Transitional Marriage Stages From Divorce to Remarriage

When a couple separates with plans to divorce, one partner usually leaves the family home. When there are children by this marriage and the parents are sharing the parenting, the children will now have a maternal home and a paternal home.

By Lillian Messinger, BA, MSW
Updated: September 24, 2014
Divorce and Remarriage

When a couple separates with plans to divorce, one partner usually leaves the family home. When there are children by this marriage and the parents are sharing the parenting, the children will now have a maternal home and a paternal home.

Most divorced partners want to get on with their lives. Statistics Canada reports that despite the high divorce rate,marriage and/or cohabitation is a desired form of life, and 3/4 of divorced persons remarry within three to five years after divorce.

When the goal is to create a new blended family with children from one or both partners, the divorced parents must be informed about the complexities of remarriage. As a marriage counselor, I have worked with many people who have divorced and remarried. Unfortunately, after their second marriage, many people have told me they weren't prepared for problems such as the ambiguous role of a step-parent. They believed in the myth that their marriage would create not only their partnership but also an "instant family" with "instant love". It just doesn't work that way. Each new partner comes with a different history and a different attitude to child rearing. The lack of common ground frequently leads to disappointment and disenchantment.

The high divorce rate is common knowledge. According to StatsCan, second marriages have an even higher rate of divorce than first marriages do. I believe we have a strong responsibility to advocate pre-remarriage education. Premarital courses are recognized by many churches and agencies; when there are children involved, pre-remarriage counseling should be; compulsory prior to the marriage.

In a first marriage, a couple often has children who they parent from birth through the various stages of growth and development. This is regarded as a "normal" family: a nuclear family with clearly defined parent-child roles, with physical and emotional protection, with parents in the protective authority role in charge of their children. The family has its own identity, with boundaries that distinguish it as a separate system. The marriage contract can be broken, but the parent-child and sibling relationships remain. This is true for the biological grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well; the divorce is only between the couple.

Post-divorce marriage is different in all these areas. The newly married pair form and instant family -- not just a couple. They move into each others' lives at different stages of their own, and of their childrens' lives. They each bring a different history, and part of their previous family life.

StatsCan conveys that the largest number of remarriages are between two divorced persons. The second largest is between a divorced person and a single person. The third is between a divorced person and a widowed person. Each combination has its own structure and dynamics, and each participant must be prepared for the reality of its own unique structure.

If we consider two divorced persons remarrying, one or both partners may have children from their previous marriage. Sometimes, both sets of children end up living together in the new blended family home. The children may be different sexes and different ages: since men tend to marry younger women, the women's children may be young and the man's teenage. It can be difficult to create harmony and a family routine with children at different life stages.

When the woman is the sole custodial parent and her new husband a non-custodial parent, it can create instability in the family function with his children visiting every-other weekend. Frequently, when the man spends the week with his new wife and her children, he may tend to overcompensate when his children are with him by focusing his time and attention solely on his children.

When a previously single man marries a divorced woman, he can find her kids intrusive, and he may have difficulty knowing what role to develop as step-father. When a divorced man with children marries a previously married woman he may be anxious for her to open her heart to his children, and love them "like her own". She wants her own children, while he's already "been there, done that" and may not want any more. She wants him, but she also wants children of her own, and hopes that once married, she'll help him change his mind.

A remarriage family tree may include two biological parents, two step-parents, four biological grandparents, four step-grandparents, a biological extended family, a step- extended family, siblings, step-siblings, and possibly half-siblings. I could go on with the estimated nine different structures post-divorce marriages can bring together. The main point is that divorced people have a right to get on with their lives, to fall in love, and to want a committed relationship. They can build a successful blended family, but this requires preparation -- not just for the couple, but for and with their children. Pre-remarriage counseling is crucial to prepare each member for some of the unique issues and challenges they'll face as they create new family ties.

I'll add that since remarriages are linked to the first marriage, the boundary of the remarriage must be open to the links between the children and the nonresident parent. This requires that the educational process also involves the ex-spouses. As I noted in my book Remarriage: A Family Affair, "it may be useful to conceptualize the remarriage family as consisting of persons who have dual membership in two families. The successful remarriage family would be one that acknowledges the prior allegiance and affection that exists between parents and children, neither family demanding exclusive loyalty from its members. The children may enjoy the benefits of both family memberships."

To learn to develop a satisfying family life built on this complex structure of parts of two families requires preparation and cooperation as well as love. Couples whose marriage will create a blended family owe it to themselves -- and their children -- to seek pre-remarriage counseling to help them cope with the unique issues they'll confront.


 Lillian Messinger is a Toronto-based therapist specializing in remarriage and step-family issues. She is also author of "Remarriage: A Family Affair".

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