Hara Marano wrote this piece for Psychology Today after attending
the Smart Marriages conference.
D I V O R C E D?
Don't Even Think of Remarrying Until You Read This
You may think you know more the second time around, but statistics prove
you don't. In fact, there's something about the decline and fall of a
marriage that keeps folks from learning from their mistakes. Making
remarriage work takes much more than you think.
By Hara Estroff Marano
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 percent 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 the disappointment and the pain and the disruption
and sometimes even the destruction of divorce, most of us opt to get back
on the horse. An astonishing 70 percent 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% percent. Americans don't divorce to get out of
Yet a whopping 60 percent of remarriages fail. And they do so even more
quickly than first marriages.
If the divorce and remarriage rates prove one thing, it is 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
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.
o 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 does not 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."
o 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 Jeffrey Larson, Ph.D.,
at Brigham Young University. "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 will never
come to an understanding of what went wrong. That makes them lousy bets
as new partners.
What's more, we are 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 will 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 will 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 will 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
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."
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
the Marriage Preparation Research Project at Brigham Young University.
"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
is 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 are making conscious choices they are
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 is good. But they don't know exactly what to do different. They're
not making changes in how they conflict, which is predictive of
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 is 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 Brigham Young's Larson,
"you marry a person?and that person's ex-spouse." It just comes with the
"A complete emotional divorce is not 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.
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.
Divorce severs the legal attachment, but it does not necessarily end the
emotional attachment. It's a myth that people can just "get over it,"
says Brigham Young's Stahmann. "There's a lot more to it. You invested
heavily in the relationship." Divorce, he says is not 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
Even in the worst of relationships, says Stahmann, people entered in good
faith. And they invested themselves in it. So it is 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
Unless people grieve the loss of the prior relationship and the end of
the marriage, they are 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
- "There is pain from the fact of former relationships that did not go
well," observes Hawkins. It is 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 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 is 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 are 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 are
'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 are afraid the marriage won't happen if they confront the
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
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 are not 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 is 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 have 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 is conflict and electricity and the need to discuss things and
compare perspectives, and thus come to know one another and oneself. That
is 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 themself
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
percent is the break-up rate for all remarriages, for those involving
children, the rates are higher, approximately 65 percent. The failure
rate is highest in the first two 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 underminers 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
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 is not standing up to his ex.
If there are kids, partners to a remarriage do not get a developmental
period as couple before they are 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 noncustody 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 is 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 do not 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
had been their's 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
"There is an existential, moral dimension to remarriage families that is
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 did not exist, the very
same children the parent could not live without." And these are the
complications even before getting into the difficult management issues of
who is 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 worlds 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 nonbiological 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 steparent 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."
The key to remarriage, says Stahmann, is that couples need to be less
selfish than they used to be. They have to realize there is 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
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 are in
the context of the new relationship."
The trick is to listen to them.
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