Recent studies point to the substantial benefits of spousal support in coping with cancer. A loving spouse at your side, it seems, improves your immune system ─ no doubt enhancing overall good health. But of course, we don’t all have loving spouses; 40% of marriages end in divorce. So what’s a divorced gal or guy to do? Remarriage is one answer. The second time around, however, is not always so sunny. Indeed, real intimacy ─love, lust, emotional attunement, empathy ─all that we strive for and expect in a remarriage often fails to be realized, ending in yet another divorce.
One of my favorite quips by Rita Rudner goes like this:
When I meet a man, I ask myself, “Is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?’
Here, then, is a complex yet all too common issue that prevents intimacy in remarriages.
A central stumbling block in maintaining true intimacy in remarriage is the attachment bond to a former spouse. For many of us, separation and loss ─ the lifelong struggle from womb to tomb ─is met with emotional turmoil. Separation, thus, from a former spouse, an intimate partner, ─particularly if this separation falls on an earlier traumatic loss ─ is near impossible.
The culprit? The brain that locks into old emotional pain incurred by separation or loss is this very culprit. The amygdala ─the seat of the emotions ─ becomes sensitized to the trauma of separation; it is primed to react with fear, anxiety, sadness, and distress when faced with a new separation. So you can see how trying this transition is for many people. Unfortunately, the old tie, no matter how hostile or loving, creates a wedge in the remarried couple. And as often as not, intimacy is dangerous ─signaling potential abandonment, traumatic loss, and pain. The wedge acts to ensure against real intimacy.
Let’s take a peek at the case of Hannah and Jorge that I wrote about in Daring Wives: Insight into Women’s Desires for Extramarital Affairs.
The second time around for Hannah and Jorge was fraught with conflict that centered on the attachment to former spouses. Jorge had been happily married to his first wife, but he lost her to a cancer. He stood by her to the bitter end, tending to her with undying devotion so that she lived five years beyond the doctor’s expectations. He maintained the memories of a stable love that helped him to mourn her and to move on. Nevertheless, the ghost of his late wife haunted the remarriage with Hannah.
Unlike Jorge’s first wife whose emotions were always under control, Hannah’s emotions were not. She cried easily, laughed heartily, yelled loudly, and made love with passionate ardor. You would think Jorge struck it lucky, but his attachment to his late wife got in the way. He kept comparing Hannah unfavorably to his saint-like late wife Marissa, creating a wedge in the remarriage that prevented intimacy.
As to Hannah, here is where loss and abandonment played havoc in the remarriage. Her combustible marriage to her former spouse, Ben, was replete with cycles of passionate fighting, making up, and making out. Despite their fierce fighting, their fiery lovemaking made the frictional marriage worth hanging onto for twelve years ─ until the last fight. No amount of red hot sex could repair the damage wrought. In an adrenaline fit of rage, Hannah wrenched Ben’s computer from its connections and smashed it against the wall. “You’ve shattered my entire life” Ben yelled. He filed for divorce the very next day.
Despite the hostile proceedings, Hannah and Ben enjoyed an occasional torrid tryst that continued into the remarriage with Jorge. Marital vows and resolve are two different things. Alas resolve was not one of Hannah’s strong points, particularly, when it came to overcoming losses. And her unresolved losses were considerable.
When Hanna was three, she suffered a traumatic loss; her mother died suddenly in a car crash. Her father sunk into a deep depression ─and in order to protect her from his grief ─ he sent little Hannah off to her grandparents. Her well meaning grandparents did everything to distract her─ everything but help her mourn. Alone in her horrific hell of loneliness, fear, and sadness, Hannah’s brain registered the loss that became entrenched in her neural pathways. The specter of abandonment met with terror and she suffered from separation issues her entire adult life.
With Hannah’s history of attachment, traumatic loss, and a sensitized amygdala, a loving relationship with passionate sex, comfort, security, and stability was far too dangerous. If she became intimately attached to Jorge, the red flag of loss and abandonment waved its warning high in her skies. Solution? Unconsciously, Hannah adopted a security measure and kept a distance in the remarriage. She did not have to go very far to maintain her distance ─not any further than her former husband Ben.
The good news is that the brain is plastic and we can unlock the brain from repeating painful interactions. Once the couple recognized why they constructed blocks to intimacy in the remarriage, they were able to join hands in repairing the rift, and on healing one another from old hurts, and on not so old hurts.
As to the effects of their journey ─from rift to repair ─on their health, it augers well. Hannah who finally separated from Ben is allowing herself to fall madly in love with Jorge, and he in turn is no longer comparing her to his late wife. Brain chemicals ─ vasopressin, oxytocin, dopamine, testosterone, serotonin and GABA are enhancing their loving feelings and their health. In their fifties─ at midlife ─ they feel more confident about facing any future illness with the support of one another.
Frances Cohen Praver, PhD
Clinical Psychologist, Relational Psychoanalyst, and author of
Daring Wives: Insight into Women’s Desires for Extramarital Affairs (Praeger, 2006) and Crossroads at Midlife: Your Aging Parents, Your Emotions, and Your Self (Praeger, 2002)
A new book about love and the brain is in the works.