"My Dead First Husband Is Haunting My Marriage"
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.