When Your Past Divorce Is Ruining Your Marriage

What to Do When Your Past Divorce Is Ruining Your Marriage

I am a long time marriage counselor who has worked with many couples trying to navigate the pitfalls of a new second marriage after their first marriage ended in the hurt and anger of unresolved issues and conflicts.

Importance of doing family therapy to mitigate the effects of issues

Many people are not sufficiently aware of the importance of doing family therapy to mitigate the effects of unresolved issues stemming from the first marriage. In the forthcoming article, I will provide the following case study as an example of how critical family therapy is in trying the process of establishing a new marriage on a sound footing.

I recently saw a middle-aged couple whereby the husband had an only child, a son in his early twenties. The wife had never been married and had no children. The couple came in complaining that the husband’s son, who is now living with them, was creating a wedge in their relationship.

A little background

The husband’s former marriage ended 17 years ago. The issues that sabotaged that marriage involved an untreated mood disorder on the ex-wife’s part alongside significant financial stress (the husband was experiencing a great deal of difficulty finding work).

What further complicated the relationship was that, through the years, the ex-wife bad-mouthed the son’s father to the son on a regular basis. She claimed that he was grossly irresponsible when, in fact, his neglecting to provide sufficient child support was due to his difficulties finding suitable employment.

A conscious choice to bend over backward to be indulgent and lax

As time went on, the father made a conscious choice to bend over backward to be indulgent and lax with his son. His thought process was that since he only saw his son on the weekends, he needed to establish a positive atmosphere (especially given the fact that the boy’s mother routinely spoke negatively about the father.)

Fast-forward a handful of years and the son is now an older teenager.

The young man has found it increasingly difficult to live with his mother since she had still not dealt with her mood disorder and erratic behavior. Besides being unpredictably angry and critical, she frequently vented to him about her interpersonal problems. The son could no longer tolerate the situation and consequently moved in with his father.

The father, unfortunately, continued to coddle and baby him. The presenting problem the newly married couple brought to the couples counseling sessions was that the new wife found herself in a very difficult and frustrating position.

She felt that her husband’s son was a distraction to their relationship since he always complained to his father about his mother and how emotionally needy and demanding she was of him.

Becoming a trusted confidante and quasi-therapist

The young man’s father had, as a result, become a trusted confidante and quasi-therapist, with the young man frequently commiserating with his father about how difficult his mother was. This made the father quite stressed and even depressed. This greatly perturbed his wife.

In addition, it is noteworthy that, since the young man was never expected to do chores as a coddled only-child, he came to expect his father and stepmother to do his laundry, prepare his meals, pay for his cell phone, car insurance, etc. This was a big irritant to the wife and became a real bone of contention.

Reluctance to take a stance

The wife/stepmother felt that it was grossly inappropriate for the son to treat his bedroom like a “garbage dump”. In her mind, his slovenly room had become a sanitary issue. The son would discard used food wrappers on the floor and she was concerned that mice and insects would infiltrate the whole house. She begged her husband to take a strong stance with his son, but he was reluctant.

The issue came to a head when the new wife/stepmother confronted her new husband with an ultimatum. Her husband would either hold his son accountable to age-appropriate standards by refusing to wholly support him, require him to do chores, maintain his room, etc.

Additionally, she requested that her husband persuade his son to move out on his own. (It’s important to note that the son did, in fact, have a source of income working full time in a retail outlet. Nevertheless, the father never asked the son to contribute substantially to the family household budget since this was part of his indulgent pattern).

Getting the punch line

Here is where family therapy is so critical and effective. I invited in the young man for an individual session to discuss his life stressors and his perspective on his family relationships. The invitation was framed as an opportunity to improve his relationship with his father and new stepmother.

Understanding the ambivalent feelings

Understanding the ambivalent feelings

I quickly build rapport with the young man and he was able to open up regarding his strong, yet ambivalent feelings about his mother, father, and new stepmother. He also spoke about is ambivalence and fear regarding becoming more autonomous.

Within a relatively short period of time, however, I was able to persuade him of the merits of moving into an apartment with friends.

Becoming comfortable managing his own affair

I explained that, for his own personal growth and development, it was critical for him to become comfortable managing his own affairs and living independently. After successfully engaging the young man in the process of assuming ownership of this concept, I invited in the married couple to a family session with the young man.

Establishing a new tone of support and collaboration

In that family session, it was essential to establish a new tone of support and collaboration between the young man and the stepmother. He was now able to see her as an ally who had his best interest in mind, rather than a critical, harping stepmom.

In addition, the father was able to change the tone and substance of his relationship by articulating an approach that would firmly, yet respectfully hold his son accountable to age-appropriate expectations. I would finally add that it might even be helpful to bring in the mother and son for a family session to further harmonize the broader family dynamic.

To the extent that the young man would no longer have to deal with the ongoing stress of his mother’s undiagnosed mood disorder, he would not need to rely so much on the father for emotional support.

Seeking treatment for her mood disorder

The objective in the mother-son family therapy session would, therefore, be to gently convince the mother of the value and importance of her seeking treatment for her mood disorder. In addition, it would be important to persuade the mother to seek out a therapist for emotional support as opposed to commiserating with her son.

As evidenced by this case study, it is readily apparent how critical it is to expand the scope of couples counseling to include family therapy when needed. I would encourage all therapists and potential clients of relationship counseling to consider conjoint family therapy if the circumstances call for adjustments in the dynamic of the family system.

Garrett Coan
Clinical Social Worker
Garrett Coan is a couples counselor and relationship therapist in Clifton, NJ. For almost 20 years, he has helped couples improve their communication, resolve difficult wedge issues and move past resentment and hurt. He also successfully coaches individuals who have trouble with trust, intimacy and making commitments in their relationships.