Dianne Rehm is the recently retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a talk show from Washington, DC. John Hagedorn is a retired Lutheran minister. The Washington Post dubbed their Washington Cathedral wedding on October 14, 2017 ”a sign of hope.”
The gorgeous, adoring couple exchanged traditional vows surrounded by friends. What drew attention was the ages of the bride and groom. She’s 81, he’s 78. The Rev. Canon Jerry Anderson said they are the oldest couple he has married in 49 years.
The news made me smile. In many respects, their story is my story. Last April I married an old friend, Jim Le Gette. A few months after the wedding, we both turned eighty.
Like Dianne and John, Jim and I knew each other for many years (thirty in their case, fifty in ours). Like them, we’d lost mates after long, happy marriages. Like theirs, our friends were delighted but surprised.
It’s not unusual for older people to get together, even to live together. But it is rare for them to marry. Why? One reason may be more about their children than themselves.
In a “Tough Conversations” workshop with parents and their adult kids, my co-mediator Sig Cohen and I once took an informal poll. We asked the children, “What is your biggest worry about your parents, something you’re afraid to discuss with them?”
“Driving” came in first. To be expected. But we were surprised by this: “I’m afraid my Mother will marry again.”
Let me be clear: Jim’s children and my own supported our marriage. Jim’s daughter chose the wedding cake and hosted the rehearsal dinner. One of my daughters chose the flowers and helped me choose my dress. As in the Rehm-Hagedorn wedding, our kids stood up with us. They did readings, gave toasts.
But in deciding to wed we did try to allay reservations we thought our kids might entertain.
At one level an older parent’s remarriage seems positive. Mom and Dad will have companionship, healthier meals and self-care, and less burden on their offspring. A happy marriage would give added meaning to their lives, a spring in their step.
So what’s the problem? Here are at least three possible reasons kids might be wary of a parent’s late-life marriage, and three ways parents who want to marry might reassure them.
1. Children might worry that Mom’s boyfriend is a scam artist or Dad’s new companion has hidden motives. This may be a legitimate worry. As a court-connected mediator I heard of a case where a Capitol Hill doyen* developed a crush on a 40-something “physical therapist” (no license) who came to her home several times a week to “help her feel better.” Her son discovered she’d written a number of large checks to her new friend. When Son objected, Mom threatened to cancel his power of attorney. He sought a competency hearing in court to try to stop her. Served with a summons, the therapist skipped town — with Mom’s sports car, antiques, art, and cash. No forwarding address.
In another case a father with dementia died at 95. When they filed his will the children learned that, one week before his death, Dad had married his much younger immigrant health aide. She had wheeled him dying into the courthouse for a wedding. It was too late for the children to raise incapacity as a ground for annulment, since Dad was dead. Under state law the wife got fifty percent of everything.
A tip-off that something is amiss may be a wide discrepancy in age, social status, wealth, or signs of a parent’s dementia.
Kids don’t usually have to worry if the parents have known each other for a long time or been introduced by trusted friends. Parents who want to marry should also get to know each other’s children and create opportunities for their kids to know each other (parties, holiday dinners, grandchildren’s school events) so trust can build.
2. Even if the suitor has honest motives, children may worry their inheritance will be reduced.
A prenuptial agreement, shared with the kids, can clear the air. Transparency about wills and/or trusts will help. If parents don’t feel comfortable sharing the details of their finances, they can at least reveal in general terms what the documents provide and where to find them. (“Transparency” does not mean the parents relinquish their right and responsibility to decide.)
3. Children may react emotionally to the thought of anyone replacing a lost parent. Everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way. Even if years have passed, grief may linger.
A step-parent needs to understand a child’s grief is not a rejection of them. One child may embrace the step-parent while another may be polite but distant. Parents should keep open hearts but drop unrealistic expectations and allow relationships in the new blended family to deepen at their own pace.
The addition of any new family member, like the birth of a new child, does change a family dynamic. Time and attention formerly devoted to existing family members will be drawn away. They may feel cut off or shut out. Parents should be aware of this, understand that it’s normal, and be patient with the process. It’s a good idea for each parent to regularly spend some quality time with their own children without the step-parent – going to lunch or going fishing – just to let them know they still have a special place in your heart. As they do.
