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Is it better the second time around?

Many couples who end up divorced jump back in, and quickly. On average, people re-marry within four years after their divorce, and 3 in 10 do so within the first year. We thought it would be useful to examine whether things are easier or better the second time around.

There are two opposing outcomes that seem reasonable. On the one hand, people might fine-tune their skills. From their first marriage, they’ve figured out what they want and don’t want in a mate, or they’ve learned what they should and should not do, so they should be better partners. From this perspective, second marriages should be successful.

On the other hand, we might go into a second marriage mistrusting people and anxious about our prospects for success. These thoughts and feelings can get in the way of committing to a new relationship. Or we may have personal characteristics that make it difficult to establish any long-term relationship, and practice hasn’t made us any better. And because we’re older, we might not have as many potential partners, so we might have to settle on someone who’s a bad fit.

Unfortunately, social scientists have found that the latter tends to prevail. Second marriages have a higher rate of failure than do first marriages. The divorce rate for first marriages is somewhere between 35%-50%, but for second marriages it jumps as high as 65%. They also tend to end more quickly, possibly because partners are better at reading the signs that the relationship isn’t working, or because having gone through it before, taking the step to divorce is easier.

To be sure, second marriages can face a lot of obstacles. The failure of their first marriage can affect people in a number of ways. They may be fearful about making the required emotional commitment, or they may harbor anger, resentment, or feelings of betrayal that make it hard for them to connect with their new partner. This is especially true if they did not want their first divorce—they may take longer to recover from the trauma and suffer more emotional problems, which can leave them ill-prepared for a new relationship.

First marriages can also affect how partners treat each other. They’re more vocal in expressing criticism and anger, and more protective of their rights. Consequently, there are more opportunities for conflict, and that’s never good for a relationship.

Second-time couples also have to cope with the reactions of their social circles. The more their social network supports the move, the greater will be the couple’s adjustment to the second marriage. But sometimes they’re not supportive. They may prefer the first spouse, or they may feel one of the new partners caused the breakup of the first marriage. When family and friends aren’t supportive, partners may question whether they made the right choice in re-marrying, or they may resent their new partners because they’re seen as the reason why they’re rejected by their own circle.

The first spouse can also be a sore point. Despite anger and resentment, some may actually still feel a connection to their former partner even after re-marrying. If we sense that our spouse is still emotionally tied to their former partner, we’re likely to feel insecure and those feelings can make it hard for us to commit fully to our new relationship.

Prior spouses are especially a problem if there’s only one. The never-married may not understand the issues that follow their previously married partner from their first marriage. They’re also more likely to expect exclusivity, and any ties to a former spouse, financial or otherwise, is an interference. A first-time married partner can feel threatened by the prior relationship, especially if the two former spouses have reasons to interact regularly, such as when they share children. Such situations can be harder to tolerate and more likely to be a source of conflict than if both partners had been married before.

For some couples, there may be alimony payments or other forms of asset loss. Money going to a former spouse can put a strain on a second marriage. Many re-married wives claim to run into more financial problems in their second marriages than in their first, and while they usually did not intend to re-marry for money, financial hardships are often cited as the reason their second marriage failed.

Probably the number one issue working against second marriages is stepchildren. Two families trying to meld into one can be extremely difficult for lots of reasons. One key factor is whether or not they all get along with each other. If there are poor relationships between a stepchild and a stepparent, that may undermine how a parent feels about their spouse.

It also may be hard to be a parent to someone else’s child. It’s not uncommon for couples to argue about what each child is entitled to, how they should be raised, and who’s responsible for what in their care. Each parent also keeps a watchful eye to make sure their child is being treated fairly. If they feel they’re not, they might react with anger against their partner or the stepchild.

Now, we should point out that many second marriages remain intact—partners are able to overcome the obstacles and are very happy. However, we should also mention that there is no evidence that even in the successful ones, couples are happier re-married versus staying single, or their second marriage is any better than their first one.

Our point here is if you believe your marriage isn’t good enough and you could do better, well, that may or may not be the case. Either way, there are a handful of issues you should consider carefully before making any hasty commitments.

See our book Making Marriage Work.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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