Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Don't even think of remarrying until you read this!

Divorce rates prove that conventional wisdom is wrong: The dirty little secret is that when it comes to relationships, experience doesn't count. Experts take a close look at why we don't learn from our mistakes and how we can start--right now.

Divorce rates prove that conventional wisdom is wrong: The dirty little secret is that when it comes to relationships, experience doesn't count. Experts take a close look at why we don't learn from our mistakes and how we can start--right now.

Americans are an optimistic lot. Perhaps nowhere is our optimism more apparent than in our approach to marriage.

One of every two marriages can be expected to end in tears. Still, 90% of Americans marry. Surveys consistently show that 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 of divorce, most of us opt to get back on the horse. An astonishing 75% of the broken-hearted get married all over again. And if you count among the remarried those who merge lives and households without legal ratification, the de facto remarriage rate is even higher.

Yet a whopping 60% of remarriages fail. And they do so even more quickly; after an average of 10 years, 37% of remarriages have dissolved versus 30% of first marriages.

If divorce and remarriage rates prove one thing, it is that conventional wisdom is wrong: When it comes to remarriage, experience doesn't count. A prior marriage actually decreases the odds of a second marriage working. Ditto if you count as a first marriage its beta version, living together; three decades of a persistently high divorce rate have encouraged couples to test the waters by living together before marrying. But this actually dims the likelihood of marital success.

"It's so counterintuitive," says Diane Sollee, M.S.W., a family therapist and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, based in Washington, D.C. "It 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 onto the field."

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. It's not impossible to make remarriage work, but it takes a concerted effort.

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 that prevents them from recognizing their failures. A close look at marriage suggests several reasons why.

o Love deludes us. The rush of romance dupes us into believing our own partnership 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 (Avon, 1999). "You really think 'problems are for regular people and our relationship certainly isn't regular,'" Doherty adds. "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: Being a two-party event from the get-go, it 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 our partner rather than on the dynamics of the relationship, by definition involving both people.

"'Til our last dying breath we still think, 'Someday I'll meet a man and it will be perfect; he will fit with all my wonderfulness in such a way that it will all work,'" says Diane Sollee. "We indulge the illusion that, with the right partner, conflict will be minimal."

Jeffry Larson, Ph.D., psychology professor at Brigham Young University, confirms, "partners don't reflect on their own role. They say 'I'm not going to make the same mistake again.' But they do make the same mistakes unless they get insight into 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 relationship's failure. They will never understand what went wrong. And that makes them lousy bets as new partners.

What's more, we are deeply social creatures, and even distant rumblings of a 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.

o Conflict confuses us. Our ability to learn about relationships shuts down precisely when marriage begins to get tough--and they all get tough. Conflict is all inevitable part of relationships. But many people have no idea how to resolve the conflict; they see it instead as a sign that there's something wrong with the relationship and their partner. With low expectations about their own ability, to resolve conflict, explains psychologist Clifford Notarius, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., people go into alarm mode. This distorts the couple's communication even further and prevents any learning from taking place. "When a husband hears 'let's talk about money,' he knows what's coming," says Notarius. "He doesn't think anything different can happen. He shuts down."

o Conflict rigidifies us. Arguments engage the Twin Terminators 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 in the first marriage or the fourth, couples tend to trip over the same mistakes. No. 1 on the list of errors is unrealistic expectations. A decline in intensity is normal and to be expected, says Notarius, but it 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 personal demons and life disappointments. We get the reassurance of having a partner who will be there no matter what, someone who can sit through our personal struggle for the hundredth time and support us. The promise of long-term relationships is the sharing of the secret self."

Absent this awareness, partners tend to start down the road to divorce as soon as 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," adds Notarius. "Either you do it in the first relationship or you have 10 first relationships."

How To Remarry

Why is remarriage so difficult? The short answer is because it follows divorce. People who divorced are in a highly vulnerable state. They know what it's like to have a steady dose of love, that life's burdens are better when shared. But, says Love, "They're hungry. And when you're hungry, you'll eat anything." The longing for comfort, for deep intimacy, impels the divorced to rush back into a 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 E Stahmann, Ph.D., professor of family sciences and head of the Marriage Preparation Research Project at Brigham Young University. "This means time for bonding as a couple because the relationship will be under stress from each partner's various links to the past," none more tangible than children and stepchildren.

Couples also need enough time to allow for the cognitive and emotional reorganization that must 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."

When choosing a mate the second time around, people typically look for traits and tendencies exactly opposite those of their first partner. A woman whose first husband was serious and determined will tend to look for someone more fun. "Unfortunately," observes Howard K. Markman, Ph.D., "to the extent that they are making conscious choices, they are looking at the wrong factors." At the University of Denver, where he is professor of psychology, 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 differently. They're not making changes in how they conflict, which is predictive of relationship quality."

Further, he notes, both parties need to use the second marriage to become better partners themselves. "They both need to nourish the relationship on a daily basis... and refrain from things [such as hurling insults at one another] that threaten the marriage in the face of disappointments."

o Learn to Love Complexity. There is even more opportunity for conflict and disappointment in remarriages because the challenges are greater. "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, arriving to pick up and deliver the kids, exerting parental needs and desires that have to be accommodated, especially at holiday and vacation times. The ex's family--the children's grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins--remains in the picture, too. "When you remarry," says Brigham Young's Larson, "you marry a person--and that person's ex-spouse." It just comes with the territory.

o Defuse Anger, Vent Grief. Nothing keeps exes, and the past itself, more firmly entrenched in the minds of one-time spouses than anger. But we can minimize anger by finding ways to minimize the impact of ghosts from the past.