With mutual good will, blended adult families can be a source of love and hope to one another and to the world, regardless of age.
*Identifying details changed to protect privacy.
Jim Geiger says
Excellent, Carolyn. And congratulations.
Carolyn Parr says
Thanks for your good wishes, Jim. Nice to hear from you and to see information about your book.
Mary Gorman says
So delighted to learn of Carolyn’s marriage. Happy for all.
Thanks for seeing my friend, Betty O’Connor. Sorry she had to drive to Annapolis to see Carolyn. Is Sig practicing locally? That would probably be better for Betty.
Our mutual friend, Paula Burke, is not doing well. She has Parkinson’s. Bill and the boys are taking great care of her.
Tim and I are just back from 10 glorious days in London. lots of theatre and museums. live is good. slante to all, MDG
Glenn & Opal Dow says
Carolyn, Thanks so much for new insights in your life and the renewed confidence you and Jim have in your marriage. The appreciation and love of both sets of children in your new marriage demonstrates great love on the part of all. I need to talk with you sometime as Opal & I now in our 61st year and the slowing down of my own situation thru A-Fib; which is a big problem for the goals & hopes I have and feel strongly each time I watch what you are doing, and what my granddaughters are about. (good intro to song I’m working on : “Don’t stop your daydreams”.
Thank you for an enjoyable article. I’m so happy for your both! After being divorced for 20 years I met a man who was widowed for just 2 years. I am 58 and he is 67. We fell in love, decided we were good for each other and married just a few months ago. I’m sure his children had their reservations but have been very kind to me despite the miles between us. My sons were totally fine with it. I can relate to the ‘suspected’ concerns of my possibly being a ‘gold digger’ but I never received that vibe from his children. It’s his first wife’s sisters that cannot seem to accept that he is married again and seemingly very happy. He still visits with his former brother in law since they participate in projects together. However, I am surprised by my reaction to the cold shoulder I have received from his former sisters in law. I know intellectually that it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with their own grief process but it still hurts. Now with Thanksgiving approaching they have told him that they “aren’t ready” to share a meal with me. They are a few years older than I and his wife was their little sister. Can you perhaps give me a thought or two to help steer my thinking and emotions into a more positive path? Sometimes I feel like a 4 year old and want my husband to stick up for me. He and I have talked openly and honestly with each other and admit that we cannot change people’s feelings/desires. But I just wish I could respond without feeling pushed aside. I’m open to suggestions and also apologize that this sounds like a topic for a therapist visit. And I’m happy to say that our marriage has lots of love and hope! We, too, often get the smiles when strangers learn of our later in life marriage.
Carolyn Parr says
Gloria, You are right that it’s not about you. It’s about their resentment because your husband got married — to anybody. They’re trying to shut you out, and of course it hurts. But it may help to understand they aren’t trying to hurt you — it’s your husband they want to punish. (Remember what the Royal Family did to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor? They shunned her to punish him for abdicating.) If you see it as your husband’s issue, maybe you can let it go. He is actually handling it quite well — keeping his relationship with his old friend and shrugging off the sisters-in-law’s bad behavior as something you nor he can change. Unless he’s going to Thanksgiving dinner without you, maybe you can lower your expectations that they will change their behavior. (They might, actually, when they see it has no effect.) If you and your husband are alone at the holidays, I suggest you invite someone else who has no close family to join you. They would love it, and you would be surrounded by folks who support your union.
Carol Holt says
An issue you don’t discuss is the liability of being responsible for the new spouse’s heath care costs once married. I have a friend who remarried and then found himself drained financially with his wife’s cancer treatment costs that might have been covered differently had they cohabited instead. With Bill having so many health issues, we took the advice of both our lawyers that we would be better off opting to cohabit without getting marrried. We are both financially independent and won’t need an inheritance from the other. There is no reason for us both to go broke. It is a personal decision that is not for everyone. Some churches perform commitment ceremonies for couples who don’t want the government involved. That is an option than seems like a rational compromise.