Why Second Marriages Tend to Fail

Statistics suggest that a second (or even the third) marriage does not pay off with a ticket to the promised land of marital happiness. Unrealistic expectations of a blended family break up many second and third marriages. Marriages freighted with the belief that the blended family will love have been called “the instant family myth.” And from it are a number of suggestions and corollaries that invite despair, including, but not limited to, the notion that a blended family will be like a nuclear family, with stepchildren who love, respect and/or obey their new Mom or Dad.

Second and even third marriages have become commonplace. According to the Center For Disease Control estimates, 75 percent of women and 80 percent of men who have a failed first marriage will remarry, usually within five years.

People walking down the aisle a second time typically imagine their first, failed union gives them the experience and wisdom to take a second chance on marital happiness. This conventional wisdom, like so much conventional wisdom, is wrong.

Skip Burzumato, assistant director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and psychiatrist Mark Banschick, author of The Intelligent Divorce, estimate that approximately two-thirds of second marriages end in divorce. Banschick says the divorce rate for third marriages is 73 percent.

That second stroll down the aisle promises to be an uphill climb because second marriages come loaded with the baggage that stresses the newly wed couple. “The major problems reported by remarried folks who get divorced are children from prior relationships and money,” says Professor Larry Ganong, a board member of the Council of Contemporary Families.

First marriages typically have time to solidify before children arrive, but second marriages often have to hit the ground running with children already there, he says. “A new step-parent, to most children, is the devil personified. When you try to blend families, it is not the Brady Bunch. Children will fight over turf. They want their parents,” says Henry Gornbein, a family law expert in high profile divorces and mediation, arbitration, and collaborative law.

“Remarried families are pretty complicated systems,” Ganong says. “There may be child support money from previous marriages or relationships, there may be child support money going out. You’ve got kids coming in and out from prior unions. Oftentimes the couples are more diverse — there are bigger age differences, bigger differences in backgrounds.”

Grown stepchildren are no guarantee of escape from complications of children from a previous marriage, Ganong says, particularly in this new economy where multigenerational households are on the rise. “When we’re doing educational programs or workshops, I tell people if you remarry someone with kids — I don’t care how old the kids are, they can be 35 — I just tell them, count on those kids living with you at some point. Because they often do.”

In a darkly comic way, moreover, practice makes perfect when it comes to divorce. “Once you’ve already been divorced, it can be easier to get divorced once again,” Burzumato says. “If you have a scarlet letter, no one’s going to notice if you pin it back on. So whatever stigma there is anymore in our culture — maybe in one’s family or religious community — that’s already gone.” Also, he points out, remarried people may notice the signs of an impending divorce sooner, sometimes leading them to end the marriage rather than try to salvage the relationship. “People vow that they will never divorce again, but the reality is it is easier once you have done it,” says Gornbein.

In the past, women needed men for financial support, notes social historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage and The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, but now they no longer need to rely on a man for financial support, enabling them to leave unsatisfactory marriages. Men, on the other hand, needed women to maintain the home and found it easier to get raises and promotions if they were married. In addition, the absence of divorce laws made it difficult to leave bad marriages.

Despite the high divorce rates for second and third marriages, hope springs eternal. Statistics don’t stop most people, sooner or later, from taking a grab at the golden ring of love and remarriage.

The couple has a better chance of making it if they take a time to get to know each other rather than rushing into a new marriage on the rebound from a failed one, Coontz says.

“Research suggests that divorce is much more likely in a second marriage if the relationship is less than a year old,” psychologist Kalman Heller writes in a recent article on Psychcentral.com. Divorced men remarry sooner than women, he says, because they “are often driven by an extreme discomfort with being alone … 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.”

For older people considering remarriage, Ganong stresses the importance of getting legal advice before taking the plunge. “I would talk to an attorney to do some estate planning,” he said, noting that in many states property goes to the spouse in the event of death, often causing stepchildren to lose family heirlooms. For remarried people who have young children, Burzumato recommends seeking the help of a family counselor to aid with stepfamily issues.

Soul searching about the failed marriage is imperative. Honestly recognizing why the first marriage didn’t work is an important step couples take to prevent a second marital failure. When NASA shoots up a rocket that explodes, the agency tries to learn why before it sends up another rocket. “[Couples] need to have some good conversations with each other — and themselves — about what they contributed to the failure of their first marriage and what they saw as problems in their first partner that they would like to avoid the second time around. Re-evaluating, stepping away from the anger, blame, disappointment and self-righteousness that often come with the first emotional responses to divorce. They have to analyze what they need to do differently this time if they want to succeed,” Coontz says.


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