Making Remarriage Work

Most divorced people eventually miss the positive aspects of a committed relationship and want to find a new partner. Before considering remarriage, however, make sure that this is really what you want. Here's how to increase the odds of having a successful second marriage.

By Jeffrey Cottrill
Updated: August 11, 2016
Making Remarriage Work

When you've recovered from your divorce -- and you will recover, although you may not believe so at first -- you will be able to start your life anew. You get the chance to develop new interests and to meet new friends. Eventually, you might want to get married again; if you're like most people, an experience with divorce doesn't necessarily mean that you've totally turned off romance and marriage. This is completely normal and healthy: most human beings don't want to spend their entire lives alone. It's in our nature to yearn for a lifetime soulmate, even if we didn't get what we wanted the first time around.

"I don't like to think of ended marriages as 'failures,'" says internationally renowned relationship expert Barbara De Angelis, Ph.D. "When you sell a house and move into a new one, you don't consider that a failure; when you quit a job and get a better one, that's not a failure. Leaving an unhappy relationship is a success -- you've taken it as far as it can go, and you've grown and changed through it. Staying in it would have been a failure." So remarriage shouldn't be looked upon as making up for something that went wrong in the past; it's an opportunity to move forward towards a happy future.

Yet according to statistics from the Stepfamily Association of America (, even though 75% of divorced persons will eventually remarry, 60% of remarriages end in divorce -- an even higher rate than that of first marriages. So how can you avoid becoming an unhappy statistic? "The first thing you should do is a deep assessment of your first marriage and earlier relationships," says Dr. De Angelis. "How did they function? What didn't work? Were there problems with sex, or power struggles? You then have to reevaluate yourself, work on yourself."

Don't rush into a rebound marriage without considering these things; above all, take your time. You need to find somebody you can truly love for what he or she is worth; you must also be highly compatible with that person. You and your new spouse will have to commit to the marriage, and believe in it, to make it last this time around. As well, the prospect of remarriage (either for you or your new partner) often leads to the unexpected challenges of gaining a stepfamily, but these challenges can be overcome with some patience, understanding, and adaptability.

Before considering remarriage, make sure that this is really what you want. Remember, it's better to be single and independent than to compromise your beliefs, values, and goals for the sake of being in a relationship. If you want to remarry, do it for the right reasons: because you've found somebody you want to be with forever -- someone who is truly compatible with you and brings out the best in you. Don't do it because you're ashamed of being single, to enhance your image, out of pure lust, or because you're looking for a way to pay the bills.

"The critical issue is not when you remarry," writes Barbara Lovenheim in Beating the Marriage Odds (William Morrow and Company, 1990), "but why you remarry and whom you select as a spouse... If you give yourself time to know who you are and what you want and what you can offer to a spouse, your chances of creating a solid marriage are enhanced."

What to Look for

Chances are that the reason your first marriage didn't work out is related to one of two situations: you married the wrong person, or you and/or your partner didn't work hard enough to sustain the marriage. In the case of the former, what should you be looking for in a partner? Dr. De Angelis says, "You should look for character, not just personality; compatibility, not just chemistry. You need somebody willing to work on themselves and on their relationships." Her bestseller Are You the One for Me? Knowing Who's Right and Avoiding Who's Wrong (Delacorte Press, 1992) is an excellent resource for learning why we pick the partners we do, the mistakes people most commonly make when starting relationships, and what kind of person would be right for you.

If your first marriage ended in divorce, ask yourself these questions: Why did I get married before? Was I really in love with my first wife/husband? Did I like him/her? Why did our marriage break down? How did I contribute to the destruction of the relationship?

Many people are actually more in love with being in love than with their companions. Before even looking for a new partner, you need to abandon your most unrealistic romantic fantasies. Thanks to movies, novels, fairy tales, and even TV commercials, we're all looking for Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Many women secretly (or not so secretly) want Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet and carry them to the Castle of Happily Ever After; many men are looking for a woman with model-perfect looks, who's great in bed, and who will cheerfully handle all domestic duties (cooking, cleaning, etc.). Our modern romantic mythology tells us that such "perfect mates" really do exist, and that we shouldn't "settle for" anything less. It also tells us that it's romantic to meet someone in a bar/resort/yacht on Friday night and to be so swept away by passion that we're married before the week is up. Unfortunately, your hormones can only tell you whom you'd like to have sex with -- not who would make a great life-partner.

