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When Guilty Father Syndrome Threatens Your Marriage

Dinners at my house look more like a neighborhood block party than the average family get-together. My big, fabulous family comes complete with two former wives and eight children, five of whom belong to my husband, one to me, and two to both of us.

As a stepmother, I've learned a few things over the past 20 years, not only from my own family but also from my friends' families. One thing I have noticed is that most stepmoms happily enter their new marriages with a sincere desire to create a loving, functional, blended family. However, mixing a family is like mixing oil and vinegar; it's not as easy as it looks. So it doesn't surprise me that a second marriage that includes stepchildren is even more likely to end in divorce (and in a shorter amount of time) than the first marriage.

Every stepmom knows a marriage that comes with a built-in family comes with built-in challenges. She may assume that fights with the stepkids will pose the greatest threat to her new family, but, in observing the couples around me, I've found this not to be the case. It doesn't take long for reality to land a mighty sucker punch: getting remarried is easy, but staying happily married, in round two with stepchildren, is no easy gig. The greatest challenge is not usually direct conflict with the stepchildren, but rather, conflict over the parenting of the stepchildren, especially if the new husband suffers from Guilty Father Syndrome.

Guilty Father Syndrome occurs when a divorced father's guilt about his family breaking apart manifests in his uncontrollable need to please the emotionally wounded children. Aware of the emotional toll of divorce, guilty fathers vie for favorite-parent status by indulging a child's every whim. He simultaneously becomes a toy store, ATM and doormat. Guilty fathers toss discipline out the window, avoid the enforcement of household rules, and spoil their kids with heaps of material items. Even worse, they completely abdicate the heavy lifting of parenting, allowing the new wife to take on a dreaded new role: "The Enforcer."

This is where the marital trouble begins. Instead of being thanked for stepping up, The Enforcer is ostracized. Despised by the children, resented by her husband, and abhorred by his ex-wife, it's lose-lose all around! This tension-filled situation often causes a once-hopeful family to start falling apart. When the frustration of the situation boils over, the new stepmom's survival instinct kicks in. She disconnects emotionally from her husband and disengages from parenting his children. This sideline stance may work for a while, but the resentment incurred can eventually hammer in the last nail of the marriage coffin. 

I discuss the marital challenges of Guilty Father Syndrome in my book "The Real Secrets Women Only Whisper." However, "Guilty Parent Syndrome" is probably a more apt name, as it can affect both fathers and mothers. The most important thing to remember when living in this volatile situation is to not lose hope. There are plenty of things you can do to help increase the odds of your marriage surviving.

Firstly, you really don't want to be single and start over again as the next marriage will have an even smaller chance of success. So commit to making your marriage work by reinforcing to your spouse your personal commitment to your marriage. Next, educate your spouse about Guilty Parent Syndrome and the long-term, toxic effect it can have on children. Make it perfectly clear that if left unchecked, the children will become resistant to any and all guidance or authority. He needs to understand that rules and accountability make children feel safe and loved. A lack of boundaries will open the door for everything you don't want for your children: depression, poor grades, drug experimentation and reckless promiscuity. When you love them, you have to parent them. Children understand the difference between showing love and buying affection. Guilty parents need to understand that, too.

It's never too late to get on the same page with your significant other. Decide together what the new rules are for the children, then have a family meeting to discuss expectations, responsibilities and consequences. And by all means, don't let the children bounce back and forth depending on who their favorite parent is. Agree to support each other and never allow the children to disrespect the stepparent or, for that matter, the absent biological parent. 

Guilty Parent Syndrome doesn't have to tear your family apart. The more you understand the nature of divorced parents, as well as the nature of stepchildren, the better prepared you can be to keep your family together. If you manage to hang in there and stay married, you may find that one day, when you least expect it, you will receive an unexpected, heartfelt "thank you" for doing the heavy lifting of parenting. After more than 20 years of being a stepmom, I can't imagine my life today without my husband and my great, big, fabulous family. So while family game night may require three different decks of cards, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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