Three years into his mom’s marriage, Samuel, a 14-year-old boy, told me, “I used to be best friends with mom. But I got pushed back to fifth place when she met Benny.”
When a marriage precedes the birth or adoption of children, the resulting parent-child relationships don’t inherently compete with the couple’s marriage. Further, when one parent cares for the child he is also caring for his marriage and vice versa.
However, when a single parent marries someone who is not the child’s parent, a competing attachment is formed. To the child, the parent’s increasing affection, dedication, and time spent with the new stepparent challenges the perceived importance of the child. In a very real sense, marriage sometimes destabilizes the child’s world.
Biological parents, of course, don’t feel this way. I’ve never met parents who said they loved their child less since getting married. Nevertheless, it is easy for children to feel displaced and less important. After all, someone unrelated to them (e.g., a stepparent or stepsibling) is vying for the time and energy of their parent.
More pieces of the problem pie
In addition to a natural shift in focus to a spouse and away from children, a number of other factors potentially contribute to this problem. While parents have an endless number of love-points for all the people in their life, they have a limited number of time-points and energy-points. And because parents can’t be in two emotional places at once, children may feel pushed aside.
Plus, the shift to a two-parent household is vastly different for children than a one-parent household. Asking for permission used to be a simple process between parent and child, but now it is a more complex process where the parent considers another person’s opinion, and sometimes changes how the answer because of the stepparent’s influence. All of this decentralizes the children—and they feel the difference.
Another possible factor is when a parent loses time with the child because of custodial and visitation arrangements. Even further, noncustodial fathers sometimes think it easier on their children if they keep their distance. They are deceived into thinking that reducing between-home transitions somehow helps their children. It does not. It only confuses the child and adds to their sense of lost connection.
When children feel “downgraded,” another negative dynamic can come into play. Some children shrink back from engaging their parent or attack their stepparent. Essentially their withdrawal or criticism is a backward request for reassurance, but the negative behavior further alienates them from their parent and generates conflict in the stepfamily.
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Ron L. Deal