By Rob Crankshaw, Ph.D.
While some marriages end in divorce, there are many relationships that last the long haul. Couples celebrate 30, 40, 50 or more wedding anniversaries all the time. For most of these long-lasting marriages, when one spouse dies, the loss is tragic, not only for the widowed, but also for the family left behind. Many times, the children are grown and have children of their own. Traditions have been followed for decades. The loss is large and if the widowed spouse moves on before the rest of the family feels they are ready, problems can arise.
An advice columnist recently received the following letter:
“Help! My mother died recently after 45 years of marriage to my dad, and he has now rekindled a relationship with an old classmate from high school. Things are moving very quickly with quitting jobs and talk of a coming marriage. He talks about her like he was a teenager in love.
“I want my dad to be happy and fulfilled and not lonely, but I feel like I am losing my family unit as I knew it all over again and losing my dad to this woman. And then I’m hearing horror stories of parents who remarry late in life creating financial, legal and emotional havoc for everyone. What do I do?”
This is not an isolated incident that only few adult children encounter. As the boomer generation moves into their 60s and 70s (and live longer), this scenario will be played out in more families in the coming years.
While each individual is unique, some human needs remain constant:
- In every older person, there is a youthful persona that wants to know they’ve still “got it.”
- That wonderful feeling of infatuation and new love is just as strong in the 65-year-old as in the 18-year-old. Hopefully, wisdom and experience help temper the impulsivity that comes with that infatuation.
- Most seasoned individuals still desire the deep satisfaction that comes with an intimate relationship, whether or not it involves marriage and sex.
Most often it is the surviving widower who seeks out new relationships. Studies indicate widowers who were happily married tend to seek out new partners quickly because they want to recreate all the good things they enjoyed in marriage. Widows, on the other hand, often feel a sense freedom, and while they deal with loneliness, are not eager to jump into another relationship in which they may be defined by the roles of housekeeper, cook and launderer.
In either case, a new love relationship for a parent may come as a huge upset for the adult children. Chances are this was not anticipated. Adult children may find themselves feeling worry, abandonment, and even anger that their parent has started a new life without their advice or consent.
Some general suggestions if you find this happening in your family:
- Don’t panic. Try to avoid assuming the worst-case scenario. Sometimes early infatuation passes and relationships do not work out. Sometimes the relationships work out and your elderly parent is happier than you have ever seen him or her. So, relax, and in the meantime …
- Get to know your parent’s love interest. Make them your friend. Usually friendships between grown children and a stepparent develop early or not at all. Here you have a choice. Do not let personal characteristics or early reticence of the new love interest put you off. Remember, you gain everything with a good relationship, but your losses are great if you alienate your parent’s love interest. This is vitally important. Making an elderly parent choose between his heart’s yearning and his old role as father and grandfather is a losing proposition. Many families have been torn apart because the adult children would not accept their parent’s new partner.
- While embracing your parent’s choices, encourage him or her to seek legal advice if they haven’t already. Later-in-life marriages are more financially complex, and your parent owes you the assurance that all financial and legal issues are settled. Dying without a current will often pits adult children against each other and the stepparent family against you — a situation that can bring years of anger, hurt and resentment. Let your parent know that whatever his last wishes are, you respect those, but encourage him not to leave those unwritten.
- Make a gift to your parent of several sessions of premarital counseling with a licensed professional. This will help the couple with many issues, particularly letting go of unrealistic expectations, building effective communication techniques, and developing positive conflict resolution strategies. No couple is too old for relationship help.
- Focus on enjoying a new relationship with your parent. You may begin to see new aspects of his personality that never surfaced in his marriage to your mother. Begin to let go of your own expectations that your widowed parent would be a dependable baby-sitter, a more present grandparent, and a source of security in times of financial need. Enjoy the fact that he/she can choose independently to find happiness in late life.
- If you still find yourself feeling anger or resentment, seek counseling for yourself. Remember, you are experiencing a significant loss — the confirmed loss of your original family with many of the traditions, routines, and unspoken agreements of family life. The process of adapting to a new family member, helping them feel accepted, and trying to avoid putting them in uncomfortable situations is stressful. And letting your parent go to enjoy a new life — one that may not involve you as much as you like — can be disheartening. Working through these issues to acceptance will be a gift to yourself.
In the end, you must accept that a parent’s decisions are just that: their decisions. Your parents had to learn to let go as you grew up, matured, and left the nest. You need to do the same. But pouring as much support and love as you can into your parent-child relationship, the happier everyone will be in the end, no matter how it all comes out in the end.
About the author:
Rob Crankshaw holds a PhD from Florida State University and is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Most recently, Rob was the VP for Youth & Family Services at Advent Christian Village. In this role, he developed programs for youth including weekend retreats for children in out-of-home care and leadership development training for high school students. While he still keeps therapy hours in Dowling Park, Rob spends much of his retirement hiking, biking and traveling.