Who would have ever believed that a family who had been seemingly successful in life would find it so difficult to adjust to the process of accepting the changes years after the death of a parent, triggered by marriage, and then that the coming years would be filled with such difficult challenges and filled with so many adjustments and surprises?
Honestly, no marriage is perfect and all families have their flaws, but who can reliably state that they are fully prepared in any way for the things on a personal level that they will encounter after marriage within family dynamics that will come to the surface? I think that people who get married young the first time do not expect death to end their marriage, way of living life, daily expectation of life, or attachment that provides security, identity and meaning to life.
Thinking about marriage, most people would say without hesitation that they want to be in a healthy relationship, but most people do not prepare for the chain of events that take place when the wagons circle and the system closes within the immediate family. Families have a way of making life very difficult for couples adjusting and the things that happen among the extended family put up relational walls outside, as well as, inside of a marriage. Looking back beyond marriage, I remember the moment when death suddenly ended the physical relationship with the wife that I had known for thirty-seven years, since I was eighteen years old. I understand now that even though there was a physical separation, it did end the thirty-seven years of history and family ties that we had experienced.
It would be a myth to believe that all of that suddenly ended and that death took with it the emotional ties that made everyday life feel safe and work, what it had been and the way life experienced shaped meaning. So, I wondered how could people have a second chance when they have been married all their life and now face such resistance.
Thinking Believing and Choosing
On a thinking level, when a person has been married and is now a single, the mind follows a natural rationale, reasoning that you have been married all of your life and you only have two choices: face life living alone or considering marriage all over again, even if you are not happy. On a believing level, people sometimes hold the belief that life is not complete without that other person, but in fact, the truth is that life is not complete until a person can fill the feeling of emptiness without a substance, compulsion, or another person.
Out of this emptiness and grief, people set out to find a partner to ease their pain and others set out to help you do one or the other. Unfortunately, in the confusion, many people think that they know the right thing to do in this situation and are quite willing to tell you what you should do when life has suddenly changed its course without your permission.
What is the right answer for second marriages with the grief, the possessive children, and family culture? Your friends and family think they have the answer and if you are more committed to them than to a marriage partner, you should not get married. Until a person has reached the point in life where they are willing to become one flesh, you are not committed to marriage.
Family, friends, and others have a multitude of advice, but they never really do know what the living realities of loss, adjustment, and recommitment means or what it will lead them to do because most people are not in any way ready to face this moment with a plan of action in hand.
Consequently for the widowed, the natural expectation is that through the process of grief some will find satisfaction and a way to negotiate a life of meaning. However, for others the transition from grief leads to seeking companionship and attachment through a different relationship complicating life with challenges in ways difficult to negotiate without understanding the dynamics of second marriages later in life.
Cursing or Blessing: The Deceptive Process
When a person has been alone, been through a major crisis, and misses the companionship of marriage; it is easy to be deceived by the belief that this is going to be a breeze and that it will happen easily. I remember hearing those words that echo the sentiments about a loving accepting family who would always be supportive.
I think that people are always surprised by the reactions of family members when a fifth element is thrown into the mix who is not part of the closed loop culture and someone begins to feel threatened. Again, for individuals who have experience the loss of a spouse and later decided to remarry, the decision can bring rewarding consequences, but also it can be a challenge because the decision brings with it many variables that most people have not thought about nor are prepared to face.
When two people decide to get married it results in two separate families and very individual cultures joining after two sets of tragic losses. At the time a marriage occurs, the immediacy of the moment and present needs cloaks many of the issues with the hope that a normal life will return and an existence can be achieved in the joy of the moment; that there will be a respite from the tragic events and prospects of being alone.
However, when a person takes the time is consider the loss, the impact, natural and unresolved pain that death leaves, and the way it will travel through the corridors of time to become a real part of the new couple and family’s second relationships, it is unavoidable that the past events will not affect the present. Realistically, the death of a spouse, mother, or father is an unnatural event occurring at a younger age than expected.
As a result, family members have not yet developed emotional maturity and social skills to enter into a new stage of life with the ability to bridge new relationships over the many differences will experience difficulties, crisis, and developmental pains to make relationships work.
Consequently, these times of marriage for couple can be times of curse or times of blessing depending on the variables in family dynamic, maturity levels, readiness, and the family system dynamics at work.
The Dynamics of Adjustment
People outside the immediate family, individuals who look on with concern, often have simplistic and personalized advice or solutions to these family issues of a natural desire of others want to fix your problems and to impose their values and expectations as fixed solutions to a complex situation.
Other people may have good intentions and think that they need to rescue people to their satisfaction, but unless someone is in danger, people should be a friend from a distance and quietly support families in adjustment. Unfortunately, until people have lived the experience of loss, loneliness and reconstructing life from the complexity of a lost existence, learning how to live in a new social framework is something others may not have a clue about, as well as, understanding the personal and family dynamics involved, even though they care about you and the family.
