If you’ve been reading my blog or newsletters or catching my podcast, you’ve heard me talk about the challenges(and rewards) that long-term intimate relationships involve. Where I see couples get into trouble the most is when they steadfastly deny that their marriage will ever face challenges, and then become blind-sided down the road when challenges inevitably crop up.
Second marriages (as well as third marriages and beyond) come with their own unique set of challenges, and that’s the subject of today’s article. Many of my clients tell me that they want to learn how to give their new marriage the best chance of succeeding.
A client once said to me, “After my first disastrous marriage, I thought the biggest challenge would be to find Mr. Right, 2.0. In a way, I was naïve or unprepared…or maybe in denial. You see, I had no idea that the bigger challenge was an ongoing one. My second marriage wasn’t a do-over, it was a whole new entity that needed whole new attention on my part.”
(Although I’m using the terms “marriage” and “spouse,” all of this certainly applies to long-term relationships in general.)
You’ve made the commitment. You want to give your new marriage the highest chance of success. A good place to start is by learning the common mistakes couples make when they remarry so that you can avoid them.
Without further ado, here they are:
5 common mistakes couples make when they remarry
1. Been there, done that
The mindset of seeing the new marriage as a fixed template instead of its own dynamic entity can be a dangerous one down the road. An intimate relationship, like the individuals within it, is an alive, evolving thing. Too many people don’t give their new marriage the respect and attention it deserves. They think because they’ve been married once or twice (or thrice!) before, they’ve earned the right to coast and sail through this marriage on auto-pilot.
Though there are certain communication skills you can learn to make your union more effective and meaningful, being in an intimate relationship overall is not a discrete skill you learn, master, and dip back into when you’re moved to, like learning calligraphy or origami or water-skiing. It is an ever-changing dance, which is part of why it is so challenging, but also so rich and rewarding.
2. (Over) comparing this one with that one
Lots of couples expend a great deal of mental energy on the prior marriage with the well-meaning intention of making this one work. That may seem like a good plan on some level, but it’s fraught with problems.
First of all, it ironically keeps you in the marriage you decided to leave, if only in your head. We all have a finite amount of energy, whether mental, emotional, and physical. Do you really want to spend a bunch of yours on the past?
Sometimes comparisons can be helpful, but only briefly and occasionally and with the goal of specifically learning something about your patterns and then usefully applying that knowledge to your current relationship. Resist the urge to see your new marriage only through the lens of your old one. Insist, let it grow on its own merits.
What about positive comparisons?
A husband once shook his head in confusion, threw his hands up in a session and said, “Doc, I don’t get it! I’m always telling her how much better she is at things than my ex…even in the bedroom. She’s a dream compared to my first wife (who was a nightmare). So why’s she upset about that?”
This husband had trouble seeing that when he constantly brought up his ex-wife, even to favorably compare his new wife to her, he was in essence bringing his ex into the relationship in a very real way—his ex-wife was occupying head-space in both his own and his current wife’s head.
Also, in a more subtle way, he was unwittingly objectifying his new wife, reducing her to her role as his wife and continually pointing out how she was doing in relation to his ex. Again, he didn’t mean any harm, but it was a habit he needed to break, a mindset he needed to see his way out of, or his second marriage would suffer.
3. Assuming your mistakes (or your triumphs) in your prior marriage will be mistakes or triumphs here
Some mistakes are mistakes across the board—infidelity, being continually emotionally unavailable, reacting to the inevitable bumps and blips of life with inordinate rage or hostility. And some triumphs are always triumphs—thoughtfully and genuinely asking your spouse what s/he wants within the relationship, actively listening, communicating effectively. Those (and other) mistakes or shining moments will be mistakes or shining moments in any relationship.
However, there are certain behaviors or scenarios that are relationship-specific—marking them with indelible labels based on your past relationship and never assessing them in light of your new relationship might be a mistake.
