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Late-Life Remarriages: The Second (or Third) Time Around

Is love lovelier the second time around?

There's an old Frank Sinatra song that tells us, "Love is lovelier the second time around." I'm sure he had no idea, at the time he sang those words, that there would be as many late marriages as there are today.

Men and women are living longer, and it is more normative to remarry after being widowed. In addition, divorces are common now for people of all ages, and these men and women often take new partners later in life. A bride and groom in the 21st Century, or a senior gay couple who can now legally marry, are just as likely to be 75 as 25; love and marriage are sought by people all ages.

There are some seniors who have never married and their late-life marriages are their first, and there are also seniors who will not legally marry, often for financial reasons, but decide to share their homes and hearts with their new partners in a marital-style relationship, and I am including these partnerships under the umbrella term of late-life marriage, too.

But is a marriage begun in the senior years the same as a marriage initiated in youth? It is lovelier?

A late marriage may or may not be lovelier, but it is definitely different from a marriage in one's youth.

Research on failed second marriages has shown that the two issues most cited by divorced men and women as the causes of their marital breakup were money and children. But the participants in these surveys were men and women under age 50 who had children under the age of 18. Custody and visitation issues were complicated, with angry ex-spouses often adding to the tension between the new husband and wife. Money was tight, with child support payments on top of a second family to provide for, and extra expenses (e.g., summer camp or braces) may not have been included in the divorce decree and were thus fair game for a fight over which parent should pay.

These were blended families where "my child," "your child," and "our child" vied for attention from mom or dad, competed amongst themselves, disliked the step-parent, resented the divorce, and would not have minded at all if the new marriage fell apart—and so it did. Some second marriages do make it through these years until the children are grown and gone; but 60% of second marriages in this age category failed.

But when men and women marry again late in life, their children are adults. With no child support to pay and no custody or visitation problems—and probably no ex-spouses to contend with, either—one might think that these marriages would be mostly trouble-free, or at least have different issues to work through. As it turns out, two main problems are, still, money and children.

Adult children may live thousands of miles away and have their own spouses and children, but they are still able to interfere with their elder parent's second marriage. In fact, loyalty issues may be more of a problem for them than for small children of divorced families. If mom or dad has remarried after the death of the other parent, even if the original marriage had been a happy one, the son or daughter may feel that, by remarrying, the surviving parent is obliterating the love for the deceased spouse, for their deceased parent.

It is difficult enough for many widowed seniors to overcome their feelings of disloyalty to their deceased spouses without having their grown children reinforce these emotions. On the other hand, some adult children are pleased that their surviving parent has been blessed with a partner for comfort and joy in the "autumn of life," or there may also be a feeling of relief that mom or dad is getting remarried and "the burden of caretaking" is off their shoulders.

Loyalty issues aside, the grown children may not like the new spouse for personality or social reasons. If their parent is relocating farther away to be with the new spouse, this can cause a feeling of abandonment, that the new step-parent will "take away" their mom or dad. This is especially problematic if the senior getting married and moving is a grandparent who had been "on call" as a babysitter for the grandchildren; now, available time will have to be shared with the new spouse. Adjustments must be made across all three generations.

Or, the grown children may think that mom or dad is making a terrible mistake by choosing this person. This attitude can be very hurtful to the parent, who may feel like the grown children are treating them with disrespect, treating them like children; and since the senior has fallen in love with this new partner, he or she may feel hurt and very disappointed that the grown children do not care for the partner as they do. In a young family, children may form parent/child bonds with their step-parents over the years; in these older families, the best bond the newlyweds can probably hope for is a friendship between the grown children and the step-parent, and this usually develops early on, or not at all.

And then there is money. A young couple entering into a second marriage may not have accumulated much separate property prior to the remarriage. A senior, however, may have a lifetime of savings, of retirement funds, profits from the sale of a home or a business, and money inherited from a deceased spouse. An older woman today may bring into the late-life marriage more money than her second spouse, and this can cause tensions between them; in this elder generation, with many people accustomed to having the man be the breadwinner, he may even feel like his masculinity is in question. In an interview with me on this topic, Frank S. from Texas put it, "I felt like a kept man."

Adult children may interfere with a second marriage because of their fears of losing their inheritance. They may worry that the assets that would have been theirs, after the death of the surviving parent, will go to the new spouse instead. For this reason, some adult sons and daughters I have spoken to resent every penny that their parent spends with the new spouse and may even tell the parent this whenever a big purchase is made. Arrangements in the will and prenuptial agreements are becoming more common, for seniors who remarry but do not want to merge assets, preferring to pass their separate property to their children after death.

But unlike second marriages between young or middle-aged men and women, second marriages between seniors do not usually end because of family disagreements with children or money. These issues are arguments that older couples usually handle with their grown children directly, rather than in arguments between themselves.

