Remarriage: The First Five Years

Samuel Johnson called second marriage the "triumph of hope over experience."

Posted May 13, 2013

It was Samuel Johnson who made the famous observation that second marriage "represents the triumph of hope over experience." How accurately, one might ask, does this jaundiced view of remarriage actually gibe with our present-day reality?

Certainly, almost everyone knows many couples who appear to have truly improved their marital lot on a second or later go-around. But what are the hard facts on remarriage in the aggregate?

Are later marriages generally more successful and stable than first-time marriages? And, given that most remarriages (some 90 percent) follow upon divorce rather than death, do the disaffected ex-partners tend to make smarter, more mutually satisfying choices in a second or higher-order relationship?

Apparently not. The rate of marital breakup is spectacularly high in America--currently, over half of all first marriages end in divorce; but the rate of marital breakup in subsequent marriages is 10% higher--some 60%. As sociologists Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin pointed out in Divided Families, many remarried families simply don't make it through their early years together; about one fourth of all second marriages break apart within a five year period. This is a rate of marital disruption which is "significantly higher than the level among first marriages" according to Furstenberg and Cherlin.

But curiously enough, this enhanced risk of re-divorce exists only for the first five years of the remarried family's existence. At that point in time, the new family's chances of remaining together are roughly the same, or even better, than those of a family living in an intact, first-time-ever nuclear household.

The above statistics have a clear story to tell. The story is 1) that remarried families are somewhat more brittle than first-time families, and 2) that if a remarried family makes it past that magic five year marker, the odds that they will remain together suddenly shift upward. That critical five-year period is the reconstituted family's "zone of vulnerability."

On the other hand if one wanted to turn the above statement on its head and look at the glass from the half-full rather than the half-empty position, that self-same period could be said to constitute the new family's all-important "zone of opportunity." For it is during this critically important time-period that an essential restructuring of the entire system must take place if the members are ever to achieve a sense of family unity and belonging.

But the trouble is that remarrying couples usually haven't the faintest notion that any such system-wide changes have to happen. Their idea, an idea which many people subscribe to at an intuitive level, is that each of their former family's lives life will proceed in much the same ways that it always has--the only difference, a positive one, will be that putting a "replacement parent" into the role of the lost (divorced or deceased) partner will effectively restore the family to its intact, pre-rupture status.

It is this naive belief--the expectation that with the addition of the missing parental everything will fall into place very neatly and quickly--that can wreak havoc upon a remarried couple's still young and forming relationship. This is especially true in the initial months of a remarriage, for when the partners' joyous illusions begin deflating--which can happen very quickly--they often leave in their wake a residue of pessimism, weariness and burnout.

It was Samuel Johnson who made the famous observation that second marriage "represents the triumph of hope over experience." How accurately, one might ask, does this jaundiced view of remarriage actually gibe with our present-day reality?

Certainly, almost everyone knows many couples who appear to have truly improved their marital lot on a second or later go-around. But what are the hard facts on remarriage in the aggregate?

Are later marriages generally more successful and stable than first-time marriages? And, given that most remarriages (some 90 percent) follow upon divorce rather than death, do the disaffected ex-partners tend to make smarter, more mutually satisfying choices in a second or higher-order relationship?

Apparently not. The rate of marital breakup is spectacularly high in America--currently, over half of all first marriages end in divorce; but the rate of marital breakup in subsequent marriages is 10% higher--some 60%. As sociologists Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin pointed out in Divided Families, many remarried families simply don't make it through their early years together; about one fourth of all second marriages break apart within a five year period. This is a rate of marital disruption which is "significantly higher than the level among first marriages" according to Furstenberg and Cherlin.

But curiously enough, this enhanced risk of re-divorce exists only for the first five years of the remarried family's existence. At that point in time, the new family's chances of remaining together are roughly the same, or even better, than those of a family living in an intact, first-time-ever nuclear household.

The above statistics have a clear story to tell. The story is 1) that remarried families are somewhat more brittle than first-time families, and 2) that if a remarried family makes it past that magic five year marker, the odds that they will remain together suddenly shift upward. That critical five-year period is the reconstituted family's "zone of vulnerability."

On the other hand if one wanted to turn the above statement on its head and look at the glass from the half-full rather than the half-empty position, that self-same period could be said to constitute the new family's all-important "zone of opportunity." For it is during this critically important time-period that an essential restructuring of the entire system must take place if the members are ever to achieve a sense of family unity and belonging.

But the trouble is that remarrying couples usually haven't the faintest notion that any such system-wide changes have to happen. Their idea, an idea which many people subscribe to at an intuitive level, is that each of their former family's lives life will proceed in much the same ways that it always has--the only difference, a positive one, will be that putting a "replacement parent" into the role of the lost (divorced or deceased) partner will effectively restore the family to its intact, pre-rupture status.

It is this naive belief--the expectation that with the addition of the missing parental everything will fall into place very neatly and quickly--that can wreak havoc upon a remarried couple's still young and forming relationship. This is especially true in the initial months of a remarriage, for when the partners' joyous illusions begin deflating--which can happen very quickly--they often leave in their wake a residue of pessimism, weariness and burnout.

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