You need to realize that the "right" person for you will be a real -- and therefore imperfect -- human being; romantic maturity begins with the acceptance of this fact. If you expect your partner or your marriage to be the ideal portrayed in Harlequin novels or romantic movies, you'll be sorely disappointed -- even if your partner is an absolutely wonderful person. If you're going to truly love somebody, you'll have accept their flaws along with their good qualities. After all, you'll want your partner to reciprocate and love and accept you for who you truly are -- warts and all.

Another common trap that people frequently fall into is to use superficial criteria when choosing a partner: looks, sex appeal, money, charm, and other traits that are easily discernible on the outside. Such traits may be okay if all you want is a fun, short-term fling, but not if you want a serious, lifetime relationship. We've all heard that appearances can be deceiving, yet many of us still fall for people solely on the basis of their physical attractiveness. Instead, take the time to get to know the people you date; find out who they really are rather than who they project themselves to be.

So what should you be looking for? Somebody who's more than just a pretty face or a fat wallet, obviously. Don't choose somebody because your friends and family think you should -- you have to live with this person, they don't. Also, be aware of any tendencies you may have to "rescue" people from their personal problems. If you find yourself saying things like "All this person needs is some love and support -- then he/she will become the happy, successful, loving person I know he/she could be," you should hear warning bells. Trying to "save" someone is a painful and often fruitless task: people only change when it becomes too painful to remain the way they are, and some people would literally rather die than change. Thinking "If only this person would change (stop drinking/cheating/abusing me etc.), he/she would be perfect for me" should send up another red flag.

According to Dr. De Angelis, there are six basic qualities to look for in a partner:

  1. Commitment to personal growth
  2. Emotional openness
  3. Integrity
  4. Maturity and responsibility
  5. High self-esteem
  6. Positive attitude toward life

It's the inner strengths that will last. If your partner can express his/her feelings to you, believes in him/herself, and can take care of him/herself, you'll probably stay in love with this person far longer than with somebody who'll alleviate your loneliness, sexual hunger, or financial worries on a short-term basis.

However, just because somebody has most or all of these positive traits doesn't mean that you're perfectly compatible with him or her. That's the next step: understanding whether or not you and this person are a good fit.


"Love is not enough to make a relationship work," says Dr. De Angelis. "It needs compatibility and it needs commitment." You may love your partner, but do your personalities and circumstances fit together? Is he or she your best friend? If your spouse isn't your best friend, how is a marriage going to work? On the other hand, if you don't have sexual compatibility with your spouse, what makes your marriage any different from your deepest platonic friendship? If you're going to spend and share your whole life with this person -- that is, every day, every night -- compatibility had better be there!

Compatibility has to do with both internal and external qualities. The more you and your partner have in common in terms of values, morals, intellectual and cultural tastes, and general personality style, the better the chance of the relationship succeeding. You're not looking for somebody who's exactly the same as you; in fact, differences offer opportunities for learning and growth. "Differences can definitely be a benefit, but too many differences will mean a relationship won't work," explains Dr. De Angelis. "You need to have the same communication style, love style, and intellectual style." Other areas in which you and your partner should be similar include: physical and emotional styles, social styles, spiritual styles, and interests and hobbies. In fact, your ideal partner would probably be your ideal vision of yourself.

Dr. De Angelis identifies six external situations that she calls "Compatibility Time Bombs" -- which could become possible obstacles to a relationship working out, regardless of how much you love your partner or how much you seem to have in common:

  1. Significant age difference
  2. Different religious background
  3. Different social, ethnic, or educational background
  4. Antagonistic in-laws
  5. Antagonistic ex-spouse
  6. Antagonistic stepchildren
  7. Long-distance relationships

This doesn't mean that you cannot make your new relationship work if it has any of these obstacles. You and your partner need to discuss each problem openly and come up with a plan for handling it; ignoring the "time bomb" means that it will blow up in your face sooner or later. The first step is to acknowledge that the problem exists; even though this may be a painful conversation, it's less painful than a second divorce. Be sensitive to your partner's feelings, and don't try to make him/her carry all the blame for the problem. "If only you were younger, you'd understand my point of view" or "If only you made more of an effort with my kids, I'm sure they'd love you" are good examples of placing the responsibility squarely on your partner's shoulders, which is a great way to ensure the eventual failure of your relationship.

