"I really love Peter, but I can't stop thinking about my first husband, Rob, who died three years ago," said Cheryl, 42, an event planner who recently remarried and now lives with Peter, his daughter, Annie, 11, and her two children, Scott, 16, and Ellie, 13. "It's almost as if his ghost were haunting our new family.
"The day Rob died was horrible, and I'll never forget it. We'd taken the kids to a barbecue at a friend's beach house. He was standing near the grill, commenting on the gorgeous weather, when he suddenly collapsed. At first we all thought that he'd fainted. Our friend tried to revive him, but he didn't respond so we called 911. But by the time the ambulance arrived it was too late. He'd had a massive heart attack. It was so awful; I never had the chance to say good-bye.
"The next two years are a total blur. I muddled my way through, thanks to a lot of help from family and friends. Scott and Ellie went to therapy for a while, and I joined a bereavement group for widows. In fact, that's how I met Peter. One of the women in my group kept trying to set me up with him. I was reluctant but eventually agreed to meet him for dinner. On our first date we just clicked.
"We got married a year later in a small ceremony at a restaurant near my home. It was bittersweet. I was happy, but my kids cried the whole time. It's not that they don't like Peter; it's just that they felt I was replacing their father. Quite frankly, things have gone steadily downhill ever since. Peter and I fight a lot more than Rob and I ever did, and our house is in chaos all the time. The biggest source of tension is the kids. I just don't think Peter is sensitive enough to what my children have gone through.
"He thinks I let Ellie and Scott get away with murder. I think he's too demanding. Okay, so they don't make their beds every day. Is that a crime? My kids lost their father, for heaven's sake. They don't need to be constantly badgered by their stepdad.
"There are also issues with Peter's daughter. Annie is with us Thursdays and Fridays and every other weekend. She and Ellie share a room and they bicker constantly. Annie is always borrowing Ellie's stuff, and that makes my daughter furious. I tell her she has to share, but I also feel that Annie needs to respect boundaries a little more. Peter and I fight about this kind of stuff — and we usually end up siding with our own kids.
"Believe me, I know this is hard on Peter, too. He is trying so hard to build a relationship with my children, but they aren't making it easy. I feel terrible when I overhear them say things like, 'My dad never made us do that.' And last month he got really upset at Ellie's birthday party when I asked a friend to take some pictures of just my kids and me. He told me later that he felt shut out. I feel bad about that. I didn't mean to hurt him. In hindsight I don't even know what I was thinking. It was just a really stressful day. Oh, and speaking of pictures, I keep a lot of family photos around the house — most have Rob in them. Peter once made a joke about that, but I can tell it bugs him.
"I know how incredibly lucky I am to have found such a wonderful husband. But the romance is already gone in our relationship. We hardly ever spend time alone, and most nights he goes to bed and I sit on the sofa watching Jon Stewart. You'd never believe we're newlyweds."
"I'm living in the shadow of my wife's first husband," said Peter, 44, a marketing company executive. "Rob still seems to be so much a part of Cheryl and her kids' lives that I often feel like a third wheel. I constantly find myself second-guessing everything, wondering 'What would Rob do?'
"Believe me, I understand that his sudden death was traumatic for the family. I know the last few years have been hard, and I try to respect that. But our day-to-day life can be extremely frustrating. For one thing, Cheryl is constantly worrying about her kids' psychological health. It's as if she thinks spoiling them is going to make things better. Cheryl has a full-time job, but she still does everything for Scott and Ellie. She makes rules and then breaks them: She'll tell Scott he has an 11 p.m. curfew, and when he waltzes in after midnight she doesn't say a thing.
"They're good kids, but I don't like the way they treat Annie. And I don't like how they treat me either. They're rude, and when I call them on it all hell breaks loose. Ellie cries, Scott tells me I'm not his dad, and Cheryl yells that I'm being too hard on her children.
