Please note: The following is addressed to “Americans” but these same principles apply in most countries, as well in many ways. Please read and glean through the article as it pertains to most who marry, divorce, and consider remarriage, whether American, or not.
Americans are an optimistic lot. Perhaps nowhere is our optimism more apparent than in our approach to marriage. For one of every two of us, certifiable love can be expected to end in tears. Still, 90% of Americans marry. Indeed, surveys consistently show that for virtually all of us, men as well as women, marriage holds an honored place on our wish list, something we believe is necessary for attaining life happiness —or its slightly wiser sibling, fulfillment.
If our optimism steers us into marriage, it goes into overdrive with remarriage. Despite disappointment, pain, disruption, and sometimes even the destruction of divorce, most of us opt to get back on the horse. An astonishing 70% of the broken-hearted get married all over again. If you count among the remarried those who merge lives and even households without legal ratification, the de facto remarriage rate is much closer to 80%. Americans don’t divorce to get out of marriage. Yet a whopping 60% of remarriages fail. And they do so even more quickly than first marriages.
If the divorce and remarriage rates prove one thing, it’s that conventional wisdom is wrong. The dirty little secret is experience doesn’t count when it comes to marriage/remarriage. A prior marriage actually decreases the odds of a second marriage working. Ditto if you count as a first marriage its beta version; three decades of a persistently high divorce rate have encouraged couples to test their relationship by living together before getting married. But even the increasingly common experience of prior cohabitation actually dims the likelihood of marital success.
“It’s so counterintuitive,” says Diane Sollee, M.S.W., a family therapist who is director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, an organization based in Washington, D.C. “It just seems obvious that people would be older and wiser, or learn from the mistakes of a failed first marriage and do better next time around. But that’s like saying if you lose a football game you’ll win the next one. You will —but only if you learn some new plays before you go back on the field.”
Remarriage may look a lot like any other marriage —two people, plenty of hope, lots of love and sex, and a desire to construct some form of joint life. It even smells like an ordinary marriage —the kitchen is busy once again. But it has its own subversive features, mostly invisible to the naked eye, that make it more tenuous than first marriage. It’s not impossible to make remarriage work, but it takes some concerted action to make love better the second time around.
Why Experience Doesn’t Count No, when it comes to relationships, people don’t automatically learn from experience. There seems to be something special about relationships, some unique and intrinsic element, that prevents people from even recognizing their failures. A close look at marriage suggests several possibilities.
Love deludes us. The rush of romance dupes us into believing our own relationship uniquely defies the laws of gravity. “We feel that this new, salient, intense relationship fills the firmament for us,” observes William J. Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota and author of The Intentional Family (Addison-Wesley). “Under those conditions, our background knowledge of relationships doesn’t kick in.”
There’s not even more cynicism, once you fall in love again, Doherty adds. “You really think ‘problems are for regular people and our relationship certainly isn’t regular,’ so the problem had to be your spouse. Partners bring to remarriage the stupidity of the first engagement and the baggage of the first marriage.”
Marriage deflects us. Marriage in fact contains a structural psychological loophole, an ellipsis waiting to swallow us at the first hint of unhappiness. Being a two-party event from the get-go, marriage affords us the (morally slippery) convenience of thinking that any problems reside in our partner. We simply chose the wrong person last time. Or despite our shining presence and best efforts, the other person developed some critical character flaw or craziness. Either way, we focus —wrongly, it turns out —on the characteristics of a partner rather than on the processes taking place in the relationship, by definition involving both persons.
“Partners don’t reflect on their own role,” says Jeff Larson, Ph.D. ” They say ‘I’m not going to make the same mistakes again.’ But they do make the same mistakes unless they get insight through their own thinking about what caused the divorce and their role in the marriage failure.” Larson is quick to admit that our culture generally provides us with no road map for assessing ourselves or our relationships. And some people are just too narcissistic to admit they had any role in the failure of a prior relationship. They’ll never come to an understanding of what went wrong. That makes them lousy bets as new partners. What’s more, we’re deeply social creatures and even distant rumblings of threat to our most intimate social bond are intolerable. When problems develop, marriages become so painful that we can’t bear to look at our own part in them.