Here's a better way to begin a conversation about one of these compatibility issues: "I know my kids have been rude to you. I think they're hoping I'll get back together with my ex, and they see you as a barrier to that. I think we should sit down with them and have a family meeting about it, explain that my relationship with you is permanent, and set some guidelines for acceptable behavior. What do you think?"

So now you've found somebody with whom you're totally compatible, you've defused all your "compatibility time bombs," and you're getting married. Will it work? That still depends on you.

Making it Work

There's no point in feeling guilty about what you may or may not have done to destroy your relationship with your first spouse. What you can do, however, is learn from your past mistakes and avoid letting them get in the way of your happiness a second time.

Many people naively believe that the initial romantic bliss will last for a lifetime without any effort on their part to keep the spark going. This may be the case in Hollywood movies, but in real life, a relationship -- even a great relationship -- needs work from time to time. "I think the reason why more second marriages end in divorce than first marriages is that most people don't take the time to learn the love skills necessary to make a relationship work," says Dr. De Angelis. "They need to learn what they did wrong the first time." Finding the right person is only the first step; you also have to reciprocate that rightness, both before and after the commitment gets deep. "Instead of just looking for the right partner,become the right partner. Then you'll magnetize somebody right."

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., the creator of Imago relationship therapy and the bestselling author of Keeping the Love You Find (Pocket Books, 1992), says that another common reason why second marriages often end in divorce is that people bring along the same emotional baggage they brought to their first marriages. "You carry the problems forward inside you, and they show up again," says Dr. Hendrix. "Also, you tend to feel wounded and discouraged from the first marriage, and as a result you're leery, so you get out of the second one earlier. When people have unresolved problems, they carry them into their next relationships. But because of the previous wounding, the second marriage tends to destabilize more quickly. However, if you worked on the problems in the first marriage -- even though it ended in divorce -- your second will have more stability."

Dr. Hendrix provides a useful exercise for providing a mutual understanding of your and your spouse's problems. "In Imago therapy, we call it the Dialogical Process," he explains. "You listen to each other in a certain way and learn to communicate at a much deeper level.

"There are three steps," he explains. "The first is 'mirroring' -- listening and saying, 'let me see if I've got that.' This reassures your partner that you're hearing what he/she is saying. The second phase is 'validation.' You have to suspend your own perspective and stretch yourself to see the world from your partner's point of view." Validation allows you to see your partner's inner logic; it doesn't mean you have to agree with him/her, but you have to understand that he/she has a valid point. "The third phase is 'empathy': you say 'Given what you've told me, I can imagine how you might be feeling.' The mirroring establishes contact; the validation establishes the connection; and the empathy unifies you and your partner."

The key to keeping the lines of communication open is to recognize that your partner has a point of view distinct from -- but equally important as -- yours. "People often operate unconsciously as if they are the center of the universe," says Dr. Hendrix. "In an intimate partnership, this problem becomes amplified." Discounting your partner's opinions as worthless -- or consistently worth less that yours -- creates conflict, and often leads to divorce. "What you need to do is acknowledge that there are two minds in the relationship, and both need to be right," he says.

"Couples also need to understand that troubles in marriage come unconsciously from unfinished business in childhood. The unconscious purpose of a partnership is to help each other finish childhood." To save a marriage that's in trouble, both partners need to take responsibility for contributing to the problems. Taking ownership of some of the trouble, rather than playing the blame game, reduces a lot of the friction. It's easier to be open about these problems when you and your partner are compatible and have a strong commitment and attraction to each other. According to Dr. Hendrix, "In a deep relationship, the unconscious connects at a deep level. If there's no emotional attraction, it's hard for the couple to work towards a happy marriage."

