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What Goes Wrong with Second Marriages?

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The New York Times recently reported that two out of three second marriages fail. Although it's been no secret for years that second marriages fail more than first marriages, hearing the statistics again is always troublesome and puzzling.

Intuitively, you would expect the opposite. You would expect that divorce would lead to greater wisdom in avoiding future pitfalls. Given a precious second chance, you might assume that people would use the knowledge gained to enrich the new relationship and enhance its success. So what are the problems on the second try?

Second marriages begin with the bright hope to erase the painful past and start anew. But the ghosts of the failed first marriage craftily cross the new threshold and greet the new spouses as they enter their new union. There they stay for years, framing variations of the same question, "Will he or she be like my first?" "Is this time really different, or am I due for another round of disappointment and regret?"

Of course, all marriages harbor ghosts: the ghosts of your childhood, of your parents' marriage or divorce, of prior loves and losses, of the girl who got away and the man who kept you on hold too long. You hope to forget, but the ghostly presence of the recent divorce reminds you that whatever happened earlier could happen again. And when the first slip occurs, your fears are often too hastily confirmed. And the marriage, pushed by ghosts, begins its downhill slide.

There is more. The newly remarried couple really need private, uninterrupted time, to strengthen trust, to share sexual intimacy, to cultivate pleasure, to quarrel and make up, to resolve different values and goals. All of these are the needed building blocks for their future together. But its hard to find that together time when you are surrounded by children from first marriages who also crave attention. They are understandably jealous of the intruder who appears to have special access to the parent, who previously belonged solely to them. Not surprisingly, despite your best intentions, they offer a decidedly cool welcome. After divorce, children--and especially adolescents--are often prickly and not at all easy to befriend. It takes lots of time and genuine interest and effort to overcome their resistance. So there goes the uninterrupted time together that you looked forward to enjoying.

There is still more. The remarriage contains many more actors in the play than you expected. There is the child's biological father who asserts his time share. There is the biological mother who remains actively involved. Rivalry between mother and step-mother, and between the two men, can easily destroy the peace of the household. It is a rude awakening to discover that desire, sexual jealousy and rivalry survive the divorce and can spring to life in the remarriage.

Parents and step-parents often disagree about parenting. Who sets the rules for the children when both parents remarry? Step-fathers and their adolescent step-sons often cross swords as step-fathers demand obedience and the youngsters reach for more independence and freedom. Strangely enough, step-mothers may find themselves competing with the father's attentiveness to his young daughter.

The lifestyles of the two households are often widely disparate. Who resolves differences about fast foods, curfew, and allowance? How to ration TV time? And then there are large ticket items: Who is responsible for paying for Jimmy's college? Should we vacation abroad next summer or pay for Mary's orthodontia?

If you thought that you could avoid all this if you don't marry and live together, think again: Partners who co-habitate without marrying break up more frequently than couples who remarry.

Don't despair, however. There are many very happy second marriages. They too had ghosts but the couple prevailed. There are many ways to win. But you need to know the territory.

For a fuller picture of marriage consult The Good Marriage: How And Why Love Lasts, by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee