A study published by the Vanier Institute of the Family reveals that Canadians are marrying today at about the same rate as 75 years ago. A closer look reveals an interesting difference – an increasing number of these marriages are remarriages.
According to Lillian Messinger, a Toronto-based therapist and one of the first professionals in Canada to study second marriages, remarriage increased dramatically when the divorce law changed in 1968 to include marriage breakdown. Today, says Messinger, one out of every five marriages in Canada is considered a remarriage by Statistics Canada.
Over the past 25 years, attitudes towards second marriages have been tempered by society’s growing acceptance of divorce. Anne, a 32-year-old woman who has plans of her own to marry a divorced man with children, remembers her mother’s remarriage in the mid-1970s: “There was no such thing as family counseling. There were no books for children about divorce or stepfamilies. We were expected to just ‘get along’ with our new sisters and brothers – but let me tell you, we were no Brady Bunch!”
While the divorce rate in stepfamilies is higher than that in nuclear families, Dr. Peter Marshall, author of Cinderella Revisited: How to Survive Your Stepfamily Without a Fairy Godmother (Whitecap Books, 1993), says that there are two points that need to be made: “The first is that this risk decreases after the first three years; it’s the early phase of stepfamily development that seems to place particular strain on the marriage … The second point is that knowing the potential risks can be useful: it signals the need to take steps to increase the chance of not contributing to the high divorce rate.”
The million-dollar question is: why do some marriages work while others fail? According to John Gottman – a psychology professor who claims his research will predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will stay together – the key to marital happiness and success is friendship. Some of the most important aspects of this type of friendship are knowing each other intimately, demonstrating affection and respect for each other on a daily basis, and genuinely enjoying each other’s company. Gottman based his findings on 25 years of marital research, which he presents in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999).
Of course, ask 10 different experts what makes some relationships succeed while others fail, and you’ll get 10 different answers. This article distills the wisdom and experience of relationship experts and couples who took the plunge a second time, offering suggestions, strategies, tips, and tools that may help you steer clear of troubled waters.
Take your time
Don’t underestimate the importance of taking the time to get to know yourself – and your new partner – before you remarry. Jeannette met her first husband just three months before they married. “I went into the marriage as half a person with someone I barely knew,” she says shaking her head. The 44-year-old advertising executive was single for 14 years before she married for the second time. “During that time, I became much more self-reliant. When I married Steve, I went into the marriage as an independent, autonomous person, rather than as a needy person.”
Whether or not you believe Gottman’s assertion that friendship is the most important factor for a successful relationship, it’s certainly a good place to start. And developing a close friendship takes time – something many couples forget while they’re caught up in the romantic haze of new love. So take the time to really get to know your partner – and yourself – before jumping into a new marriage.
Respect your partner
Dr. Harville Hendrix is a well-known relationship therapist and author of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples (HarperPerennial, 1990). He pegs criticism as the single most destructive force in relationships. “When people position their partner as bad or wrong, after a while, their partners begin to perceive themselves that way,” he explains. “Eventually, this leads to a rupture in connection, and that ruptured connection means that they can no longer feel safe with their partner.” Janice, an architect, and her husband John, a computer consultant, share office space in Mississauga. “We used to have meetings where we would voice opinions in a manner that was not really very supportive. We’ve since become much more sensitized to what each of us is going through and what the circumstances are,” says John. The couple’s empathy in their business dealings has transferred to their personal relationship. “When we have a problem, we make the time to discuss it and we do so in a non-threatening way,” says Janice. “We avoid words like ‘you’re wrong,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be doing that.’ After all, we’re not adversaries – we’re on the same team.”
Go with the flow
Couples like Janice and John are connected. They’re “in the flow,” according to Dr. Hendrix. “Flow is beyond language,” he says. “It’s only when it’s gone that we get the language – phrases like ‘you bother me,’ ‘I feel alone,’ ‘I don’t feel safe around you.’ These words describe the brokenness we feel when our connection is gone.” Through their own personal relationship, Dr. Hendrix and his wife Helen Hunt developed a process called Imago Relationship Therapy, which is now practised by therapists across North America. In a nutshell, Imago Therapy teaches couples how to effectively communicate or “dialogue.” Perhaps the most important and positive step in the process is validation. Validation leads to empathy and puts couples “back in the flow,” says Hendrix. “Once you’re in the flow, you can’t do anything wrong,” he explains. “It’s truly lovely.”
Through the process of validation, partners learn to acknowledge each other’s reality without passing judgment. It’s about listening, understanding, and accepting your partner for who he or she is. Although the exercises may seem somewhat artificial at first, Hendrix insists that you can act your way into a new way of feeling and thinking. “Act as if it’s true, behave as if it’s true, and it can really be true,” he says.
Develop a positive family system
If you or your new partner have children from a previous marriage, one of your biggest challenges when you marry will be establishing harmony in your new home. “When a couple with kids goes into another relationship, everyone’s life is going to change,” says Lillian Messinger. Start off on the right foot by being inclusive. Keep children and other members of the extended families abreast of how the relationship is going, so that when you are ready to be married, they’ll be prepared too. Try to define the step-role as much as you can before you marry; seek the advice of a financial planner, lawyer, or family counselor if necessary, and research stepfamilies at your local library. There are many issues to discuss – where will the family live, who will pay for what, who will be responsible for discipline, and so on. You also might want to consider a domestic agreement or marriage contract. Although not compulsory by law, these agreements are becoming more and more commonplace in second marriages.
While each stepfamily has a different dynamic, the goal should be to achieve a stable environment, says Messinger. “The term ‘blended family’ is all too frequently used,” she says. “The remarriage family could see this as a goal, but it takes time before there’s a sense of blending.” Think of it as a “folding-in” process instead, like folding egg whites into cake batter.
Try to avoid becoming a “supermom” or a “sugardaddy.” Instead, maintain a sense of normalcy in your children’s lives. If you have your children on the weekends, show them that life goes on in your house during these two days just as it does in the other house the other five, says Harville Hendrix. “Let them know that they may get to go to a movie, but they may also have to mow the lawn. Don’t make the weekend one long ice-cream cone.”
If you’re a stepparent, be very careful not to disparage your partner’s ex-spouse. If you try to displace their biological mother or father, your stepchildren will resent you, and so will their natural parent. “It’s so important to convey that ‘I’m not your parent, but I am interested in you, I hope that we can be good friends, I love your mother or father, and I want us to be a good, loving kind of family’,” says Lillian Messinger.
In any family, the demands of child rearing will sometimes overshadow the marriage. But it’s very important not to neglect the marital relationship if you want your marriage to last. “For stepfamilies, the lack of a courtship phase adds to the need to create opportunities to be together as a couple,” says Dr. Peter Marshall. One possible remedy is to make dates with your partner on a regular basis. Go to a romantic restaurant, and the first person to mention the kids has to foot the bill – that should keep your conversation out of “stepfamily issues” territory!
Come to terms with your partner’s ex
We’ve all heard the horror stories about the ex-wife or ex-husband-from-hell. And chances are, some of the stories may even be true. But living in the anger of that failed relationship can quickly lead to the destruction of your own. No-one expects you to become bosom buddies with your partner’s ex, but trying to remain civil is a good start. After all, when you marry someone who has been “down that aisle” before, you’re marrying his or her past, too – which includes a former spouse and often children from that union. In her book, Second Wives: The Silent Struggle (Fender Publishing Company, 1999), Christine Thomas addresses some of the challenges faced by second wives and offers some suggestions to help you better cope with the situation, including dealing with the stereotypes associated with the image of stepmother. “While we’re defending ourselves against the outside world, we’re also struggling to make our marriages work,” she writes. “Everyone has at least one or two problems in her marriage, let’s face it. Second marriages have all the same challenges as first marriages, plus quite a few more.” By working together with your partner, and maintaining realistic expectations, you can dodge the residual anger from his or her failed marriage while strengthening your own union.
Get professional help
Most experts suggest that you go for some form of counseling before you remarry – whether you formally review your previous marriage on an individual basis with a therapist, attend a marriage-preparation workshop, or sign up for joint sessions with your partner.
Couples who separate and come back together need to be especially aware of backsliding, says Harville Hendrix. “When you first get back together, you’ll probably feel a little romantic. But be aware that you haven’t changed just because you’ve moved back in together.” In a few weeks, more than likely, you’ll experience a return of the old patterns, he warns. “But don’t worry about it. That’s normal. You get muscle cramps when you exercise. The question is: what do you do when you get a muscle cramp?”
Dr. Hendrix maintains that these backsliding periods are ideal opportunities for growth. “Every regression gives you another opportunity to practice dialogue and experience connection and safety. You don’t use these skills a whole lot unless you’re in the ditch, so see the ditch as an opportunity to learn how to stay out of ditches!” he says. Ed and Carol, both 35, recently reconciled and bought a home together in Etobicoke. “Counseling has been absolutely essential for us,” says Carol. “We’ve learned coping skills that are helping us to address some of our old problems. After 15 years, we’ve finally learned who we are and how to communicate. We’re feeling very hopeful about our future together.”
It’s not unusual, however, for one partner to reject the idea of joint counseling. This can be devastating to the partner who has suggested counseling and can be interpreted – sometimes erroneously – as a sign that the marriage is over. The good news is that many therapists now recognize that counseling can be valuable for the relationship even if one partner attends the sessions alone. In her book Divorce Busting (Fireside, 1993), Michele Weiner-Davis explains that: “Relationships are such that if one person makes significant changes, the relationship must change … change your marriage by changing yourself.”
There are workshops and seminars taking place across North America over the next few months that might be just what the doctor ordered if you’re considering taking the plunge again. For instance, Dr. Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy process is widely available to couples and singles through workshops, home videos, study guides, books, and audio cassettes. For a workshop in your area, or for more information about Imago Relationship Therapy, visit www.imagotherapy.com.
Commit yourself to the relationship
In terms of actually making the relationship work, Dr. Hendrix believes that there is really no difference between a first and a second marriage. He maintains that the factors that led to the demise of a first marriage will eventually show up in the second, too.
The key to avoiding a second divorce is communication. “Learn how to talk with your partner ‘dialogically’,” advises Dr. Hendrix. “If you practice dialogue, we can pretty well promise you that your relationship will go through a period of turbulence, but will then level out and eventually become the relationship that you really want.”
The couples we spoke with believe that their marriages are worth the work. They’re committed to each other and to their relationships. Consider the alternative: if you think that working at your relationship is a lot of trouble, not working at it will end up causing ten times as much trouble – especially if there are children involved. Remember: marriages require a lot of work, but so do divorces!