Some psychologists have found that after children leave home, empty-nested couples usually report a higher degree of marital satisfaction than they had in their childrearing years, because they have more time to focus on each other and for shared hobbies (and less to disagree about). The second marriages of elder men and women do not have children in common as a biological bond between them, but they do have the advantage of the freedom that empty-nested couples experience: they can travel, take courses together at a local university, have sex in the afternoon, make a spur of the moment decision to go to a movie. In an interview with me on this topic, Joyce P., a woman in her seventies from Florida, noted, "Next week we are leaving for a nine-week vacation in New Zealand; we have fewer encumbrances than in my first marriage."

Other issues that come up in second marriages involve long-time friendships. If friendships revolved around couples' activities, the old friends may be uncomfortable going out with the new spouse. Like the grown children, the friends may have loyalty conflicts over their deceased friend or they may not like the personality of the new partner. And the new partner might not like being around the old friends, either; he or she may have the feeling of being compared to the first spouse and falling short.

Perhaps there were traditions in the old friendship circle—for example, "All of us always go to an Italian restaurant on New Year's Eve"—and the new spouse prefers to do something else. Unfortunately, old friendships might not survive the second marriage, even if they survived the death of the first spouse and the widowhood status of their friend. Unless everyone can be flexible and keep a sense of humor (especially when the new spouse is accidentally called by the former spouse's name), the foursome will be too uncomfortable to continue.

There are so many changes and so many compromises! Some issues that are small to one person may be very important to the other. Examples from seniors I spoke with who were beginning late-life marriages include:

  • Do we wear our old wedding rings with the new rings, or remove them?
  • Can photos of deceased spouses be displayed?
  • Will we live in your house, my house, or sell both and buy a new home?
  • What furniture will we keep of yours, of mine?
  • What about our pets (the one you are allergic to; the one I am frightened of;
  • or, your dog and mine don't get along)?
  • I like the house colder/warmer than you do—who will decide?
  • Do you have to sleep in that old recliner—can't you come to bed?
  • Can we turn the television loud enough for me to hear it?
  • Can we turn down that sound?
  • I have always paid my own bills, so why should you pay them now?
  • I'm more interested in sex than you are, so can't we compromise?
  • I don't like to eat what you like to eat, so can we just go out to dinner more often?
  • How can we accommodate your religious practices without hampering mine?
  • Please don't compare me to your first spouse, OK?!

In any new marriage, some of these issues will come up. And there are rituals, expectations, identities, and habits that need to be addressed and perhaps altered. Some have been dealt with before the ceremony, of course, but it is always surprising to new spouses how many things they did not think about until faced with the problems after they begin living together. In many ways, there are really four people in this marriage: the two new spouses, and the two deceased/divorced spouses from the past. Former spouses may not be there in the flesh, but they are there in spirit, influencing the new couple.

After living with someone for 40, 50, 60 years, of course the original husband and wife grew together. These shared aspects do not die with the spouse, and the happier the marriage was, the more the surviving spouse will try to keep those aspects alive in themselves. Additionally, if the man or woman (or both) has lived independently for a number of years, they bring these "single" parts of themselves into the second marriage, too. That's a lot of juggling to do!

Marriage is difficult at any age. So why bother? Men and women "bother" because they fall in love and feel young again, joyous in the presence of the new spouse. They feel healthier, (and new research shows that seniors who are married do indeed live longer), safer, comforted. They have companionship and share new and old hobbies and interests, friends and family. Life is richer with someone nearby to talk to, laugh with, travel with, and cry with.

Is it lovelier the second time around, as Frank Sinatra told us? Yes, it can be. Not all first marriages are happy ones, even if they lasted. And even someone who had a happy marriage can have an encore after the spouse passes away. There is nothing disloyal in this: psychologists have found that the happier the marriage was, the quicker the surviving spouse (especially a widower) will get remarried. Why? He enjoyed being married, so he believes in marriage. That is why it is important, when we see a senior getting married not long after his or her spouse died, not to jump to conclusions, or judge harshly.

During my 17 years of research with couples who tried reunions with long lost loves, usually sweethearts from their teen years, I have met or spoken with many men and women who had wonderful first marriages; they were devastated when the beloved spouse died, and thought life was over for them as well. Then, surprise! An old flame reappears from the very distant past, and love blooms again. These seniors tell me they are twice blessed, having been loved so well by two wonderful spouses.

Some people say that we each have a "soul mate"—one person who is our special love—and that's it. I don't believe that. As parents, we can love our several children, in different ways according to their personalities; so too can we love more than one romantic partner. There are many seniors who are widowed and seek no further love, and that is right for them. Others find a new beginning in a second marriage. The later stages of life are full of surprises no matter what the choice, lovely either way.

As Gladys W. in Washington wrote to me, after marrying her lost love after a long widowhood (on her 95th birthday!), "Thank you for researching these issues. And thank you for letting people know that old people can still be romantic!"

Copyright Nancy Kalish, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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