Although unresolved problems from your first marriage will resurface the second time, it's not too late to tackle these issues. "The dynamics are the same in first and second marriages; there are no differences," says Dr. Hendrix. There are far more challenges in the second marriage than in the first, he continues, because this is the second time you've been disappointed or wounded. "It's still about communication and unconscious needs. With the additional wounding, however, the resilience is often not strong enough for the second marriage to survive." Unless, of course, you're willing and able to do the work to resolve your issues and heal your wounds. If you don't do the work this time, you'll have to face these same issues the third time -- unless you decide to give up on relationships altogether and become an emotional hermit.

Happily Ever After...

"The basic factors of making a remarriage work are pre-planning and understanding," says Lillian Messinger, a Toronto-based counselor specializing on remarriage issues. "It's very important for each partner to take stock and review what went wrong in his or her previous marriage -- rather than just blaming the people they married. Also, people should think about what they want in a new partner. Security, love and companionship are among the important factors." In her book Remarriage: A Family Affair (Plenum Press), Messinger notes that if there are children from previous relationships, then "the divorce does not terminate the former marriage ties. In marriage, most people look for the exclusivity of love and loyalty invested in each other. In remarriage, there can be exclusivity in the marital love of the couple, but the family life cannot be exclusive."

Today, with divorce being so common, people can never be sure how their marriages will turn out. Although Dr. De Angelis points out warning signs to look for, and Dr. Hendrix gives good advice on making deep connections and fulfilling needs, nobody can predict the future. Sometimes the thrills and emotions that first sparked a relationship fade over time; sometimes a marriage that didn't have those sparks grows into something truly special. Nobody can guarantee that your second marriage will work out, or even that it will work better than your first. But if you take the time to make sure that you've found the right person, and to keep the lines of communication and acceptance open in the relationship, you have a far better chance of making love lovelier the second time around.

"Be aware that unresolved problems from your first marriage will show up again," emphasizes Dr. Hendrix. "You must learn to communicate, and to love your partner in the way he or she needs to be loved -- not in the way you want to love. Be willing to commit to stretching yourself to fulfill your partner's needs. It all boils down to learning how to connect and meet each other's needs."

The bottom line is that you need to find the right person to share your life -- and then do the work to ensure that this time, it's for keeps. With planning, communication, and a measure of introspection, you can avoid past mistakes and create a lasting, fulfilling remarriage.

If you're getting remarried and you (or your ex) have children from a previous marriage, please check out "Creating a Successful Stepfamily." Professionals as well as couples who have built happy blended or stepfamilies offer advice on how to create a happy remarriage with kids.

Together Forever

So what are the secrets of a successful, long-term marriage? In an attempt to answer this question, Dr. Finnegan Alford-Cooper studied 576 couples who had been married for 50 years or more. In 1998, she released her findings in a book entitled For Keeps: Marriages that Last a Lifetime (M.E. Sharpe), which showed that "commitment" and "fidelity" were the two factors consistently reported by happy couples. According to Dr. Alford-Cooper's study:

  • 95% of the spouses agreed that fidelity was essential to a successful marriage;
  • 94% agreed or strongly agreed that marriage is a long-term commitment to one person
  • 83% agreed or strongly agreed that marriage is a "sacred obligation."

Two other factors couples in her study cited as critical were "honesty" and "trust." These couples also said they had started married life with the conviction that marriage was a lifetime commitment, and that divorce would be worse than an unhappy marriage. Fortunately, it seems that things worked out for better rather than for worse for these "lifers": a whopping 90% of the couples she surveyed said that they were happily married after 50+ years.

Barbara De Angelis's Sixty-Second Compatibility Test

Here's a short test you can use to see how well matched you are with someone. Let me warn you, however, that these four little questions are deceptive -- answering them can be a more intense experience than you expect it to be. Ask yourself the following four questions about your prospective or present partner:

  1. Would I want to have a child with this person?
  2. Would I want to have a child just like this person?
  3. Do I want to become more like this person?
  4. Would I be willing to spend the rest of my life with this person if he/she never changed from the way he/she is now?

If you answered "yes" to all four questions, you're probably compatible. If you answered "no," ask yourself why not.

– Test reprinted from Are You the One for Me? Knowing Who's Right and Avoiding Who's Wrong 
by Barbara De Angelis (Delacorte Press, 1992).


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By Jeffrey Cottrill| July 24, 2012

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