The dynamics of adjustment start when couples decide to marry and they make the decision to start a new life together. It seems that creating balance should focus upon the quality of the relationship between the two people getting married and not with the vast array of people important to both husband and wife. A marriage relationship begins with two people, not a community, the in-group, or extended people that make up the family, even though they are very important to the quality of life.
The Blending-Negotiating Challenge
Unfortunately, the adjustment experience of widowed couples faces the challenge of coming from two different life experiences and holding different expectations of life, producing potential struggles in adjustment. A commonly reported story line from older remarried couples tells a tale of their inability to focus on their own relationship and find balance because of the demands of adjusting to life in a blended family.
The sad story that is a major contributing reason for high occurrence of divorce in second marriages among the widowed stems from the constant tension between the marriage partners and family members along with difficulty adapting to change. One of the events readily illustrating this tension is family rituals during holiday season celebrations. Adjustment issues grow more intense because of charged emotions that are associated with memories from the past, the importance of traditions, and expectations about what should happen, or who should be in charge of baking the Turkey. There is little doubt that a great sense of security, as well as, well-being in relationships results from striking a balance between self-protection of things of importance to families, traditions, and extending common grace to others through acceptance and flexibility to others.
How is Your Mental Health?
An important matter for all families to consider stems from the fact that everyone struggles with mental health at times, especially when there is great stress put on life and family systems. A honest assessment and general truth serving as a disclaimer is that the mental health and state of persons involved, as well as, family systems functionality influences how all relationships take place– especially when stress exacerbates life in ways that distorts perception, mentalization, and meaning about what is happening in the context of family.
Distorted beliefs about reality and individual perspective is a central factor influencing toxic relationships and behaviors by individuals who express protecting behaviors, which are defense mechanisms demonstrating embedded beliefs of dislike about what has changed or threat. At the heart of strained relationships is a pronounced difference in belief about values i.e., what each person believes is most important. When people are defensive, anger is a typical response and the form it takes is aggression, but unfortunately, in many cases anger cannot express constructive outcome in family events or family systems and often presents passive aggressive attempts to manipulate, control, or punish others revealing deep seated psychopathology underlying the dysfunction of adaptability in family units.
Sources of Defense Mechanisms and Passive Anger
The Fear of Abandonment and Isolation: Unfortunately, people can be very intelligent and have an unrealistic, irrational fear that they will no longer hold a place of importance or be needed as much in a relationship. The fear that they will lose their sense of importance when a new person enters the family unit and people dynamics in relationships change. The fear-felt is that a new person’s role and importance may cause displacement of existing family members.
When there is the a death, family members become comfortable with blurred and overenmeshed boundaries and overenmeshed relationships, which contributes to ineffective relationships, the lack of autonomy, and the fear of loss and anger when faced with change. For the widow/widower the death of a spouse leaves them in a lonely place of uncertainty about where they fit in the world.
The sudden detachment from the primary relationship that defines an identity in the family, community, church contributes to the feelings of confusion when the overly dependent parent who has no autonomy suddenly gets married and suddenly is independent. It is confusing for everyone involved and people become defensive and angry because they just do not understand.
How Unhealthy Attachments Created Dysfunction
The complexity of grief, personal identity confusion, and social role clarification are factors in the behavior of widows and widowers who become such an enormous burden for everyone after the spouse dies, by clinging to existing relationships and things that provide salience and security in a time of such unknowable loss to others.
What others, even family do not understand is that while children go home to their spouse and family, they are left alone and have lost their spousal support system, which leaves them feeling detached socially, emotionally, and psychologically. A common phenomenon that occurs is the formation of unhealthy attachments and widows/widowers become overly dependent upon other significant family members for the basic support needed. Unfortunately, this is the building material for an unhealthy relationship dynamic dissolving existing role expectations, boundaries, and autonomy, which inhibits functional and productive relationships.
Families and Friends Who Become Surrogates
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 spousal 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 that 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 nor accepted. 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 about how attachment is related to perceived identity issues, as well as, adjusting to changing roles and expectations in a family system resulting from remarriage. Another fact not understood is that social identity and feelings of security are instantly impacted as life-developments like death, divorce, and remarriage occur. The 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 does within a system, in response to changes in life, roles, identity, and relationship challenges in a family system determines the quality of life.
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 loses a spouse, experiences a divorced, or remarries; do others realize that there the response to the fear of change, the loss of control, and unresolved grief is affecting every area and every relationships in life. The simple, truth is that selfish choices result in heartache for everyone. Something 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.
Obviously, staying angry is your choice and ultimately it 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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