Stepping out: step parents and second marriages

Children|Family|September 20th 2013

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.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. JamesB says:

    Your example of ‘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.’

    I have seen this a lot. The new bloke will not love and care for the children as much as she does. Indeed probably not as much as the old bloke. The same with the children, they probably will not regard the new bloke in as high esteem as the old bloke, or the mother. Blood is important. Hence why you argue elsewhere sometimes it perhaps is best to not know if biologically you are the parent as if you are not the ramifications can be serious.

    As a non resident parent my children’s happinness does take priority over mine and I do want them to be happy. That doesn’t mean I want to give my ex and her bloke any money, it does mean when my kids try to get me to undermine her or her blokes authority and turn me against them when they are being reasonable I will not. Think the key is to have good agreed rules.

  2. JamesB says:

    p.s. I found the role of being a step parent impossible without the support of the pwc. She has to support you and your authority over her children or the kids will laugh at you and then you have no other acceptable option but to walk.

  3. JamesB says:

    It’s all on here
    The point about respect being necessary all round is the main one.

  4. Tulsa Divorce Lawyer Matt Ingham says:

    During my 4+ years of family law practice, probably about two dozen of my clients ultimately had to hire a family law practicioner (me) to represent them in a modification of custody case because their ex spouse (the other parent) has remarried and now the new spouse has caused a breakdown in the co-parenting relationship between my client and the ex spouse.

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