What is the lived-experience of individuals who experience the loss of a spouse and then decides to remarry? Until you have had the experience of having to reconstruct life from the ashes of what has been, you may not know what it takes to put humpty back together again.
Unfortunately, the adjustment-experience of widowed couples who remarry is characterized by much misunderstanding, which brings to the surface feelings and struggles experienced in readjustment. After talking with couples who have remarried at an advanced age, it is very clear that it is difficult to find balance in relationships while adjusting to life in a blended family. The sad fact is that a contributing reason for high occurrences of divorce in second marriages relates to the tension between the marriage partners and family members that stems from difficulty in adapting to changes. During holiday season celebrations, adjustment issues become magnified by charged emotions that are associated with memories, the importance of traditions, and expectations about what should happen. There is little doubt that a great sense of security, as well as, well-being in relationships comes from striking a balance between self-protection and extending grace to others through acceptance.
A general truth and disclaimer is that the mental health and state of persons involved, as well as, family systems functionality will impact all relationships– especially when stress is placed on life that distorts perceptions about what is happening. Distorted beliefs and individual perspective is a central factor, which influences behaviors by individuals expressing protecting behaviors which is a defense mechanism demonstrating embedded beliefs about what has changed. At the heart of strained relationships is a pronounced difference in values i.e., what each person believes is most important. A simple way to understand this is when individuals differ about important traditions, rites, and holiday events; there is a stark difference in what people believe to be true about events. Anger is a typical response and the form it takes is aggression, but unfortunately, in many cases it is not dealt with constructively and demonstrates passive aggressive attempts to manipulate or punish others.
What are some of the sources for anger in people who make up the extended family when a remarriage occurs?
The Fear of Abandonment and Isolation: Often people fear they will not be needed as much in a relationship or they will lose their sense of importance when the people dynamics of relationships change. The fear felt is of being pushed aside. Being left in a lonely feeling of limbo is one the factors in why widows and widowers become such an enormous burden for everyone after the spouse dies because they cling to existing relationships. Why? Because they are alone and have lost the spousal support system, which leaves them feeling detached socially, emotionally, and psychologically. A common result is that unhealthy attachments are formed and a result is widows/widowers become overly dependent upon other significant family members for the basic support needed. Unfortunately, the outcome is an unhealthy relationship dynamic is created dissolving existing boundaries, which confuses roles and expectations in relationships on everyone’s part. One thing that children and other family members may not understand is that no other person can meet the relationship need that a widow/widower has like a spouse. Remarriage is not replacement of a former spouse or other family; it is a transition away from an unhealthy attachment, which has occurred through a time of tragedy. A fundamental truth is that relationships must be in balance and have healthy boundaries to be effective for all. The reason that remarriage is important to widowers/widows is that they are alone. While everyone else has the need-meeting source of relationship with a partner in life, the surviving spouse feels empty and alone. What others may not see is that even though family may love them very much, they cannot meet that need. When life is out of balance, it does not work for anyone.
Unhealthy Attachments: When relationships are out of balance and boundaries are skewed by unhealthy attachment after a death occurs, parties on all sides have a fear of being abandoned. This often presents in unhealthy relationship dynamics that triggers a chain of toxic, and many times, destructive behaviors which can permanently alter or destroy life-long relationships. Underneath this relationship pattern is a fear that family members who have become accustomed to having 100% of the Mother or Father’s attention, suddenly has to adjust to an unwanted change. What is not accepted is the social changes that death has brought into a system of relationships. Resistance to change is a component of the grief process, which has not been accepted nor addressed. It may be that family members accept that death has come to someone very important, but there has not been acceptance of what this means to the lived-experience of relationships, as well as future development as a family –a social unit. Personal identity that defines the social world people live in is forever changed, as well as, all future developments when death occurs. A normal response from denial is to try to hang on to the past to try to control something we do not understand i.e., something that has not been fully accepted. When security in relationships faces the threat of change, a natural response is anxiety that creates a felt-need to control life in efforts to dispel a perceived feeling of loss of control.
Psychosocial Disruptions: There is no doubt by theorists that “abandonment” issues are at the heart of many mental health problems. Most parents learn the importance of proper attachment relationships when raising small children. However, that sad fact reveals it is not clearly understood how attachment is related to perceived identity issues, as well as, adjusting to changing roles and expectations in a family system resulting from remarriage. A fact not understood is that social identity and feelings of security are instantly impacted as life-developments like death, divorce, and remarriage occur. These developmental changes that are a natural part of the flow of life take place and should be expected. Consequently, when there is a closed family system that includes mental health issues i.e., unresolved or mismanaged, a potential result that must be anticipated is psychosocial disruption of a family system resulting in relationship dysfunction. At the core of disruption is fear of rejection, isolation, and loss of emotional support connected to security felt from the comfortable ideas of what life was in the past. The critical issue to understand is how individuals negotiate change in the present and what a family system does in response to changes in life, roles, identity, and relationship challenges in a family system.
Unhealthy and Uninformed Choices Motivated by Fear of Loss: Life is about choices and when a behavior is chosen, the outcome is chosen. In families, more thought needs to be given to consequences, of even a solitary action in a process of change. When fear drives insecurities in the direction of destructive choices, a good question to ponder is if people understand the broad effect that behaviors have upon family, friends, and children. When a family member behaves badly after someone looses a spouse, is divorced, or remarries; is there awareness that the response to the fear of change, the loss of control, and unresolved grief is affecting every area and all relationships in life. The simple truth is that selfish choices result in heartache for everyone. A point to consider about choices, behavior, and outcome is that if you are in this boat, you are creating the world you live in every day by the choices that you are making.
Some advice to consider is that if you are in a family that is disabled by the fear of changes examine your fears to see if they are even rational; then face them. If a relationship is that important to you, the way to make it better is not to live captive to fear. Christmas is the season that is approaching and is an ideal time to ask God to bring peace to your family, your relationships, and your experiences. Obviously, staying angry is your choice and ultimately will only widen the gap between you and the relationship you want. All you have to do is to make the right choice to get the right response. Relationships are not about winning or about control, they are about loving relationships with healthy boundaries that make life effective. When people can accept the fact that the dynamics of relationships have changed, through a divorce, death, or remarriage; then there is the potential that fear will be dispelled, change can be managed and relationships can develop into healthy outcomes.
There is a balance between self-protection and extending ourselves in developing relationships. If living in the grip of your fears is not working for you, then maybe you should try a different approach. You may be surprised that your fears are false and when you begin to build instead of tear down, felt-needs for relationship and security may be resolved very quickly.
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