The Failure of Second Marriages

That second (or subsequent) trip down the aisle is a stroll over a minefield of memories, with ghosts of the past ready to jump out. “Of course, all marriages harbor ghosts: the ghosts of our childhoods, of our parents’ marriage or divorce, of prior loves and losses, of the girl who got away and the man who kept you on hold too long. You hope to forget, but the ghostly presence of the recent divorce reminds you that whatever happened earlier could happen again. And when the first slip occurs, your fears are often too hastily confirmed. And the marriage, pushed by ghosts, begins its downhill slide,” says the late Judith Wallerstein, a renowned divorce expert who studied the same 60 families for over 25 years.

That downhill slide often happens because the partners lug the baggage of the first marriage — children from a previous marriage, who often weigh heavily in the failure of the second marriage. Women who already have children at the time of remarriage are more likely to have their second marriage end in divorce than women who do not have any children. If the children were unwanted by the new spouse, the probability of the second marriage ending is even higher. 

After 10 years of remarriage, the probability of that marriage ending is 32 percent for women with no children at remarriage; 40% for women with children, but none of whom were reported as unwanted; and 44% for women with children, and any of whom were reported as unwanted. The presence of children from a prior relationship can affect the stability of a second marriage, and unwanted children may have an even greater effect.

For sure, hope springs eternal and people spin the roulette wheel of romance with a song in their heart and a smile on their face. The divorce rate for marriages in which at least one of the spouses has been married once before is between 60 and 67 percent, compared to a first marriage failure rate ranging from 40 to 50 percent. Fifteen percent of second marriages end after three years and almost a quarter after five years. Overall, about 60 percent of second marriages capsize, compared to about 41 percent for first marriages, according to a 2002 study by the National Center for Health Statistics (part of the CDC in the USA), which collected information on the failure of second marriages.

Against these grim statistics, people can do the best they can to make it work.

Lisa Helfend Meyer, a family law attorney, advises second timers to “make their lives an open book. It may not seem romantic to have honest discussions about values and expectations on issues such as money, parenting and intimacy, but they are the critical conversations that are essential before making a commitment to a second marriage.

The partners should have a clear understanding, and talking in advance is good practice for the important conversations the partners have throughout the marriage.

Meyer suggests a prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial agreement serves to solidify discussions and address financial expectations head on. The way a soon-to-be spouse responds to the prenup is indicative of how he or she will behave when the bloom is off the rose. 

 Misalignment with a partner on major issues is a red flag that signals trouble ahead after the honeymoon is over. Ignoring or rationalizing these warning signs or hoping for a change after the marriage is big mistake.

According to writer Linda Viessman, marriage counseling may be a good idea. At the very least, it gives time for the partners to figure out if they are ready to commit to the marriage and new spouse. As strange as it may seem, every marriage has a chance to succeed. In many cases, saving a second marriage may be as easy as taking all of the steps not taken in the first one. While this may be a difficult process, at least the spouses enjoy peace of mind knowing that they are taking useful steps to build a better life for each other.

Maggie Scarf, the author of The Remarriage Blueprint, says some people see remarriage as a second chance at happiness with a partner they should have chosen in the first place.  However, those who remarry with this view often have unrealistic expectations. The replacement of a missing partner (due to divorce, desertion or death) does not restore the family to a first-marriage status.  On the contrary, remarriage presents unanticipated design issues, such as children’s loyalty binds, the breakdown of parenting tasks, and the uniting of disparate family cultures. Essentially, the remarried family’s unanticipated and difficult job is to set aside old assumptions about how a “real family” — i.e., a traditional first-marriage family — is supposed to operate and building an entirely new kind of family structure that meets their situation.

The new couple must learn communication. This is especially true regarding matters that lie very close to the mates’ hearts, like the sensitive issue of children’s behavior. The members of the pair must be respectful and caring of each other’s youngsters, who have undergone difficult losses and transitions. For example, it is much better for a stepmom to say, “I feel hurt when your daughters come to visit and don’t even say hello to me or make eye contact, “ than “Whenever your bratty daughters come over, they walk right past me as if I didn’t even exist! They are so rude, and you just stand there!”

Discipline is a knotty issue in blended families. The stepparent’s role should be similar to that of a nanny, an aunt or a babysitter who knows the rules of the house (e.g., no TV before homework is finished). She or he monitors and reports on the child’s behavior, but only the biological parent decides on punishment. And yet, far too often, stepparents see themselves as the enforcer if they are to get real respect from their stepchildren.


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