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. "When they don't grieve, often they remain angry," Larson says. "Exploring the feelings of sadness, and understanding the ways in which the first marriage was good, is a way of unhooking from it."

Many are the sources of loss that require acknowledgment:

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 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.

A sense of failure. "A powerful element contributing to vulnerability in a second marriage," observes Love, "is a sense of shame or embarrassment stemming from relationship failure," denial of any role in the marital breakdown notwithstanding.

"There is pain and fear from the fact that former relationships did not go well," adds Hawkins, "which inhibit commitment to the new relationship and distort communication between partners."

A sense of grief. Grief is bound to be especially great for those who were dumped by their first spouse. "You can't grieve and try to get used to a new relationship at the same time," says Jeff Larson, who recommends waiting at least one or two years after a divorce before remarrying.

Digging Up the Past

Stahmann emphasizes that for remarriage to be successful, couples need to look at their previous relationships and understand their history. How did they get into the first marriage? What were their expectations, hopes and dreams? Through the soul-searching, people learn to trust again.

"It is essential that they do this together," Stahmann says. "It helps each of them break from the past relationship and sets a precedent for the foundation of the new one."

Pat Love stresses that this joint exploration must include a look at the partners' own role in the failure of the past relationship. "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 project all the sins of that partner onto you. If you don't want sex one night, then you are 'withholding,' just like the ex." The fact is, Love insists, "the things you didn't like in your old partner actually live on in you."

But such joint exploration 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 issues."

Once a couple has opened up and explored their past, they need to bring kids in on the discussion. "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 the biological parents will be maintained, and all the couple's dreams and hopes for the future. Most experts would reserve this conversation for after the wedding.

o Clearing Customs. In any marriage, each partner to some degree represents a different culture with different traditions and rituals and symbols. The two distinct sets of highly structured traditions are not simply deeply emotionally resonant; they carry the force of commandment. The subtlest departure from them 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 a celebration "the wrong way."

The problem is, culture clash is built in to marriage, says Frank Pittman III, M.D., an Atlanta-based family therapist who wrote Grow Up!: How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult (Golden Books, 1998).

That, however, is where the fun begins. "The conflict causes 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," he says.

It's wise for couples heading into remarriage to explicitly discuss and agree on which ritual styles will prevail. Even the everyday ones: Will dessert be served with dinner? Are evening snacks allowed? Then there are the big celebrations sprinkled throughout the calendar, culturally designated as holidays but more likely hurdles of stress in remarriage households.

o Negotiating External Forces. As if there aren't enough internal hurdles, remarriage can be undermined by outside forces, too. "People who lived independently before remarriage often have jobs, friend networks and hobbies that are antirelational," says Stahmann. "These are spheres in which they have come to invest a lot of themselves as a regular source of gratification." He counts among them learned workaholism. "Such individual-gratifying activities can be hard to give up. Couples need time to work out these patterns."

o Coping with Kids. Nothing challenges a remarriage more than the presence of children from a prior marriage, and 65% of remarriage households contain kids. Their failure rate is highest in the first two years, before these multiplex families have even sorted themselves out.

"All you need is one active conspirator," says Minnesota's Doherty. "It's not uncommon for an ex to play on the ambivalence or outright hostility that kids have for a remarriage, especially at the beginning. An ex can have you talking about him every day."

Take one of his clients for example: Bob, who is remarried, gets a visit from his two children. After the weekend, the kids mention to their mother that the house felt cold. She calls her ex-husband, furious. When he agrees to turn up the thermostat, the new spouse feels powerless in her own home and angry at her husband because she thinks he is not standing up for himself, or her.

With kids present, partners in a remarriage do not get time to develop as a couple before becoming parents. Their bond is immediately under assault by the children. Family experts agree that this is yet another reason for couples heading into remarriage to prolong the period of courtship despite the 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. 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 an intact family and full-time connection to a parent. No matter which parent a child is with, someone is missing all the time. "This leads to upset, depression and resentment at the new marriage," says Emily Visher Ph.D., a psychologist in California and co-founder of the Stepfamily Association of America. 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.

Financial obligations add more stress. 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 mine."

"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."

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 stepparent should follow." In successful families, the stepparent is somewhere between a friend and a parent, what he calls "the kindly uncle role." Using first names can help enhance that relationship.

But most importantly, "the more a couple agree on expected roles, the more satisfied they will be," says Carlos Costelo, a Ph.D. candidate focusing on the dynamics of remarriage at the University of Kansas.

The key to remarriage, says Stahmann, is for couples to be less selfish than they used to be. "They have to realize there is a history there. They can't indulge jealousy by cutting off contact with kids. They can't cut off history." Selfishness, he insists, is fine biggest reason for failure of remarriages.

"We all have a lot to learn from them," notes Doherty. "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 families."

It Takes a Village

With so much vulnerability, and the wellbeing of so many people at stake, prospective partners in 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 fragile."

In fact, Stahmann contends, the opinion of family members and friends 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.