• Conflict confuses us. Our ability to learn about relationships shuts down precisely when marriage begins to get tough-and just because couples develop disagreements. Conflict is an inevitable part of relationships.
But many people have no idea how to resolve the conflict; they in fact see it as a sign there’s something wrong with the relationship, as well as with their partner. With low expectations about their own ability to resolve relationship conflict, explains psychologist Clifford Notarius, Ph.D., people go into alarm mode. The resulting high levels of physiological arousal distort couple communication even further and prevent any learning from taking place. “When a husband then hears ‘let’s talk about money,’ he knows what’s coming,” says Notarius. “He doesn’t think something different can happen. He shuts down.”
“Till our last dying breath we still think, ‘someday I’ll meet a mensch and it will be perfect; he’ll fit with all my wonderfulness in such a way that it will all work,'” says Sollee. “We indulge the illusion that, with the right partner, conflict will be minimal.”
• Conflict rigidifies us. Arguments engage the Twin Terminators, the Arnold Schwartzeneggers of relationship life: blame and defensiveness. These big and bad provocateurs destroy everything in their path, pushing partners further apart and keeping them focused on each other. Invariably, marriage experts insist, whether the first marriage or the fourth, couples tend to trip over the same mistakes. Number one on the list of errors is unrealistic expectations of marriage. A decline in intensity is normal, to be expected, says Notarius. And in its own way, welcomed. It’s not a signal to bail out.
“You’ll be disappointed—but that opens the potential for a relationship to evolve into something wonderful: a developmental journey of adult growth. Only in supportive relationships can we deal with our own personal demons and life disappointments. The next stage of relationships brings the knowledge of having a partner who’ll be there no matter what, who can sit through your personal struggle for the hundredth time and support you. The promise of long-term relationships is the sharing of the secret self.”
Absent the knowledge of what a relationship is really like, partners tend to start down the road to divorce when the intensity wanes. Happiness, observes Pat Love, Ph.D., a marital therapist based in Austin, Texas, is the ratio between what you expect and what you get. “You have to suffer the clash of fantasy with reality in some relationship,” says Notarius. “Either you do it in the first relationship or you have ten first relationships.”
HOW TO REMARRY: Why is remarriage so difficult? The short answer is, because it follows divorce. Simply, something came before that didn’t work out well. People who divorced are in a highly vulnerable state. They want to be in close intimate relationship, but the failure factor is there. The divorced know what it’s like to have a steady dose of love. They know that life’s burdens are better when shared. But, says Love, “they got out, so they’re hungry. And when you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything.” The longing for comfort, for deep intimacy impels people to rush back into the married state. Says Love: “People tend to want to step in where they stepped out. They want to go back into the woodwork of marriage.”
Replacing Images Yet prospective remarriage partners need to build a relationship slowly, experts agree. ” They need to know each other individually and jointly,” says Robert F. Stahmann, Ph.D., professor of family sciences and head of a Marriage Preparation Research Project. “They need to know each other’s expectations.” They need time for bonding as a couple, because that relationship will be under stress through all the links to the past that will inhabit their present, none more tangible than children and stepchildren. In remarriage, children don’t grow out of the relationship, they precede it. Nor are they delivered by the stork as helpless little bundles, they come pre-packaged, with an entirely different set of agendas than the adults have. But more about that later.
Although feelings develop very quickly, courtship should be prolonged. It’s essential to allow enough time for the cognitive and emotional reorganization that has to take place. Says Love, “you’ve got to replace the image in your head of what a man or a woman is like based on your ex. It happens piece by piece, as with a jigsaw puzzle, not like a computer with the flick of a switch.”
Not Choosing Better Partners, Being Better Partners: Typically, when choosing a mate the second time around, people look for traits and tendencies exactly opposite to those of their first partner. A woman whose first husband was serious and determined will tend to look for someone who is a lot more fun. “Unfortunately,” observes Howard K. Markman, Ph.D., “to the extent they’re making conscious choices they’re looking at the wrong factors.” At the University of Denver, Markman and his colleagues are videotaping couples in a second marriage who were also studied in a first marriage.
“The motivation to do it differently is there,” says the researcher, “and that’s good. But they don’t know exactly what to do different. They’re not making changes in how they conflict, which is predictive of relationship quality.”
