeen years on, my relationship with my mother’s partner is cordial and I still feel sheepish about how I treated this kind, decent man. He didn’t move in, and I had my own home; it wasn’t as though he had dared to assume a paternal role or any authority. He wasn’t a “stepfather”. Yet this was about emotion, not rationale. Inside I felt ten years old. Why are you at our dinner table? Dad should be here. Yeah, he’s dead, but that’s his place. Ideally, my mother, who was in her forties, would have assumed a Miss Havisham-style existence. (Me? I was engaged.)

How dare your mother feel all excited to go out for dinner

My mother recalls feeling wretchedly torn. “I was very aware of your upset, your outrage, distress,” she says. “I felt you were entitled to it and I thought: ‘I’ll be as empathetic as I can possibly be, but at the end of the day, you go home, with your outrage, and I’m the one sitting by myself.’”

She adds: “When you’ve been through such profound misery — be it divorce or bereavement — and someone’s offering you a ray of sunshine, not many people turn that down. The children misinterpret that. They see it as abandonment, that the parent who is alive couldn’t have loved their other parent very much. In fact, the parent is fighting for their own survival. And when you’ve known great happiness and contentment, you want to replicate it as quickly as possible.”

And what of my brattishness, despite my knocking on 30? “As long as you have a parent alive, you are somebody’s child and you expect a level of parenting. And when the parent moves to a different phase, you’re outraged. Not only have you buried a father, you’re about to bury the mother you know, because she’s turning into someone else. You’re losing two parents. Your world has been tipped upside down. You’re wrapped up in your terrible misery — how dare your mother walk out of the door all excited to be going out for dinner with somebody?”

Quite. Though I like to think I’m not a monster, so it’s reassuring, if desperately sad, to find that a great many hulking adults struggle to accept a parent’s new partner following bereavement or divorce. A new survey by Gransnet, the social networking site for the over-fifties, and the relationship charity Relate, reveals that nearly a third of adults have objected to a single parent’s new partner.

To the question, have your adult children “ever tried to play matchmaker for you?” a resounding 87 per cent say no. About 13 per cent are certain that their children would prefer them “to be alone”. And if adult children have objected to a new relationship, 29 per cent of parents ended it — a sad and painful statistic, particularly because, as the Gransnet editor Lara Crisp says, “finding a partner later in life is not necessarily an easy thing to do”.

Certainly, Charles, 55, an accountant, nearly finished his relationship with Louise because her daughters, who were then 22 and 20 were “immediately horrified” (their father died when they were teenagers) and tried to get rid of him. “The most spiteful thing they did was move back home. For about ten years, one or both were living here. There was a lot of dependency, a lot of demand. They were cold and hostile, and it was unrelentingly difficult. I packed and left once or twice. If I hadn’t been working quite so hard in the first few years, I doubt we’d have survived.”

Anna Maxted: “I still feel sheepish about how I treated this kind, decent man”

The consultant psychologist Dr Andrew Cornes believes that unresolved grief, over death or divorce, is a huge part of what seems like (and, let’s face it, is) outrageous behaviour from adult kids. “Even when you think you’ve accepted the situation, something might reopen that psychological fault line that is connected to the grief and put you right back in it.”

He says: “If you look at life in a Darwinian way, we need to achieve attachment to a primary caregiver, to feel safe and loved and connected. Then we have to separate to gain autonomy and become fully functional adults. Whether any of us really do I’m not so sure. Our attachment to our parents is incredibly powerful. And then someone comes along with whom you have no relationship, no connection, no attachment, who doesn’t understand you.

“People feel displaced, they feel abandoned. And I can’t think of anything more challenging and detrimental to one’s mental health to be abandoned by a parent. Maybe that’s a latent fear people have, and maybe that is what’s so traumatising for them.” He also says that “people are idolised and lionised in death — and even when parents are absent because of separation, there might be an idealisation from the kids: Dad was fantastic, and no one can replace him”.

