A Pew Research study that draws on the 2013 U.S. Census shows that four in ten new marriages include one partner who has been married before. More than 40 million American adults are in the second, third or fourth (or more) marriage. That would seem to be encouraging for divorced people who believe in marriage and who want to try again. But the bad news is that 60 percent of those marriages fail. The number climbs higher if both partners have been previously married. Those couples are 90 percent more likely to get divorced than if this had been their first marriage.
You’d think those who have been through a divorce would learn from the experience. Sadly, the data doesn’t support it. Research shows that people are likely to make the same mistakes, whether in their first marriage or their fourth. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to be successful in a subsequent marriage. What it takes is the willingness to work on the factors that could be a setup for another failure.
Before you even think about tying the knot again, you would be wise to:
Finish your divorce.
If you continue to be angry, hurt and upset by what happened in your marriage; if you hate your former spouse, you are not really available for another try. You are still engaged in a negative way with your ex. Remarried spouses who are on speaking terms with their exes and who can do a good job in co-parenting their children are more likely to succeed in a subsequent marriage.
Do your personal work.
One of the reasons for the high divorce rate of the remarried is that they keep making the same mistake. If you don’t want to be a repeater, it’s essential that you take responsibility for your part in the divorce. (The exception to this is if you were the victim of an abuser. However, if you were abused, it’s important to take a look at what blinded you to the reality of your ex’s character.)
A useful exercise is to think about how the story of your marriage and divorce would be written if the divorce were all your fault. (It wasn’t, of course. But it’s a helpful way to make yourself think about your role and what you could have done to make things go differently.) It’s rarely the case that a divorce is all the fault of one partner.
Re-evaluate your expectations.
Take a clear-eyed look at your expectations of marriage and whether they are realistic. The intensity and focus of new love can be addictive. But it’s only normal for passion to be replaced by a steadier, companionable love. Accept that no one is perfect. No one will meet all your expectations perfectly. Look at whether your new love has enough of your non-negotiables to compromise on the rest.
Unless you take the time to really get to know each other, you are vulnerable to blinding yourself to important differences in values, personality and goals. Research shows that remarriages are more likely to fail if the marriage occurred in the first year of the relationship. Experts advise that you spend the time to become close friends as well as lovers. Generally that takes at least two to three years.
Accept that your sweetheart has a history.
People can’t and shouldn’t erase their past. You may wish with all your heart that you were his or her first one and only but that’s not the case. Your partner’s history is part of what made them. They’ve had sex with other people. They once loved the person they were married to. They may have children who have first call on their time and attention. There needs to be room for both of you to talk about good times you once had with your exes, what you learned from the bad times and how the two of you will relate to them now and in the future.
Get comfortable with conflict.
Conflict is not something to avoid at all costs. Conflict often indicates the growing edge in a relationship. Differences should be greeted with curiosity, not defensiveness or anger. You’ll learn more about each other and you’ll forge a stronger relationship when you work through whatever is upsetting one or both of you.
One of the biggest reasons for remarriage failures is strife around finances. It’s a wise couple that makes sure they understand each other’s income, responsibilities and spending habits. One partner may be paying alimony or child support which means diminished resources for the new family. One or the other may be coming into the relationship with better credit or more debt. Each may have strong opinions about how to manage money. If the flow of money bewilders you (as it does a lot of people), consider seeing a financial advisor before you start blending finances. Careful financial planning often surfaces the differences that need to be settled.
If children are not involved.
Be very, very sure you are going to marry before you include the kids in your relationship. Young children give their hearts away easily. If you break up, they can experience it as yet another loss. Teens are generally embarrassed by parental sexuality and conflicted about meeting your expectations for a relationship with someone they see as an interloper. To them, a breakup may confirm cynicism about relationships. It can take two to three years to get to know each other’s children gradually. The resultant acceptance of the new marriage is worth the investment of upfront time. Step-parenting takes planning, commitment and understanding. It also takes time and patience. On average, once a couple marries, it takes three to five years for their families to blend.
Making a successful second marriage is work; even more work than goes into the first. Both people are recovering from hurt or grief. Both people are older and more established in their habits. Step-parenting has its own challenges. But it’s also true that marriage is an opportunity for each person to grow and mature and deepen in ways that are not possible when alone. By working on the pre-marriage tasks listed here, both together and individually, couples can make the second time the permanent one.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.