For instance, Maria’s first husband, a corporate lawyer, didn’t want to talk when he returned home from work at the end of his long day. “I’m not exaggerating,” she said, “he said hi, and that was it.” He needed to unwind with a book and drink and wouldn’t be up for talking to Maria for at least a couple of hours. “I learned this the hard way,” she recalled, “since he didn’t just tell me that’s what he needed. Maybe he didn’t know how to put it in words. But he spent all day at work talking, or arguing, so he needed the absence of speech at home. I grew to understand that and not take it personally. It wasn’t easy for me to adjust to, though, since I worked as a copywriter from home, and I was starved for human interaction at the end of my day. I did adjust, though.”
So Maria learned that trying to engage her first husband in meaningful dialogue during those two hours of transitional time after his work day would be a mistake. The problem came when she assumed that would be a mistake with her second husband, a high school history teacher who also had a job that required him to be interpersonally engaged all day (and often to a very intense degree, with 30+ teenagers at a time).
Maria’s new husband Ted wanted to share his day with her in the evening, but he found her “aloof and unavailable” at that time (though not at other times). In session, the three of us got to the root of the problem. Maria hadn’t even fully realized that that’s what she was doing, that she was giving Ted after-work space that he hadn’t wanted. She’d been operating under the assumption of “once a mistake, always a mistake” and robbing her new marriage of something it needed.
Remember that when you assume, you carry on an imaginary conversation in your head and get the imaginary answer. It’s much more productive to skip the assumption and carry on a real conversation with your new partner to discover what will be a mistake and what will be a triumph in your new marriage.
4. Nurturing a “worst case scenario” mindset
Always expecting the worst to happen puts you in a state of chronic stress. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for the relationship. You can see how going into a new relationship fully expecting that relationship to fail (because the last one did) immediately hobbles the new marriage.
Being realistic about your shortcomings or about what you need to improve upon is not the same as a worst case scenario, which expects the worst. (And unfortunately, when we expect the worst, we often get it, because we overlook the good things and therefore either don’t notice them or don’t nurture them.)
Also, the worst case scenario mindset causes you to miss big chunks of the present, because it keeps you in the past (thinking about the fact that the previous marriage failed) and in the imagined future (thinking about all the ways the current marriage will fail). This starves relationship intimacy, which requires you and your spouse to be present with each other.
5. Assuming your new spouse is fine with your friendship with your ex
This point won’t apply to everyone. Many people divorce their spouses and don’t need to see them or speak to them again. However, many couples have kids together, and therefore need to continue to be in each other’s lives in the capacity of co-parents.
It’s obviously better for you and the children if your divorce wasn’t contentious and if you can remain cordial after the split. Sometimes, exes even remain friends. But don’t assume that friendship is fine and dandy with your new spouse. Check in with him/her to find out. Avoid unnecessary conflict by negotiating boundaries that you both feel comfortable with so that your new spouse doesn’t feel like you’re too friendly with your ex.
What happens when we remarry each other? Do these tips still apply?
This article focuses on people who marry a different partner in a subsequent marriage. What about couples who divorce, and then, after a period apart (during which they enter other relationships), come back together and remarry each other? Don’t they have their own set of challenges? Yes, indeed!
I’ll be devoting a future article to that situation, but suffice it to say here that those couples should pay close attention to points #1 and 4 above. Those are particularly relevant to couples that remarry each other. Also, even though you’re technically remarrying the “same” person you’ve been married to in the past, you are not wholly the same people—you’ve each changed, whether it’s a subtle or dramatic change. Ignoring the life lived and the lessons learned while you were apart can be a mistake. Don’t slide into the comfortable, complacent assumption that you know this person through-and–through so you can basically sleep through it.
Also, be careful not to view the second marriage to the same person as a time-machine to get you back to a point in the past that you now wish you hadn’t left. Nostalgia can be a seductive motivation, but to get the most out of your present-day life, you must fully live in the present and not see the remarriage as a way to conveniently re-establish and replicate a past life situation.
As with every relationship, no matter what its stage or iteration, keeping lines of communication open between you and your partner will go a long way toward keeping your union healthy. Establish an atmosphere where it’s safe for you both to discuss expectations, hopes, and desires for your marriage and yourselves.
Wishing you a successful second marriage!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured images “Heart shaped silver rope” by Nuttakit & “Loving elder couple” by Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)