Statistics say that 50% of all first marriages end in divorce, but 67% of second marriages fail. It’s true! Why is it that so many people rush into ill-advised second marriages or relationships after a divorce?
It has become a clear phenomenon. It is often referred to as the “middle” marriage: the one that shouldn’t have happened, the one some people go through before they get a grip and find the partner they really should have waited for.
There are some external, logistical reasons why middle marriages happen, certainly. A person might feel relief at the thought of sharing a home or having a second income supporting the family. Maybe the idea of assistance in child-rearing or household work is extremely appealing. (Of divorcees over 45, 1/3 of them are men and ¼ of them are women.)
Why Some Make the Mistake of the Middle Marriage
It Really Is All in Your Head
But neuroscience tells us that the deeper explanation is biochemical. We are physical beings first and foremost, and divorce wreaks havoc on your brain chemistry. Researchers Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown, who have done MRIs of many people in the process of breakup or divorce, say that “romantic rejection is like withdrawing from cocaine…detachment from a partner cuts you off from dopamine.” And dopamine, as many of us know, is the feel-good brain chemical. Understand this and you’ll have rapid insight into why a quick partnering is so tempting. (It doesn’t even have to be an actual marriage.)
Soon after my own divorce, I dated someone who was also newly free after his second marriage. We hit it off extremely well—our spiritual paths, our sense of humor, the things we like to do, all of it meshed. The chemistry was coming along quite nicely as well.
It was about our sixth date and we were driving back from dinner. He had both hands on the steering wheel and was looking straight ahead down the dark road. “You are so beautiful,” he said, “and I really like you. A lot.” Thrilling words. Just what I wanted to hear. Then he said, “That’s why I have to break up with you.”
Middle Marriage Mistakes: Wait for the Dust to Clear
He went on to explain that very soon after his first marriage broke up, he met his second wife in a bar. That marriage, he said, had problems, but they managed to sustain it for twelve years. But this time, he wanted to do things differently. “I know I have to be alone for a while,” he said. “I learned the hard way before, so now I need to get my ducks in a row. I should get my head around just me before I get involved again. I really want the next relationship to be right.
The last thing I want to do is get deeply involved with you and then a couple of months later mess things up by realizing I should have taken a time out.”
Understand Why You’re Feeling Lonely
Being partnered is indeed the default position for many. Despite whatever problems existed before, it feels comfortable and uplifting when there’s “someone” at home to share everything with, whether it’s sex or stories of what happened that day at work.
Then too, loneliness and depression (which can manifest physically, emotionally, or sexually) are major side effects of divorce. For the recently divorced, a new romantic relationship helps to keep the sadness and demons at bay. It feels like joy and excitement, but it’s really just our friend dopamine at work, counteracting the stress responses in the HPA. The acronym refers to the primitive brain: the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal system.
Many people also leave a marriage with self-esteem issues. They may feel unwanted, neglected, abandoned, unattractive, or uncertain. Getting involved provides a chance to get the happiness flowing again. Being validated by another is instantly appealing. It helps to understand that when divorce happens, a person has entered into true chemical warfare. The brain is the battleground, and at stake are a person’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses.
Educate Yourself About the Brain and Stress
In his book The Chemistry Between Us, neuroscientist Larry Young of Emory University explains what is operating behind the scenes in the brains of divorced or separated individuals. Stress chemicals called corticosteroids are being released, Young reminds us.
The prime directive becomes “feeling better.” A second marriage or relationship may seem, initially at least, a wonderful dream come true. What it often turns out to be is a reactive, self-medicating involvement precipitated by fight and flight hormones like CRH, corticotropin. What a person really needs to do is to calm down. But the brain is just craving pleasure as opposed to pain.
My friend Janey is happily in her third marriage. “I hope others can learn from my mistakes,” she says. “It was after my first marriage. I went to a house concert and I ended up hitting it off with the singer, Eli. His music was so engaging I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. He asked me out and I started going with him to his gigs. Between the new romance and the music, I had not felt that good in years. Red flags were waving but I was not paying attention.
His mother and his first wife were still in the picture. We ended up getting married after only five months. Only later did I start to wake up… Once I attended one of his shows and realized that I was sitting there next to the ex-wife. Side by side, we were both singing along!”
Janey ended up getting divorced after only eight months of marriage. She’s been with her third husband now for 6 years. In hindsight, she sees that she was overly anxious to be paired again, and got caught up in the chemistry with Eli to the exclusion of logic and thoughtful decision-making.
“I didn’t have a sense of what was really happening,” she says now. Education about brain processes, about the very real physical repercussions and stresses of divorce, can bring about a level of mindfulness that may prevent involvements which lack stability and compatibility.
Healthy Coping Strategies to Help you Avoid the Mistake of the Middle Marriage
There are several things you can do to sidestep a middle marriage mistake. First of all, get thee to a therapist! Any professional worth his or her salt will counsel you to move slowly into a new relationship. In times of stress, your judgment may be impaired. You might have tunnel vision and lack the perspective that you usually have.
This is especially important if you are a man. Unfortunately, women are given more leeway to be emotional; they are encouraged to go on a self-care journey after divorce by friends and family. Men often consider themselves to be fixers, they want to do whatever is necessary to get rid of a problem. They may ignore the warning signs coming from their HPA.
So, if this sounds like “someone you know,” encourage them to make a commitment to take a mindful step outside themselves and do a self-assessment. Even if they can’t yet see that they might be overestimating the degree to which they are “in love again,” it’s wise to make a conscious decision to wait at least a year before jumping in with both feet again.
Look for alternative ways to provide yourself with oxytocin (which is a softer feel-good brain chemical, often considered the “nurturing” chemical) and dopamine. Vigorous exercise or dancing is a great stress-reliever. Meditating for even a few minutes daily has been shown to positively calm anxiety and increase clarity of thought.
Pets are another source of oxytocin release, it has been shown. Humans are wired to respond to love, and your puppy or kitty may be just what you need! Finally, try a little music, something spirited like salsa or classic rock. Get moving, get positive energy flowing! Breathe! Be patient with your brain’s process. That second marriage can wait just a while longer.