Dear Dr. Bill: My ex-husband and I were divorced several years ago because he was not committed to spending time with our son. Also, he was not a Christian at the time. But since then, he found the Lord and has changed dramatically. As a result, we are thinking about getting remarried. We both feel like our past issues have been sorted out, but we're a little unsure of how long we should wait before making this new commitment. What do you suggest?
First of all, let me tell you how encouraged I was to read your e-mail. In a day when divorce is so rampant and reconciliation is so rare, it was truly a blessing to hear your story.
Regarding your question, it's hard to give you a specific timeline for remarriage. You say that your "past issues have been sorted out," but you don't mention what those issues were.
You also mention that your husband has dramatically changed since his conversion, but you're a bit unsure about remarriage. That leads mea to believe you may still have some lingering concerns.
Jesus tells us that a "good tree produces good fruit." Given your past concerns, you should make sure you've seen the "good fruit" of your husband's conversion manifested over time before you jump back into marriage. Your son has already been impacted by your divorce, and you certainly don't want to make matters worse by remarrying and then splitting up again if things don't work out.
My advice would be to meet with an experienced marriage counselor who can help you determine the best course of action. He or she can help you fully explore whether you are ready for remarriage. You might seek out a counselor who is familiar with a relationship assessment tool called "Prepare and Enrich." The test will help you and your husband to see what lingering issues you may need to address before moving ahead.
Ed. Note: Life Innovations and Focus on the Family have created a customized version of the Prepare and Enrich relationship assessment tool called the Couple Checkup.
Dear Dr. Bill: My husband and I got married this last November, but we dated for three and a half years prior to the wedding. We both had 3-year-olds who are now 6 and 7 years old. Recently, my step-daughter started calling me "Mom." She also wrote things in her diary about "mommy and daddy are making dinner, mommy is reading," and so on. We know about this because she showed the diary to my husband. A few days later, she took the diary to her mother's house and let her read it as well.
Well, that led to BIG problems! My husband's ex-wife called us, crying and mad because we hadn't told her anything about it. We explained we were as shocked as she was, especially since this little girl had struggled with the new family arrangements. My husband's ex wants her daughter to use my first name only, but I'd prefer she call me "step-mom" or by some other name. What complicates matters is that my son has started referring to my husband as "Dad" and now we're expecting a new baby ourselves! I guess we're all uncertain about what's best for the children. Do you have any advice?
Your e-mail demonstrates just how difficult and complicated stepfamily relationships can be. No matter how our culture tries to sugarcoat it, divorce and remarriage is very tough on kids.
I asked stepfamily expert Ron Deal about your situation. Ron believes that the labels children use often indicate the level of emotional attachment they feel with stepfamily members. A stepparent who started off being referred to as "Sara, my dad's wife" may become "mom" in a few years. Ron says that the labels children use aren't crucial to family success. What is important is that children are given the freedom to choose the labels with which they are most comfortable. In other words, don't force them to call a stepparent "mommy” but don't scold them for doing it either. A more affectionate label like "mommy" generally indicates that the child is growing more comfortable and trusting of the stepparent.
He goes on to explain that it's important to remember that labels can change with circumstances and as children grow. A child who just returned from a weekend visitation with dad may refrain from calling his stepfather "dad" for a few days because he is missing his biological father. Once the sadness wanes, the usual label typically returns. Another example is a child calling a stepparent "mom" unless their biological mom is physically in the room. A child may pull back in this situation and refer to the stepparent by their first name so they don't hurt the biological mom's feelings. Very young children often use loving terms like "daddy" and "mommy" very quickly, but may refrain that once they reach adolescence. The change in label demonstrates the challenge the child feels in deciding just how close to hold the stepparent and how to balance loyalties to biological parents.
Ron says that in an ideal situation, the children would be given permission to use whatever term they are comfortable with for their stepparent. Ultimately this permission must come from the biological parents. Since your step-daughter's biological mom fells threatened by her calling you "mommy," she needs to be reassured that she can never be replaced in her daughter's heart, no matter what label she uses. Biological parents have an incomparable God-given bond with their children that cannot be replaced.
If your step-daughter's biological mom is unable or unwilling to give her permission to call you "mommy," your husband needs to make sure that your daughter doesn't feel guilty about this. He should say something like, "Look, I know this puts you in a tight spot between your mom and your stepmother. Apparently your mom isn't comfortable with you calling Donna "mommy." I know this is tough for you. Whatever you want to do is okay with Donna and me. The most important thing is that we love you, not what you call us."
Dear Dr. Bill: I remarried about four years ago and at first, everything seemed to be going well in our new family. But recently, my 15-year-old son has not been getting along with his step-dad, and I feel caught in the middle. My husband and son used to get along, but once my son became interested in girls and other things they drifted apart. This has quickly turned into hostility and a few shouting matches back and forth. I don't know what to do at this point. How do I choose between these two men in my life? Please help.
What you're describing is fairly common in step-families. Conflict will often erupt between a child and a step-parent when the child enters adolescence. It's normal for kids to begin to assert more independence when they reach the teen years, and sometimes this will result in a period of rebellion. The process is much more complicated in step-families, due to divided loyalties and confused roles.
I asked my friend Ron Deal, founder of SmartStepfamilies.com, about your situation, and here's what he recommends. First, it's a mistake to think you need to "choose" between your husband and your son. Rather than framing this as an "either or" situation, you need to see this in terms of "both and." Instead of taking sides, try to rise above the conflict and help each of them to see the other's perspective.
In every stepfamily situation, Ron believes the husband and wife need to make their marriage a priority. Allowing parenting conflicts to tear your relationship apart is the worst thing you can do for your kids.
As parents, you need to act as a unified team — clarify your expectations for your son, discuss the rules he'll be expected to follow, and agree on the consequences if he breaks those rules. Also, as the biological parent, you should take the lead when it comes to discipline. If you're always taking the "good cop" role with your son, you force your husband to always play the "bad cop." That arrangement is sure to drive a permanent wedge between your son and your husband.
I'd highly recommend you pick up Ron' Deal's book, The Smart Stepfamily. You and your husband should make a commitment to read it together and then implement Ron's advice. It also might be wise to seek the help of a therapist who specializes in step-family relationships. Our Focus on the Family counseling department can provide you with a referral in your local area.