Mixed Marriages

How to handle a marriage when you're divorced but your new spouse isn't.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on October 22, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

You've been married before. Your mate hasn't. Or maybe it's the other way around. This, researchers say, is a new kind of mixed marriage, and it is becoming increasingly common even though potential partners in the modern mating game tend to gravitate to others of similar marital history. Unfortunately, however, it can sink good relationships.

"Marital history is every bit as important in choosing a mate as age, education, religion and race," says Hiromi Ono, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. She dubs the tendency to marry someone of similar marital background "homogamy."

Too often, unions between partners of differing marital backgrounds are "leaky": Emotional and financial resources typically drain out of the relationship to help support and maintain ties to children and ex-spouses. In some cases, the leaks can be so large the new marriage eventually sinks. In other instances a remarried spouse "plugs" the leak by cutting ties to the former spouse and ignoring commitments to children.

"With people marrying later these days, there are more single, never-married adults than ever in the marriage market," says Ono. But even though intermarriage between the divorced and the never married has been increasing, it's still relatively rare.

In 2002, there were about three never-married adults for every divorced adult in the U.S. In 1998, there were about four never-married adults for every divorced adult, Ono found in an analysis of 8,000 adults.

In her study, marital history had an effect on mate choice even after Ono controlled for age and education, particularly for women who had children from a previous marriage. Only about half of divorced adults were remarried to spouses for whom this was a first marriage.

Of course, divorced women are more likely than divorced men to maintain ties to children and in-laws. And divorced men are more likely than divorced women to marry someone who has never been married before, maybe, says Ono, because they're less likely to have ties to previous partners.

It's the ties to former spouses, in-laws and others associated with previous marriages that tend to cause problems in current marriages, Ono said.

"Some divorced people have little or no investment in their former marriage," she said. "Maybe they didn't have children together, or they didn't own a home or work together in a family business, for example."

But others have heavy investments in the former marriage. And in these cases, especially for women who tend to be the custodial parents after a divorce, the ties, or "baggage," of a former marriage are likely to be strong and heavy.

"Anyone married to a divorced partner knows how tough it is to maintain a harmonious relationship in the face of constant reminders that your partner once vowed to love someone else until 'death do us part,'" says Ono. "When you're single, the norm is to cut off all contact with former partners. But the norms are very different for divorced partners. There are also legal reasons for divorced parents to give money and other support to families formed in an earlier relationship."

The consequences of leaky marriages for children in remarriages can be substantial, Ono said. "Kids in remarriages, even biological children of the re-married parents, tend not to do as well in terms of educational attainment and achievement as kids in first marriages."

One of the reasons may be that even though the income of the re-married family is, say, $80,000 a year, after you take away support to children from a previous family and alimony to an ex-spouse, the new family's real income may only be $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

It isn't that leaky marriages can't work. They take a lot more work than first marriages, and it helps to be especially emotionally mature.