Further, he notes, both parties need to use the second marriage to themselves be better partners. “They both need to nourish the relationship on a daily basis. And they need to not do things that threaten the marriage in the face of disappointments,” such as hurling insults at one another. And of this he is sure: there’s even more opportunity for conflict and disappointment in second marriages because the challenges are greater.
Learning to Love Complexity: Remarriages are always more complicated than first marriages. “There are always at least four people in bed,” says Love. “him, her, his ex, and her ex-not to mention the kids.” The influence of exes is far from over with remarriage. Exes live on in memories, in daydreams, and often in reality, interacting with the children and, often enough, with your own parents and siblings. When you remarry,” says Larson, “you marry a person—and that person’s ex-spouse.” It just comes with the territory.
“A complete emotional divorce isn’t possible,” explains Minnesota’s Doherty. “You always carry that person around with you; a part of you retains a ‘we’ identity.” And if there are children, exes live on in the new household as permanent extensions of their children, arriving to pick up and deliver the kids, exerting parental needs and desires that have to be accommodated, especially at holiday and vacation times. What’s more, the ex’s parents are in the picture too, as the children’s grandparents, as is all of the ex’s extended family, as aunts and uncles and cousins.
Defusing Anger: Nothing keeps exes, and the past itself, more firmly entrenched in the minds of onetime spouses than anger, the negative emotion that keeps on giving. Unfortunately, anger is the typical byproduct of divorce in America, stoked over and over again by the adversarial legal process. Minimizing the impact of ghosts from the past means finding ways of unhooking from anger.
Venting Grief Divorce severs the legal attachment, but it doesn’t necessarily end the emotional attachment. It’s a myth that people can just “get over it,” says Stahmann. “There’s a lot more to it. You invested heavily in the relationship.” Divorce, he says isn’t unlike phantom limb pain. There’s nothing there but you can still have feeling. “You don’t fall out of love the way you fall out of a tree,” observes Denver’s Markman.
Even in the worst of relationships, says Stahmann, people entered in good faith. And they invested themselves in it. So it’s only natural they feel sad following the loss of that relationship. Often hidden, feelings of sadness and loss act as powerful undercurrents in a new relationship, preventing full commitment to it or keeping it from feeling fully satisfying. Unless people grieve the loss of the prior relationship and the end of the marriage, they’re at risk of staying covertly attached to it. “But they don’t grieve. Often they remain angry. Exploring the feelings of sadness, and understanding the ways in which the first marriage was good, is a way of unhooking from it,” he points out.
Many are the sources of loss that require some acknowledgment. Among the most ubiquitous:
• “There is pain from the fact of former relationships that didn’t go well,” observes Hawkins. It’s not only subversive in its own right, it sets up fears that both inhibit commitment to the new relationship and actively distort communication between partners.
• The loss of an attachment figure.”It has nothing to do with how you were treated,” says Love. “You lost someone you once cared about.”
• Loss of dreams for the future. The thing about being conscious is that we live in the future as well as in the present (and the past).
• Loss of intact family. We all harbor the idea of a perfect family, and it’s one in which emotions and biology are drawn along the same tight meridians. That doesn’t mean nothing else will work, just that it takes a greater degree of awareness and, often, much more effort.
• Not to be overlooked is a sense of failure. Observes Pat Love: “A powerful element contributing to vulnerability in a second marriage is a sense of shame or embarrassment stemming from relationship failure.” Denial of any role in the marital breakdown is notwithstanding.
• Grief is bound to be especially great among those who were dumped by their first spouse. For that reason, Jeff Larson recommends a waiting period of at least one or two years after a divorce and before a remarriage. “You can’t grieve loss and try to get used to a new relationship at the same time.”
Digging Up the Past: Stahmann emphasizes that for a remarriage to be successful, a couple has to look at their previous relationships and understand their own history. How did they get into the first marriage? What were the hopes and dreams? What expectations did they have? Yes, there was a time before the anger of divorce. By looking at the hopes and dreams they originally invested in, individuals learn to trust again.
“It’s essential that they do this together,” he says. “It helps each of them unhook from the past relationship. And it sets the precedent for looking at the foundation of the new relationship.”
Pat Love would take the joint exploration further. The reason second marriages are often short, she says, is that “people make up the idea that the problem was their prior partner. But you have to list what you didn’t like in your partner and own your own part in it. If you don’t understand your part, then you’re bound to do it again.”