"Not a day goes by that I don't feel like I'm being compared to Rob — and never quite measuring up. And then there are times when I just feel totally shut out, like at Ellie's 13th birthday party. Cheryl spent the entire time saying things like, 'I wish Rob could have seen his daughter as a teenager.' And then for some reason she didn't want me in the pictures. She took a few group shots that included me and Annie, but the photos are mostly of her and her kids. Now that I think of it, she hardly has any pictures of me in our house, but everywhere I look I see photos of Rob.
"The funny thing is, Cheryl has told me things that make me think that maybe her first marriage wasn't all that terrific. She once said that she could never talk to Rob about her feelings the way she can talk to me. It doesn't sound as if they shared many of the same interests. But she only remembers the good stuff. She has put Rob on a pedestal since his death.
"We got along so well when we were dating, but now we're constantly at odds. I knew Cheryl was emotional, and that was one of the things I loved about her. But she can be so over-the-top at times. I refuse to get into a screaming match, so I just walk outside to get some air whenever she starts. Then she really goes nuts and accuses me of not caring. I can't win.
"I'm totally committed to making this relationship work. My first marriage ended in divorce. When I remarried I really thought I could get it right. Now I'm not so sure. That's why I suggested we start therapy. I truly love Cheryl and want to build a life with her, but our current situation is just unbearable."
The Counselor's Turn
This family was tangled up in so many issues they needed to sort through," said the counselor. "Both Peter and Cheryl were trying to build a life together, but the memories of Rob's death as well as the usual tensions of blending two families were complicating their efforts.
"I told Cheryl that I thought she was struggling with survivor's guilt: Subconsciously she was sabotaging her new marriage out of fear that she would dishonor Rob's memory. 'It's perfectly normal for you to feel as if you're somehow being unfaithful to Rob,' I told her. 'But you deserve to be happy, and you're lucky that you found a man who loves you and your kids.'
"I also told Cheryl that I thought she held the misguided impression that she could protect her children from further pain if she indulged them. 'If anything, Scott and Ellie need you to provide structure and stability to help make them feel secure,' I explained.
"So in our next few sessions we focused on ways to deal with issues involving the kids. I reminded Cheryl and Peter that blending families is always challenging. One easy fix was to give Annie some space of her own so she didn't feel like a visitor in her dad's new home. Peter and Cheryl decided to turn a home office into a bedroom for her — and her battles with Ellie eased up right away.
"We also talked about why Ellie and Scott were having a difficult time adapting to the new family picture. 'They're teenagers,' I said. 'They're at the stage when they are trying to pull away from parents, not find new ones.' I also noted that Rob's death made things even more complicated. Scott and Ellie felt guilty about having a 'new' dad and were taking out their feelings on Peter. I encouraged him to make it clear that he wouldn't tolerate rudeness, but I also told him not to take their behavior so personally. 'My advice is, keep your hand outstretched but don't force them to reach for it.'
"The next thing we worked on was trying to get Cheryl and Peter on the same page about discipline. I helped them create a set of rules for the kids, as well as the consequences for breaking those rules. We also agreed that they would establish a weekly family meeting so that Cheryl and Peter could bring up issues that were important to them — and give the kids a chance to do the same.
"Once the discipline conflicts eased, Cheryl and Peter were finally able to focus on themselves as a couple. 'You can't sacrifice your relationship,' I said. 'That's the foundation of your new family.' I suggested following simple steps at first: Go upstairs to sleep at the same time so they can chat for a few minutes before turning out the light. Call or text each other during the day to stay connected and commit to at least one date night a week. 'The more you think of yourself as Peter's wife, the less you will be living in your past,' I told Cheryl.
"It took a while, but things have definitely improved. Peter says their marriage has gotten so much better that he no longer feels threatened by Rob's ghost. And Cheryl is moving forward, too. During our last session she told me that she'd decided to keep one picture of Rob in the living room but to put away all of the others. A photo of her and Peter now sits in a prominent place on the mantel. 'It takes a special man to move into my house and love my kids as much as he does,' she said. 'We'll never forget Rob, but the sadness has lessened. Instead of being stuck in the past, now we're excited about the future.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2010.