At a recent party, I chatted with the host's brother -- a successful lawyer whom I've met several times over the years. Twice married and twice divorced, he was accompanied this time by his third wife, a teacher who he married this past summer. He appeared to be very appreciative of his new spouse and spoke of her with love, respect and admiration. He said he deeply valued their marriage as something that adds greatly to his life and growth. He didn't disparage his previous wives but said he was finally in a marriage that really worked.
I was struck by the idea that a divorce can be an opportunity to get it right in a second or third marriage. And I wondered how often this really happens. I looked at statistics and was surprised to discover that second marriages fail more often than first marriages. And third marriages fail even more!
But why does this happen? Why do more second or third marriages end in divorce? Aren't we supposed to learn from our mistakes?
The hard truth is that it's not easy to have a satisfying and successful marriage. The reason for this, according to Carl Jung, is that in the marital relationships, our deepest selves are evoked and played out in relation to our partners. In the marriage, we try to solve an unsolved problem -- something probably originating in an early pattern of relating. While marriage, according to Jung, can be an opportunity for individuals to discover their greatest potential, it's not surprising that it may take more than one more marriage to work out a better way of living and relating.
But some people do defy the statistics and manage to have successful later marriages. I asked some friends and clients with happy later marriages to try to pinpoint what they do differently to get it right.
Don't Control Sex. My friend Gwen put it well: "When one partner takes control of sex, deciding when and how sex happens in a marriage, the relationship is in big trouble." Gwen and her first husband argued a lot about sex. He wanted it quick and often, preferably every night. She would only have sex on the weekends "when there was time to do it right," she explained. There was no compromise and in time, their relationship hit a wall. In her current marriage, sex is much more egalitarian, she told me. Both partners say what they want and how they want it. Each tries to meet the other in the middle so no one person controls the sexual part of the relationship.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. Everyone has personal habits that can be grating. A colleague Cindy told me she couldn't stand it when her first husband got ready for bed every night going through the exact same sequence. "I used to lie in bed and watch him drop his underpants then use his big toe to flick them in the corner," she said. For some reason, this one act irritated her no end. "I was a fool," she said. "Why didn't I just turn away or read a magazine? With my second husband, I try to consciously notice when he's doing something potentially irritating and let it go. For instance, he shuffles around in his slippers, something that would have annoyed me in the past. Now I don't focus on it at all."
Don't Try to Control. We've all seen marriages where one person tries to control the other and tell them what to do. It's a relationship killer. People end up being in a parent-child dynamic which undermines an equal adult relationship. "It's taking a lot of self-control for me to learn not to control," said a female client who came to me with her husband for couples counseling. It was her second time around and her need for control had caused problems in her first marriage. She was fortunate enough to have a strong partner second time around, who was also learning to be very patient. He could stand up to her yet allow her to make mistakes. The result was a healthy dynamic that has led to a successful marriage.
Don't Take the Other for Granted. Married life brings with it pressure and routine, especially if there are children involved. Husbands and wives can become consumed with schedules with little time for moments of intimacy and connection. A neighbor of mine, Sandra, told me she and her second husband try to give each other small unexpected loving gestures. For example, he sometimes gets out of bed before her and wakes her with a cup of coffee. They sit together on the bed for a few minutes before the day begins. These small moments help to keep them connected, and the marriage strong.
Don't Let the Kids Divide Parents. I attended my friend Susan's second wedding recently. I knew her years ago when her first marriage fell apart. She and her first husband had never agreed on how to handle their kid's drug problem. The dad grew up in the 60's and thought drugs were just a passing phase and no big deal. His wife compensated by being an over-the-top disciplinarian. The boy played them off against each other. It was a bad triangle that eventually fractured the marriage. Susan's now embarking on a second marriage to a man with several children. Fortunately, both adults are aware of the potential problems of blended families as their children test the new family structure. Susan and her husband take the time to try to stay on the same page and not let the kids come between them.
Are you in a successful second or third marriage? What did you do differently to make it better this time around?