The Second Time Around

Probably the most popular – and durable — divorce myth concerns the durability of second marriages, that is, that second marriages are more successful than first marriages. “Because people learn from their bad experiences,” the popular wisdom goes, “second marriages tend to be more successful than first marriages.” That seems to make sense, and hope springs eternal. Moreover, since three-quarters of the men and woman who end marriages spin the roulette wheel of romance again within three years, it offers hope that the second time around the promised land of wedded bliss is at last in sight. Alas, it’s wrong. “Although many people who divorce have successful subsequent marriages, the divorce rate for remarriages is in fact higher than that of first marriages,” says David Popenoe, who heads the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. Popenoe, who has codified many of the popular divorce fictions, says the divorce rate for second timers jumps to 60 percent and for those going to the altar again a third time, 73 percent.
Even before the grind of daily living begins, marriage, “the second time around,” as the song goes, comes freighted with problems and liabilities. And even before that, people contemplating a second marriage seem particularly prone to selecting a new partner without thinking through the first failure. “Going into a second marriage without realizing why the first one failed is like NASA building another rocket before finding out why the last one exploded,” observes one social commentator. In lieu of honest soul searching, very often former spouses assign blame to the first partner, and they think that the secret to marital happiness is simply a matter of finding Mr. Right or Mrs. Wonderful, mythical creations that exist nowhere except in their imaginations.

Very often, the monotony of daily living, which is a fact of life, includes the demanding management of unfinished business from the first marriage, for example, when a new husband stumbles in his perhaps unsought role of stepfather to his second wife’s children, or when a mother finds herself in a tug of war between her children from the first failed marriage and the expectations of her new husband. When a second marriage begins with one or both partners having minor children from a first marriage, heroic adjustments must be made. This becomes even more complicated when additional children enter the picture. The Brady Bunch (“yours, mine and ours”) looks funny on television; in real life, the success of a stepfamily demands hard work of all involved.

In second marriages, the climb becomes even steeper when a spouse finds himself caught, for example, between the financial demands of a former wife, who is the custodial mother of his children, and his new wife, who believes the first wife is just being greedy. Moreover, the management of money may not reflect the same level of trust had in the first marriage. In the first marriage, the partners think his money and her money is their money. This does not always happen in second marriages. Money management and agreement about it are fundamental to all marriages. When trust is absent, the marriage heads for trouble.

And finally, divorce the second time around does not hold the fear that divorce the first time does. As bad as divorce is, people do survive it. The “two-time loser,” as one twice divorced woman put it, describing herself, “knows the ropes.”

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