“When you do something that reminds me of my old partner,” Love explains, “I play the whole movie in my head. I project all the sins of my past partner onto you. If you don’t want sex one night, then you’re ‘withholding,’ just like his ex.” The fact is, Love insists, “the things you didn’t like in your old partner actually live on in you.”
As necessary as is joint exploration of history, it doesn’t always take place. Couples are often afraid that a partner who brings up the past will get stuck there. Or that a discussion will reignite old flames, when in fact it helps extinguish them.”Couples often enter remarriage with their eyes closed more than in a first marriage,” reports Hawkins.” It’s as if they’re afraid the marriage won’t happen if they confront the issues.”
Once a couple has opened up and explored their pasts, they need to bring the kids in on the discussion. Most experts would reserve that conversation for after the wedding. “Kids don’t have the same understanding of how and why the prior relationship ended,” explains Stahmann. “Yet they need it.” On the agenda for discussion: how the adults got together, why the past failed, how contact with the biological parents will be maintained, and all the couple’s dreams and hopes for the future.
And just how will customs be merged? In any marriage, each partner to some degree represents a different culture, a different tribe with different traditions and rituals that have widely varying importance. Every symbol has a different meaning, every event a different set of implications and, behind it, a different history. The two distinct sets of highly structured traditions aren’t simply deeply emotionally resonant; they carry the force of commandment.
Yet the subtlest departure from tradition in ritual practice can make anyone feel like an outsider in his own home. One or both partners are bound to feel bad, even unloved, when their current family does the celebration “the wrong way.” The problem is culture clash is built in to marriage. “All marriage partners are incompatible,” says Frank Pittman III, M.D., an Atlanta-based family therapist whose most recent book is Grow Up: How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult (Golden Books, ’98).” Not only have they been raised in different families, they’ve been raised as members of different genders, indoctrinated into a different set of roles and rules which left each of them as half persons.”
That, however, is where the fun begins. “When marriages are incompatible, there’s conflict and electricity and the need to discuss things and compare perspectives, and thus come to know one another and oneself. That’s the source of a marriage’s energy.”
In other words, wise couples heading into remarriage explicitly discuss and agree on which ritual styles will prevail when. That encompasses the little rituals of every day: Will dessert be served with dinner? Or are evening snacks allowed? Are birthdays a time of gift-giving or a time for personal reckoning? Then there are the big celebrations sprinkled through the calendar, culturally designated as holidays but more likely hurdles of stress in remarriage households.
Negotiating External Forces: As if there aren’t enough internal hurdles in remarriage, there are outside forces that may potentially undermine the union, too. “People who lived independently before remarriage often have jobs, friend networks,and hobbies that are anti-relational,” points out Stahmann.
“These are spheres where they may have come to invest a lot of themselves as a regular source of gratification.” He counts among the possibilities learned workaholism. “Such individual-gratifying activities can be very hard to give up. Couples need time to work out these patterns.”
Coping with Kids: Nothing challenges a remarriage more than the presence of children from a prior marriage, and most remarriage households contain kids. While 60% is the break-up rate for all remarriages, for those involving children, the rates are higher, approximately 65%. The failure rate is highest in the first years, before these multiplex families have even sorted themselves out.
One reason, says Minnesota’s Doherty, is that a remarriage with children has more potential under miners than any other human relationship. “All you need is one active conspirator. It’s not uncommon for an ex to play on the ambivalence or outright hostility that kids have to a remarriage, especially at the beginning. An ex can have you talking about him every day.”
He paints a real-life scenario. A husband and wife with two children get divorced. The man marries a new wife and acquires a new house, where the thermostat is kept lower than in the ex’s house. The kids pay a visit to their very loving father and when they return home the mother asks them what the house was like. They mention they felt cold. The ex wife calls her ex-husband demanding changes in the way he lives. The new spouse feels powerless in her own home; she can’t do anything. She gets mad at her husband because she thinks he’s not standing up to his ex.
If there are kids, partners to a remarriage don’t get a developmental period as couple before they’re parents —and then, because it takes time for family feelings to develop, that bond is immediately under assault by the children. For that reason especially, every family expert recommends that couples heading into remarriage prolong the period of courtship despite the desire and the financial incentives to merge households.
