A quick look at the statistics shows that the failure rate for second and subsequent marriages is quite high. While the divorce rate for first marriages is a shocking 40-50%, this number climbs dramatically after the first marriage, to nearly 75% in third marriages. This seems to indicate that marrying multiple times is fruitless, silly, and even a waste of time. Yet we all know plenty of people who found a lifetime partner on the second, third, or even fourth try, and went on to true wedded bliss. So anecdotal evidence for successful later marriages is strong, even though statistical support is weak.
To figure out what is going on, we need to seek out the story beyond the headlines. As it turns out, certain elements can make subsequent marriages more likely to fail, but acknowledging and addressing those potential hurdles up front can minimize the risks and give the marriage the best possible chance for success.
Reasons for Failure
The reasons for any marriage to fail are as varied as the people in the marriage, yet many of the reasons for second and subsequent marriages to fail tend to fall into a few specific categories.
Rebounding: Many people are afraid to be alone, or feel that they cannot live a happy and fulfilled life on their own. If your first marriage ended suddenly or tragically, you might feel a particularly strong compulsion to replace it an effort to feel normal again. This puts you at strong risk for rebounding, or marrying again for reasons other than a true, mature, developed love relationship with a new partner. Rebound relationships don’t always fail, but they have strong red flags from the outset.
Self-Protection: Whether you lost your first spouse to divorce or death, the experience likely made you feel vulnerable and even afraid. Having been through a wrenching emotional experience, you might be wary of fully opening yourself up to a new partner. Many people describe a feeling of “looking over their shoulder,” expecting bad news at any moment. This is not a healthy environment for love to flourish, and it can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You might leave at the first sign of trouble, or become so jealous and irrational that your new spouse feels that divorce is the only option.
Independence: If you have been divorced or widowed for a long time, you have likely worked hard to rebuild a life on your own. It is only natural to be skeptical of how a new partner will disrupt the balance and stability you have fought to achieve. Many couples work out these issues during the dating process, but for others, the feelings last into the new marriage. If you are unwilling or unable to merge lives, your marriage will be more difficult to sustain.
Lack of Bonds: Although the “traditional” marriage and family path is far from the only choice in today’s world, it does create some very logical and powerful reasons to stay together. Marrying fairly young, finishing growing up together, having a few kids, buying a house, and reaching various milestones together creates a strong shared history that builds intimacy and strengthens the commitment. Most people enter second and subsequent marriages later in life, after reaching many significant milestones alone or with a previous partner. You might already be set in your careers, have a few children, own your homes, and be well-set financially. You might already be wrapped up in family and social bonds, and not fully integrate into each other’s lives.
Children: While many families blend easily, others have a lot more trouble. When and how you introduce your next spouse to your children can play a role, but some step relationships just work out better than others. Regardless, if either or both of you have kids, they can create a potential hurdle that must be carefully considered.
Steps for Success
There are no magic bullets that can guarantee eternal happiness. However, taking active steps to mitigate the risk factors can dramatically improve your chances for a happy marriage.
Work Through Grief: No matter how or why your last marriage ended, you need to acknowledge and grieve the loss. If it was a bad marriage filled with turmoil, you might also be emotionally and psychologically damaged from the experience. You cannot enter into a healthy, long-lasting relationship until you are emotionally healthy yourself. Acknowledge and honor that marriage as an important part of your past, take an honest look at both the good and the bad, and find a way to truly resolve its influence on you. Some people can do this alone or with a supportive friend, while others do better with a supportive therapist. Work on your kids’ mental health as well.
Make Time for Exploration: Don’t wait until after the wedding to begin the hard work of getting to know each other. Progress slowly, discuss the hard issues, and take a good look at your compatibility. You need to be sure that you are both fully committed to the process of making it work before you consider getting engaged. Develop the trust needed to confront your individual and relationship demons together openly and honestly.
Blend Your Families: While it is unhealthy and confusing to have your kids form bonds with every person you casually date, the first introduction should not be after you are engaged. When you sense that the relationship is something special, begin actively working to bring your families together. If you have a friendly relationship with your ex, former in-laws, or other former relatives, include them as well. The more you make each other part of your family lives before the wedding, the less impactful your families are likely to be.