Nobody really expected them, although the bride and groom, whose combined age exceeded 140 years, never truly gave up hope that their grown kids would show up for their wedding. “Ghosting” rituals that signify parental late-life re-partnering—engagement, marriage, or moving in together—is the most obvious expression of the loyalty conflicts many adult children feel when a divorced or even widowed parent decides to take a late-life chance on love. According to recent research, Journal of Family Issues (July 2017), the conflicts may be hidden and/or visible. While most welcome the newcomer into the family and celebrate their parent’s newfound happiness, others signify their disapproval in passive aggressive ways from behaving rudely, hypothetically comparing the new partner to the former, shunning important family events, and temporarily or even permanently estranging themselves from the new couple.
Late-life re-partnering is becoming more and more common as life expectancy increases. When grown kids oppose it, the well-being of both generations may be affected. Conflicts over issues concerning inheritance, jealousy, and anger regarding changes in a re-partnered parent’s priorities are typical, while threats to the memory and increased idealization of the deceased parent are more common in those whose widowed survivor attempts to move on with life. While the length of time between the funeral and the wedding has some effect on children’s feelings, it’s not determinative; “Time is not the essence here,” said one daughter whose father remarried seven years after his wife’s death. “When Dad was alive, there was more joy, more getting together, more fun. These are two different worlds, at least for me. What changed is that there’s no more Dad.”
Hidden conflicts are less obvious to others, but often comparisons between the deceased parent and the parent’s new partner are expressed in other ways: “When she started redecorating the house and got rid of all Mom’s antiques and replaced them with this awful modern junk, I just stopped going there.” Even for those who have accepted a new partner in a parent’s life, hidden issues of eternal loyalty to the deceased continue to trouble them: “Will Mom still be buried with Dad?”
While the disapproval of their adult children may be painful for the new couple, it’s usually not sufficient to break them up. “I sat them down and said, this woman is not your mother and has no intention of dishonoring her memory or replacing her in your affections. I’m 78 years old, of sound mind and relatively okay body, and so is she. Our getting married won’t change your lives or deprive you of anything, but it will vastly enrich my own. I hope you can be happy for me, but if not, that’s your problem, not mine.”
There are instances when the adult children of re-partnering parents may have reasons to mistrust the object of their parents’ affections. Some conduct their own investigations, looking for red flags that might turn up in a routine background check or internet search. Others hire professional investigators, most often when the surviving parent has substantial financial assets or is marrying a much younger or otherwise inappropriate partner. And many remarrying senior citizens sign prenuptial agreements, often at the insistence of their grown kids.
“All I ever wanted was for them to be happy,” said a widowed friend whose three adult children were anything but happy when he announced, a year after his wife’s death, that a woman he’d met recently was moving into his house. “Why don’t they want us to be?” he wonders. Two of his kids are grown and gone, with families of their own, and even though they weren’t thrilled about his new relationship, they eventually came to the wedding another year later. But the third and youngest child, a 34-year-old who’d tried and failed at making a life of his own for over a decade and lived at home until his father’s new partner moved in, still hasn’t accepted her. “On the other hand, he’s got an apartment, a job, and is finally supporting himself,” said his father. “Maybe it took me getting on with my own life for him to find one of his own. I hope he comes around, but if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. And if he ghosts my funeral too, I‘ll get over it.”