I was in my London office bright and early this morning, for an interview down the line with Howard Bentham at Radio Hereford and Worcester, about the perils of step parenting. I kicked off the interview with a quote from my book Divorce & Splitting Up – “Step Parents go where angels fear to tread”. Although this may seem to be a jaundiced view to some, it seems spot on to me, a divorce lawyer. Step parenting issues are the most common causes of divorce in second marriages without a shadow of a doubt.
Our society has changed rapidly over the last fifty years. We are no longer have working dad, non-working mum and two children as the stereotypical norm of a modern British family. Today parents may have dipped in and out of several relationships, may have heterosexual and gay relationships and have children with a number of different partners. The parents of these children may have been married, never have married or have married several times. The children may never have known their biological parent or parents, and may have had to adjust to several adults playing parental roles throughout their childhood.
So it is small wonder to me that if there is an actual marriage and step children are involved, the chances of the marriage breaking down are very high.
Judging by what many of my clients have told me, it can start off with guilt. A father might wake up one morning and find several children playing on the bed with their mum. They aren’t his. He will think of his own children, at home with their mum and may regret they aren’t any longer based with him. Will he ever feel the same way towards the children playing on the bed? I doubt it. Will he experience feelings of resentment, hostility, sadness, bitterness towards them or his new wife? Perhaps. And will those feelings grow over time? Very possibly. Even though he may well have instigated the divorce, chickens sadly do come home to roost.
That’s just one scenario, there are any number of permutations. For example, a mother who decides to break up her marriage to live with another partner blithely assuming her new partner will love and care for the children just as much as she does. Except he doesn’t.
We are all human beings, we are fallible and we have strong emotional responses, whether we expect to have them or not. Sometimes the outcome of resentful step parents can be tragic. Children can be physically at risk and sometimes their actual parent is too weak to do anything about the situation. But the harm can also be emotional. So my advice is to think very, very hard before pulling the plug on a marriage where the children at least are secure.
So what can be done if a step parenting situation is hitting the buffers? As I said during the radio interview, I would advise counseling at the first sign of any problem. Relate offer family counselling and so does the Oakdale Group which has clinics all over the country. I have had great reports of their work in Harrogate, especially Julie Levine, who very graciously contributed to my book.
None of the above means that second marriages can’t work – just understand what you are getting into, and take professional advice about raising step children. The damage caused to them by a failed relationship could leave scars that last a lifetime. Children don’t deserve that.