When Susan Philips of Los Angeles met her 88-year-old widowed father’s “lady friend,” she felt as if she had been propelled into another world, she says. It was a world in which her mother, married to her dad for 60 years, was forgotten.
“It was like, ‘Who is this woman, and what is she doing with her hand on my father’s shoulder?’ ” says Ms. Philips, an educator and author of “Stepchildren Speak.”
With parents living longer than ever and many of them marrying a second or third time, their offspring are being launched unexpectedly into the world of adult stepfamilies.
In fact, about 500,000 Americans older than 65 remarry each year, and most of them have adult children, says Dr. Grace Gabe, a psychiatrist and co-author of “Step Wars: Overcoming the Perils and Making Peace in Adult Stepfamilies.”
In addition, the number of men and women 65 and older who choose to live together without getting married has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to AARP. Almost 266,600 couples in the 65-plus age group were cohabiting in 2000.
The remarried or cohabiting seniors usually believe their new relationship will be stress-free because their children are grown and out of the nest. However, like Ms. Philips, many react to their parents’ recoupling with a range of intense emotions.
“Often, the children who were supposed to be happy for their parents have a really tough time,” Dr. Gabe says. Rather than immediately toasting their parents’ newfound happiness, they often feel strong tugs of loyalty to their other parent, whether that parent is alive or not.
The grown children may worry that they’ll be “abandoned” by their parent or displaced by the new stepparent and his or her children. Some also fear their inheritance will be appropriated by the new partner and that they’ll inherit nothing when their parent dies, Dr. Gabe says.
To cope with such worries, adult children often make the mistake of distancing themselves from their remarried parent and new stepparent. They call and visit less often or assume their parent is too busy or too much in love to take time for them.
A better way is for them to express their feelings, be honest about their inheritance worries and try to stay connected, suggests Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “Nobody’s Baby Now: Re-inventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father.”
“Take it on yourself to be the person in charge of keeping the relationship as tight as possible, rather than sitting back and allowing the new partner to essentially run the show,” Miss Newman says.
Ultimately, after a readjustment period, the offspring often feel grateful for the presence of the new stepparents in their lives. Once they have accepted their new family members, grown stepchildren generally say they’re happy their parents have new partners to love and care for them.
Many also appreciate having an “extra” or new grandparent for their children, and, in time, they bond with stepsiblings.
“I love my stepmom,” says Stacy Amaral of Pittsburgh. “She is a wonderful, caring, giving person. I love her for loving my father unconditionally. She’s sweet and great to talk to.”
Lisa Earle McLeod of Atlanta also appreciates her stepmom for caring for her father. “After my mom died, we all thought, ‘Who’s going to manage my father?’ ” she says. “We were so glad a woman entered the scene. My stepmom also became my daughter’s grandmother. There is nothing that will endear you more than a woman who steps in and offers to be a grandma.”
Before grown children can realize such benefits, however, they may need to address feelings of jealousy, confusion and worry as well as loyalty conflicts.
To avoid engaging in battles with parents and their spouses, adult offspring need to tackle their fear of expressing what’s in their hearts and thoughts, says Brian Carpenter, a psychologist and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Often people feel they can’t speak candidly,” Mr. Carpenter says. “That’s the stumbling block that families [sometimes] can’t get over when a parent remarries. But you have to talk about these things.”