By Patricia Papernow
I could hear the desperation in Joe’s voicemail. “I’m 62. I’ve been remarried for two years,” he said. “I’ve found the love of my life, but my daughter Julia refuses to spend any time with us. Help!”
Later-life recoupled family situations like this one are appearing more and more often in therapists’ offices. That’s because, although divorce rates have dwindled in the United States over the last two decades, they’re soaring among people over 50, along with rates of remarriage (and redivorce). The understandable fantasy is: “The kids are grown and the dog is dead. Now it’s our time.” However, these later-life recouplers face many of the same challenges that younger stepfamilies do, complicated by the long-standing networks of relationships that come with this life stage.
I’ve now had many cases like Joe’s where normal late-life recoupling challenges have been intensified by painful, unresolved father–daughter dynamics. The adult daughters in these families respond to the pressure to embrace Dad’s new love with cold distance or a flood of heartache and anger. New partners often feel hurt by this behavior, and protective of their husbands. As a result, recoupled dads like Joe find themselves bewildered, torn between two people they love, and feeling they’re failing miserably with both of them.
What’s a Therapist to Do?
Well-meaning therapists can make a number of mistakes with these families. Joe and Lesley’s previous couple therapist had advised Joe that his daughter needed to accept reality. “Put your couple relationship first,” she told him. Lesley’s individual therapist had said, “Don’t let Julia triangulate. Confront her directly.”
These prescriptions may be appropriate for some first-time families. For stepfamilies, however, they’re misguided and even destructive. Joe’s effort to put his marriage before his daughter and Lesley’s attempt to “be direct,” only deepened the anguish between Joe and his daughter, and heightened the tension for Joe and Lesley.
Both sets of counsel ignore the fact that parent–child relationships are as much a part of the current reality of a stepfamily as the new couple. In stepfamilies, children of all ages need time alone with their parents and often experience stepparents as interlopers. Successful stepcouples don’t rush children into acceptance, nor do they privilege the couple relationship over parent–child ties. They honor both.
In cases like Joe’s, there’s an additional challenge: Long-standing ruptures in the father–daughter relationship will need repair before Julia will be ready to open to Joe’s new love. Meanwhile, Lesley and Joe will need to turn away from pressing Julia toward “blending” and toward each other for comfort and compassion.
Sometimes, this new framework is enough to get these families unstuck and on their way. Not so for this family.
Stepping Toward the Pain
One of the chief therapeutic tasks in stepfamilies like these is to get dads to move closer to the pain of both their daughters and their partners. Sensing that Joe would need considerable support for this, I began by meeting alone with him.
Joe was a big man, but in our first individual session he looked small and forlorn. We sat quietly. Finally, he asked, “Will Julia ever accept Lesley?”
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly. “I’ve seen these relationships get a lot better over time. But it’s not going to happen until you get closer to your daughter.”
Joe nodded slowly. “Okay. What’s next?”
“The conversation I can help you have with Julia isn’t about convincing her to apologize,” I said. “It’s hearing about how much she’s missed you and how much she needs you. That’s what will bring her back to you. Meanwhile, Lesley is also going to need you. You’re the center of this new family, Joe. Julia and Lesley are part of the tangle, but you’re the one who’s most connected to each of them. That makes you the go-to person right now, and maybe for a while.”
“Let’s do it,” he said.
Reassuring Lesley that Joe and Julia would concentrate on healing their relationship with each other, not on bashing Lesley, we now set up a meeting for Dad and daughter. Guessing things would get more fraught for this couple before they got easier, we also set up a series of couple appointments.
From Blending to Repair
Julia had almost no track record of voicing her feelings to her dad, so I began their first joint session alone with her, helping her find some language for her distress.
Julia sat up, leaned forward, and launched. “You were never home. You’d ask me about my grades, but you never asked me about me. After the divorce, you just disappeared. Dad, you were barely part of our family. And now you want me to join this new family?”
“Joe,” I said gently but firmly, “could you look at Julia and tell her what you understand about what she just said?”
Joe’s brow furrowed. He looked up at Julia. “Sounds like you felt like I didn’t care about you.”
Finally, Julia said, “It’s been so hard watching you and Lesley. You never looked at Mom in that warm, loving way. At first I thought I was mad for Mom. Then I realized it was me, Dad. You never looked at me that way.”
Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry,” he said, looking fully at Julia.
I asked gently, “What happens inside, Julia, when your dad says this?”
“It’s awfully late,” she said bitterly.
Moving to help her stay engaged, I said: “You’ve wanted this for so long, right?” She nodded, wiping away a tear. “Can you tell your dad?”
They’d made a good start. “I think you have a lot of catching up to do,” I told them. “How about starting with doing some things together regularly, without Lesley?”
“I bet I can still beat you in tennis,” Joe said.
“We’ll see about that,” Julia shot back, smiling just slightly.
Rebuilding and Deepening
Joe and Julia began getting together every couple of weeks without Lesley, intermittently coming in for sessions with me. I began by asking them to share stories about each other from Julia’s childhood, moving from there into deeper territory. As Julia began to feel more known by her dad, she became increasingly confident and playful with him. I now began to ask Julia to provide “joining” for Joe as he disclosed more about straining to be a good breadwinner and feeling awkward parenting a girl.
Patience and Persistence
Julia kept her distance from Lesley for two more years. During this time, Joe remained a kind of “shuttle diplomat.” He continued meeting with Julia without Lesley.
By Lesley and Joe’s fourth anniversary, Julia’s relationship with her dad was becoming increasingly secure. Around this time, we scheduled a joint meeting with everyone involved. For the first time, Julia told Lesley directly how painful it had been to watch her dad being so loving to another woman. “I know I was awful to you,” she said to Lesley, looking somewhat embarrassed. “But,” she continued, “if this hadn’t happened, maybe my dad and I would still be strangers.”
As I near four decades of doing this work, I continue to be deeply moved by these families. Guiding them away from the all too easy wrong turns can feel like some combination of wrestling alligators and tenderly rocking the vulnerable child in each of them. As in Joe’s family, helping our clients in stepfamily relationships to meet the complex challenges they face often requires defying deeply held expectations about what successful family life looks like. It’s still some of the most difficult and the most satisfying work I do.
This blog is excerpted from "The Remarriage Triangle" by Patricia Papernow. The full version is available in the January/February 2016 issue, Speaking of Sex: Why Is It Still So Difficult?
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