Love is better the second time around.” That’s what the song says, but remarriage is far from easy. Fact: Although more than 40% of first marriages end in divorce, the divorce rate for second, third and fourth marriages is 60% or higher.
After interviewing more than 100 remarried couples, I’ve found that it’s common for one or both partners to assume that a second union will automatically be better than the first because they think they’ve learned from past mistakes. In reality, many people haven’t taken the time to examine their prior relationships for clues to why they failed, potentially dooming them to repeat selfsabotaging relationship patterns.
Second marriages also come with complicated relationships when kids are involved. Children can be a big factor in second-marriage failures if you and your spouse are not communicating well.
Whether you are newly remarried or you’ve been remarried for a while, here is advice for ditching unresolved baggage and putting your remarriage on the right path…
Cultivate realistic expectations. In second marriages, couples typically get to know each other more quickly than first-time couples, have more baggage and have more complicated lives—especially if they have children from prior marriages.
Don’t make assumptions about how your remarriage should work. That can lead only to misunderstandings and disappointment. No matter how much you love someone, you are going to have different ways of doing things when it comes to managing conflict around money, parenting, dealing with in-laws and ex-partners, and other issues. In many cases, new partners haven’t yet learned successful ways to manage conflict. It usually takes a few years for family members to adjust to a remarriage or living in a stepfamily.
If you are widowed: If you had a happy first marriage, don’t expect your second marriage to be exactly like the prior relationship and don’t try to replace your first spouse. You will have to develop a unique relationship based on the person you’re currently with.
Give the benefit of the doubt. Many second-time spouses have less tolerance toward what they perceive as disrespect if they came out of an oppressive relationship and, over time, learned to be both defensive and offensive in communicating with a partner. In the heat of the moment, they may criticize and issue ultimatums, which only pushes the two parties farther apart.
Research by leading marriage counselor John Gottman, PhD, shows that successful couples perform five positive interactions for every negative one during conflict. Be positive by using statements that focus on your needs rather than your partner’s negative behavior. Example: If you are in the middle of a phone call and your spouse starts talking to you, instead of saying, “You are so selfish and unaware of your surroundings,” say, “I would really appreciate if you would not talk to me when I’m on the phone.”
Abandon the power struggle. The need to be right is prominent in second marriages because partners have typically lived on their own for some time and figured out what they think is the best way to do things. Example: Samantha and John, both of whom were left by their previous spouses, bicker a lot as they try to get the other to do things his/her way. They have trouble finding the middle ground without feeling as if one of them is losing. Better: They need to learn to trust that they can be open with each other about what they really want in a given situation without feeling rejected or weak.
Many couples have hidden issues with control, and this usually means that they need to feel cared for and loved. Rather than digging their heels in and getting into a power struggle, they can ask for what they need in a positive way. Partners who learn to say “Yes” more often and see things from their partner’s point of view are happier. And they need to learn how to compromise so that both feel like they are satisfied with the outcome. Those who can accept each other’s influence are open to their partner’s point view even when they disagree. You can learn to do this by being more self-aware of your control issues and listening with curiosity to your partner’s perspective.
We all have basic needs and desires for acceptance, attention, safety, love, respect, being in control and being needed. In remarriages, each partner’s unmet needs and desires may come to the surface and bump into the other spouse’s vulnerabilities. Some of us may have trust issues or a fear of abandonment, while others have anxiety about being stifled or controlled.
Example: Kelly would go into a tailspin when her second husband, Mark, came home a little late from work without texting to let her know. She started micromanaging him and asking questions about where he was and why he was late. Once she realized that she was mistrusting Mark because her ex- husband had been unfaithful, she knew she was overreacting. She explained to Mark what she was feeling and asked if he could text or call her if he was going to be more than 15 minutes late. Mark was happy to oblige.
To gain self-awareness about your triggers when interacting with your new spouse, notice situations when your muscles tense up…your heart rate increases…you have hot or cold flushes or tingling…and/or you are having repetitive or intense thoughts such as I can never win or This is so unfair. Notice what is going on when you have these physical responses or thoughts. Is your partner speaking very loudly? Are your children arguing? Did you have a stressful day at work? Important: The more intense your reaction to your partner’s behavior or words, the more likely it is your own issue that is causing the problem.
Once you become aware of the kinds of behaviors and situations that trigger you, you need to learn ways of coping with them so that you can remain calm and reflective rather than act out of fear and anger.
Example: My second and current husband, Craig, and I were at a wedding, and he was group dancing with other women while I sat on the sidelines fuming. I don’t dance because I believe that I’m not a good dancer. Once I reflected on my feelings, I was able to realize that Craig’s outgoing behavior was triggering my fear of abandonment. We talked it out and came to an agreement that he could dance with others at weddings but needed to check in with me on breaks so that I didn’t feel ignored.
To avoid overreacting…
1. Remove your attention from the situation or person, and put it on your breath. Inhale slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth, as you silently count to 10. Repeat until you feel calm.
2. Excuse yourself, and walk away for five minutes. Go to the bathroom, get a glass of water or pace in the yard. Return when you’ve cooled down enough to speak rationally with your partner.
3. Ask yourself, Why am I feeling so fearful or angry? This often will lead to a litany of worst-case scenarios running through your head. In my case, I had to think, Does Craig want to dance with someone else because there is something wrong with me? No. He just likes to dance more than I do. Once I stopped taking his dancing at parties as a personal affront, I was able to stop catastrophizing that it meant our relationship was over.
4. Find the upside or fun in the situation. Example: Once I realized my husband wasn’t participating in dance circles to be with other women, I could enjoy watching him dance and it made me want to invite him for a slow dance.
5. Delay your emotional reaction. Don’t repress your feelings, but also don’t explode in public or in the car. Talk about the situation that occurred once you’ve calmed down. Tip: If you feel like you’re ready to explode, release your negative feelings by exercising or going into a private room and screaming, or taking time alone with the breathing exercises above or a bit of journaling.
Remarriages often take more effort than first marriages because you are dealing with more baggage and more family members. But they also can be stronger and more resilient because both partners typically have some experience with marriage. Critical to success is that both partners need to be open and vulnerable when communicating with each other, as well as kind and forgiving when misunderstandings occur.