Improving the Odds For Successful Second Marriages
Divorce rates have long been overstated. Recent research indicates that for more educated couples who are over 25 when they marry, the rate of divorce is probably only about 30%. Even for those couples who are less educated or younger when they marry, divorce rates are less than 50%. While data for second marriages is currently very limited, the early indication is that the frequently stated 60% divorce rate is also a gross exaggeration and that divorce rates for second marriages may not be any higher than for first marriages. However, regardless of the statistics, it is also very clear that much anxiety is embedded in the decision to remarry. Most divorced individuals feel they have “failed” at marriage once and are usually terrified at the thought that they might “fail” again. What follows are some suggestions on how to improve the likelihood that the choice of a second partner is more likely to work out than the first choice did.
Understanding why the first marriage ended in divorce:
This is a critical step for each person going through a divorce and is one reason why I strongly recommend divorce counseling even when there is no desire or possibility of staying together. There is much to learn from analyzing why you married each other and what led to experiencing a loss of trust, companionship, and love (assuming the marriage had that foundation to begin with). Sometimes it was a mismatch right from the beginning but more often there was a genuine sense of being in love and an experience of being best friends and lovers. What happened to change that? The answers to that question will provide valuable insight about what personal issues you may need to work out as well as what you need to be looking for in a new partner.
There are so many possible reasons why a relationship falls apart that I can’t possibly cover all of them in a short article. But some issues are definitely more common than others. Probably the most common is the underlying feelings of inadequacy, shame or guilt that we all carry to some degree. If these feelings are either especially strong or just more than we can adequately manage, it will result in distrust (expectation of being rejected and/or abandoned if your partner really gets to know you) and patterns of marital behavior that push your partner away whenever increased intimacy threatens to reveal your “badness.” If issues with intimacy sabotaged your first marriage, they will likely do the same to your second one unless you have worked on reducing them.
A successful marriage requires negotiating a series of challenges. These are effectively described and discussed in Judith Viorst’s excellent book, “Grown-Up Marriage” (2003). I will just note a few of them here: shifting from idealizing your partner (thinking you are marrying the “good parent”) to being able to accept the faults and foibles of your partner; learning to disengage from each family of origin (in-law problems!); the ability to adjust to the arrival of children (changes in roles and expectations); being able to adjust to the inevitable personal changes of one or both partners (we should be evolving over the course of our lives and our needs and behaviors are likely to change with time). A successful marriage requires a constant process of adaptation to the changes, both expected and unexpected, that are absolutely going to take place. Rigidity in the face of these demands for change is another very common reason why a marriage ends in divorce.
The more you understand about what you contributed to the marital disintegration (even when you are “certain” it is all the fault of the other person), the more likely you are to develop the skills required to have a more successful second marriage.
Don’t rush into a second marriage:
Research suggests that divorce is much more likely in a second marriage if the relationship is less than a year old. This is one of those situations where the stereotype may be more fact than fiction. I am referring to what is commonly called a rebound relationship and the popular perception that this is a no-no. Well, most likely it is. For men, it is often driven by an extreme discomfort with being alone; for women, that is also a factor but greater financial security is often a key issue. However, it is men who tend to marry quicker after a divorce (and that’s not because men are more often involved in another relationship before the divorce; only about one-in-six affairs end in marriage) as they are typically seduced into thinking they are in love with someone who is willing to listen to their pain and make them feel important again.
A core of common interests:
Sure opposites attract. But over time, substantial differences in style, personality, and interests wear on a relationship. It becomes too much work as everything is a compromise and very little is truly shared joy. There needs to be a solid core of common interests that allow for an easy way to spend quality time together. In addition, it really helps if each partner is open to new experiences, even some things that may have been tried and rejected in a prior marriage (e.g., watching football, going to opera, hiking, and gardening) may be experienced more positively with a new partner. Yes, a good marriage takes work, but it shouldn’t be that hard. So much of a relationship is about fit. The more your lives naturally overlap, the easier the process of working out the rough edges.