This would certainly explain the many jaw-dropping tales of middle-aged professionals behaving like spoilt children. Beneath the Veruca Salt tantrums is raw agony. Six years after her husband died of a stroke, a friend’s mother found a companion. As the family sat in the garden, she bravely acknowledged that her daughter, Lucy, 41, an obstetrician, disapproved. “Yes,” Lucy burst out, “You’re married!”

Meanwhile, Marianne, 44, a solicitor from Edinburgh, is still bristling from the discovery that, ten years after her mother’s death, her father has cleared out her pink childhood bedroom for his second wife. Buried animosity resurfaced. “She’s an amateur artist,” says Marianne, “and claims to need a studio. She wanted my room. Dad asked me, could he clear it out. I said no. I went round one Sunday. Everything had gone. He said it was all boxed up in the loft. If she hadn’t asked for my room this wouldn’t have happened. I felt so angry with her. I thought: ‘Eff you! That’s my room!’ ”

Marianne is aware, thanks, that she hasn’t inhabited her room for a quarter of a century, and that this might sound ludicrous. “Mum had lovingly kept my things. She liked to go into that room and remember. I get that it shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s your gut feeling and it really twists your insides. Mum’s gone, and I felt with that a bit of Mum had gone: what she’d left in the room, because she loved me, had gone too. It’s so much more than just my objects. It’s the memories. It’s about a safe place where everything was happy, where both your parents are alive.”

Several adults admit to travelling overseas partly to blank out the unseemly sight of smoochy parents following death or separation. “Seeing Dad with someone else did my head in,” says Arthur, 31. Mark, 24, says he felt “demoted” when his divorced mother found love. “The flirtiness, the interest in things she hadn’t been interested in before. It was like another loss. Your memory of that person evaporates overnight. I was shocked. What? I’m still [sad] — aren’t you? She was suddenly upbeat when I wasn’t over it.”

We have never married. It would have caused World War III

Adults whose parents divorce have it particularly tough because, as the psychotherapist Wendy Bristow says, “The whole narrative of your childhood is knocked out of whack. Oh, were they never happy? Did they just stay together for me? And if they’ve got together with a family friend, they think, ‘Did she always fancy him?’ It casts doubt and that wobbles you.” Not only that, “If you are the adult child of parents who split, there is grief about that. But unlike if a parent has died, you don’t necessarily get a lot of empathy.”

There is, of course, another delicate issue that we have so far omitted, says Bristow: “Money.” Curiously, when Gransnet and Relate users detailed why their children objected to a new partner, 57 per cent claimed the dare I say rather vague excuse of a “personality conflict”; 26 per cent declared themselves worried about the partner’s intentions. Only 6 per cent were bold enough to confess to “concerns re inheritance”.

Yet it’s a legitimate anxiety. Bristow says: “You can be concerned: ‘My mum’s got together with this man. He’s broke.’ If they get married, if she dies, you won’t get what she’s going to leave you until he dies. And then if he has children, the child worries that the other children are going to get all the inheritance. And some people do that. Or they leave everything to Battersea Dogs Home. The money side of it is hugely wobbling, and that can also factor into the resentment of the new person — ‘Am I literally going to lose out in life?’ ”

The horror of watching your only pension fund being frittered on romantic cruises, or the barf-making sight of your parent making eyes at their lover, or both (men in their sixties in particular seem to be unable to resist crowing to their repulsed daughters about being “at it like rabbits”) has a strange yet common effect on offspring.

“No matter how old we are, there is still the child we were inside us and even if we’re 35 we can regress to that child if we’re upset,” Bristow says. “Seeing your mother with someone else can trigger you to being about 6 and wanting your dad. You want the person your mother is with to be him. You don’t want it to be the man from three doors down or someone from a dating site.”

Still, 15 years on, Charles’s relationship with Louise’s daughters has improved. For a start, they’ve moved out, so there’s no more hogging the bathroom to make him late for work or demanding a driving lesson to scupper a date night.

Despite his sadness that “we’ve never married, because it would have caused World War III”, he doesn’t resent the daughters’ behaviour. “I completely understand it. No matter how irrational, there’s this deep feeling that their mother or father shouldn’t be replaced. I was the interloper. It’s an almost intractable situation.”