Why Second Marriages Are More Perilous

Those who remarry have unrealistic expectations and don't anticipate the unique challenges to second families

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Many people see remarriage as a fresh new chance at happiness with a partner whom they should have chosen in the first place.  But the statistics reveal that second or later marriages are much more likely to end in divorce. Why is this so?

For one thing, those who remarry often have unrealistic expectations. They are in love, and they don’t really understand that the replacement of a missing partner (due to divorce, desertion or death) doesn’t actually restore the family to its first-marriage status.  On the contrary, remarriage will present them with a number of unanticipated design issues such as children’s loyalty binds, the breakdown of parenting tasks and the uniting of disparate family cultures. These are three of the five major structural challenges of remarriage outlined by psychologist Patricia Papernow in her remarkable architectural model of remarriage. Essentially, the remarried family’s unanticipated and difficult job is to leave behind many of their old assumptions about how a “real family” — i.e., a traditional first-marriage family — is supposed to operate and get to work on self-consciously planning, designing and building an entirely new kind of family structure that will meet their own unique requirements.

A second and equally important problem for the new couple lies in the realm of interpersonal communication. This is especially true regarding matters that lie very close to the mates’ hearts, like the sensitive issue of children’s behavior.  Are the members of the pair respectful and caring of each other’s youngsters, who have undergone difficult losses and transitions?  Or does a stepparent respond to a child’s stark unfriendliness with outrage and attack?

For example, it is much better for a stepmom to say, “I feel hurt when your daughters come to visit and don’t even say hello to me or make eye contact, “ than “Whenever your bratty daughters come over, they walk right past me as if I didn’t even exist! They are so rude, and you just stand there!” The first response is an “I” message and could start a useful discussion about how to handle the problem, while the second “you” response is blaming and likely to provoke an argument.

The knottiest of remarriage issues is often that of discipline, and here a ton of research provides a clear guideline. The stepparent’s role should be similar to that of a nanny, an aunt or a babysitter who is familiar with the rules of the house (e.g., no TV before homework is finished). She or he monitors and reports on the child’s behavior, but only the biological parent should do any kind of punishment (or let rules slide). And yet, far too often, stepparents will think they should be the enforcer if they are to get real respect from their stepchildren.

The problems of remarriage are a national issue. They have been hiding under the radar for far too long. Only by bringing the unique challenges out into the open can we possibly bring the dissolution rate of these marriages down.