Blending families and dealing with former spouses:
If either or both of you are bringing children from a previous marriage into this new relationship, it presents challenging issues that have been written about extensively. (I have addressed this topic in some earlier articles.) In addition, ongoing conflict with former spouses can potentially undermine a second marriage. With regard to children, one key is easing children into the new relationship and allowing sufficient time for a bond of caring to form in a natural, unforced manner. Sometimes it just won’t happen and that needs to be accepted, as difficult as that may be. Under those circumstances, the biological parent has to be clearly supportive of his/her spouse and take greater responsibility for disciplining and make sure that there is adequate time alone with the biological children (reducing the sense that the new marriage means losing one’s parent). Speaking of discipline, the non-biological spouse should not attempt to discipline the stepchildren until they virtually ask for limits to be set and reinforced. Given the challenge of blending families, I often recommend the new couple attend a stepfamily support group.
As for ongoing conflict with an ex-spouse, the new partner must try to walk the delicate line between being emotionally supportive without fanning the flames of your spouse’s anger. It becomes particularly challenging when you feel your new spouse is behaving inappropriately. Another equally challenging situation is when you feel the former relationship is intruding on creating the closeness you seek in the new marriage. This goes back to the importance of entering into the new marriage slowly and carefully, with one of the tasks to be as sure as one can that each of you has truly let go of the prior marriages.
Make sure your beliefs and values are reasonably aligned:
One major potential advantage going into a second marriage is that each partner is older, has more life experience, and should have a better idea of what is really important to them. (If your new love interest is still searching for his/her identity, best you head for the door!) Thus the role of religion in your lives, the way you deal with money, the desire for more children combined with discipline styles, the role of extended family, the role of outside interests and friendships, views on gender roles, sexual needs and preferences, and communication styles are all important issues that should be discussed in depth. It’s not simply knowing what each other’s values are but the expectations of a partner in marriage that flow from these beliefs and needs that are critical.
The more aligned you are in these areas, the easier it should be to spend the rest of your lives together. Equally important, since most couples won’t have the same perspective on all these issues, can you support the differences and work through possible conflicts. Just the ability to have honest, open discussions about these issues is a positive sign. But don’t brush off a significant difference and think it will simply work out because you love each other. That’s a major trap in first marriages, especially one that women commonly fall into, i.e., that they can fix/save a man who is bringing a significant issue into the marriage, e.g., a drinking problem or rigid expectations about women/children that don’t match yours. The issue of having more children (if one or both already have children) is a particularly sensitive issue that may get glossed over.
Money issues are another major source of conflict. By now you should each have some sense of whether you spend too much or try to hold on to every penny. Of particular importance is the issue of control over finances. I happen to believe that, in most marriages, money should be “ours”, not his and hers, regardless of whether there is a primary earner or two relatively equal careers. I know this is sometimes difficult when there are child support monies involved and it may be easier to keep certain monies separate. For some couples who are older and have established careers and are used to being financially independent, it may be very hard to think of “our monies” and feel like you have to account for your spending/saving patterns. But I perceive this as part of marital intimacy and commitment. Sharing assets as one is consistent with sharing life as one.
Regardless of what the money arrangements are, it is important that there be honesty about finances. Some have coined the term “financial infidelity” to describe spouses who hide their spending/investing from their partner. Research has indicated one-in-four couples were guilty of such indiscretions. Obviously such dishonesty is bound to become a serious source of conflict and distrust that will threaten the marital relationship. So, like with other issues mentioned in this article, it is about openness, about trusting your partner enough to be honest about what you are doing as well as what you value and believe in.
From your previous marital experience you should be very conscious of the fact that whatever you may believe, value, or need at the start of this second marriage, neither of you nor your relationship is some static arrangement that remains unchanged over time. Just because you are aligned at the start obviously doesn’t mean you will stay that way over time. By establishing a pattern of talking openly about these issues at the beginning it increases the likelihood of that you will continue to discuss and explore changes that take place over time and, if you are able to maintain respect for each other as well as an ability to talk through important issues, your chance of a successful second marriage is quite good.
Dr. Kalman Heller
Dr. Heller is a clinical psychologist, now retired, who specialized in providing services to children, families, and couples since 1968. He… (Bio)