Making Second Marriages Work

By Kalman Heller, Ph.D.

Divorce rates have long been overstated, and that for more educated couples who are over 25 when they marry, the rate of divorce is probably only about 30 percent.

While data for second marriages is currently very limited, the early indication is that the frequently stated 60 percent 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 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.

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 is 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. 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 or 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.

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