Even non-custody can pose problems. “Custody is a legal solution,” says Stahmann. “It implies nothing about the emotional reality of family. There are emotional obligations to children you may not have custody of.” A parent who shares custody or one who has only visitation rights is already experiencing some degree of loss regarding the children.
And the children themselves are in a state of post-divorce mourning over the loss of a “perfect” family and the loss of full-time connection to a parent . No matter which parent a child is with, someone’s missing all the time. That’s the starting position. “This sadness is often not recognized by the adults,” says Emily Visher, Ph.D. “But it leads to upset, depression, and resentment at the new marriage.” The resentment is typically compounded by the fact that the children don’t have the same perspective as the adults on how and why their parents’ marriage broke up. And the remarriage further deprives them of the custodial parent who’d been theirs alone for a time.
Financial obligations add more stress. Money is usually a finite resource and the outflow of money to another household is often a source of dispute in a remarriage. The flow of money within the household can be divisive as well. Many a stepfather thinks: ‘I don’t want to be putting my money into your kids’ college education when I didn’t put it into mine.’
“There’s an existential, moral dimension to remarriage families that’s not talked about,” says Minnesota’s Doherty. “The partners will always be in different emotional and relational positions to the children. One is till death do us part. The other is till divorce do us part. The stepparent harbors a deep wish that the children didn’t exist, the very same children the parent couldn’t live without.” And these are the complications even before getting into the difficult management issues of who’s in charge, who disciplines the children, and what strategies of discipline are used.
People need to develop “a deep empathic understanding of the different emotional world’s parent and stepparent occupy.” To be a stepparent, Doherty adds, “is to never be fully at home in your own house in relation to the children, while the original parent feels protective and defensive of the children. Neither ‘gets’ it until each describes what the emotional world is for him or her.” Each partner is always an outsider to the experience of the other.
The role of the non-biological parent is crucial —but fuzzy. “Twenty plus years into the divorce revolution and remarriage is an incomplete institution,” observes Andrew Cherlin, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s not clear what rules a stepparent should follow.” In successful families, the stepparent is somewhere between a friend and a parent, what he calls “the kindly uncle role.” Using a first name, rather than assuming the title of parent, goes a long way to giving the relationship the necessary friendship cast.
“The more a remarriage couple can agree on expected roles,” says Carlos S. Costelo, the more satisfied they will be. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, Costelo is virtually the first psychologist to study the dynamics of remarriage. “There are lots of built-in ambiguities. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ ‘How am I supposed to discipline the kids?’ ‘How much money do I allocate for her kids?’ ‘How much time do we spend with her family at Christmas?’ The inability to come to consensus interferes with intimacy and commitment.”
Beyond Selfishness: “The key to remarriage,” says Stahmann, “is that couples need to be less selfish than they used to be. They have to realize there’s a history of something that came before. They can’t indulge jealousy by cutting off contact with kids. They can’t cut off history.” Selfishness, he insists, is the biggest reasons for failure of remarriage.
“The dynamics of remarriage are fascinating,” notes Doherty. “We all have a lot to learn. Remarriage families hold the secrets to all marriage. Remarriage with stepchildren illuminates the divergent needs and loyalties that are always present but often invisible in original families.”
It Takes a Village? Really! With so much vulnerability, and the well-being of so many people at stake, prospective partners to a remarriage need a little help from others. “The impression of family and friends on whether this remarriage will work is important,” says Stahmann.
Pat Love, herself in a remarriage, couldn’t be more emphatic. “You’ve got to do it by consensus. It takes a village. You’ve got to listen to friends. You’re in an altered state by way of infatuation. The failure factor is there, making you so fragile.”
In fact, Stahmann contends, the opinion of family members and friend is predictive of remarriage success. “Friends and family know a lot. They know who you are. They knew you married, and they can see how you’re in the context of the new relationship.” The trick is to listen to them.
Hara Marano wrote this piece for Psychology Today where she’s editor at large, after attending the 1999 Smart Marriages conference. This is from the Smart Marriages web site Smartmarriages.com under “Step Families.” Even though they aren’t a Christian web site it still has articles that line up with Biblical standards. You may want to go to their web site to read other things they have posted on their web site.