October 29, 2009 / Psychology Today
As I researched my book Stepmonster, I realized all the ways in which a remarriage with children is different from a first marriage or partnership. The list goes on and on, but privacy and boundaries tend to be big issues. Martin Babits, a couples therapist and author of The Power of the Middle Ground: a Couple’s Guide to Renewing Your Relationship, is my guest blogger today, and has this to say:
It’s been four years since the divorce that ended my 27 year marriage. How and why it happened is a story I’ll tell you some other time. My son, knowing that it is not even a remote possibility, is rooting for his mom and I to get back together. He has tried to persuade me to limit the length of my dating to six weeks per dating partner. “After that,” he counsels,” you’ve got to find someone else and start again., dad.”
So now that I am having a relationship with a woman, a woman I am crazy about, and have been seeing for well beyond the six week stint that he approves, I get considerable bristling and growling in response to mostly everything, mostly everyday.He avoids her at every turn. Before she’s been invited into the picture in any formal sense, he’s invited her out.
Up to now, I’ve had no privacy in my post-divorce living space. My bed is set down in a combination living and dining room area. It’s large enough to separate into two rooms but I haven’t built a divide. Why didn’t I put a wall up? Probably because I’ve felt guilty about not being able to shield my son from the pain of the divorce. So with no wall, I’m on 24/7 call. I’ve been focused on making him feel how important he is to me. Whenever I think of moving on, the following question dogs me: “How can you bring a new person into your living situation (my son lives with me) against his vehement opposition?” This is where I have been stuck.
Wednesday Martin, like the good friend that she is to all her readers, helped me reason this through. Reason, not as in Archimedes’ principle; I’m talking about heart-reason, emotional logic. Stepmonster helped me understand that by living without a private space for myself, I was sending my son a confusing and essentially untrue message: that time was standing still. Also, he had a room with a door. Was I telling him–by my actions–that his needs trumped mine? That’s not how I want him to understand me; it benefits neither of us. We both have to learn to take care of ourselves.
Children of divorce, probably universally, harbor fantasies of their parents reuniting. Having no wall invites him to misinterpret what I am doing and feeling. It is of form of colluding with him by allowing the fantasy of parental reunification to comfortably flourish. As his dad, I realize that he needs to accept that the ending of my romantic relationship with his mother has already occurred; it is a fact rooted in the past and not to be revisited. The inevitability of my son’s need to grieve the losses he has experienced as a result of the divorce – and the fact that the divorce marked the finale of his childhood – amount to a double assault on his sense of security; two tough blows, two rough psychological truths that he must learn to come to terms with.
Maturation is dotted with traumatic interludes. Failure to grieve brings on failure to thrive. So the wall that marks my readiness to move forward in my life, to re-establish my need for privacy and the prospect of a life – or at least a significant portion of a life that is uninterrupted by my son and intentionally kept separate from his experience–is now appropriate. Maybe the wall is a way of walling out the past from the present; or at least walling out the predominance of the past in the present.
Stalling on the wall registers as a vote of no-confidence in his (and my) learning to handle the changes in our lives. Seeing it from this vantage, I am tempted to erect a series of walls, one for each developmental juncture–in my son’s and my own past–that needs resolving. But, of course, I know the bulk of this work gets done internally. So, it’s one wall to represent them all.
The Power of the Middle Ground: A Couple’s guide to Renewing Your Relationship by Martin Babits, LCSW, BCD