Second Marriages Are More Likely to Fail Than First Marriages for This Surprising Reason

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Arizona’s Sarah Carter* had high hopes when she said “I do” the second time around. After a short first marriage, she was a single working mother with two young kids when she married hubby number two. He looked great on paper: A handsome and intelligent engineer, he was fun to be with, especially when they traveled. Sadly, their marriage broke up after eleven years.

Whether divorced or widowed, many brides and grooms, like Carter, see a second marriage as a second chance for happiness. In fact, thanks to pent up post-Covid demand, more couples walked down the aisle in the US last year than in the past 35 years, for a record 2.5 million weddings, according to research firm The Wedding Report. Of those, about 21 percent involved both spouses marrying for the second time.

So, are things better the second time around? Often, they’re not. According to available Census data, the divorce rate for second marriages in the United States is more than 60% compared to the not inconsiderable 50% for first ones.

Second marriages often break up because there are more elements to balance.

So, why doesn’t practice make a more perfect union? Wouldn’t things be better the second time around, after some soul-searching and with the benefit of more experience and maturity?

For all the joys second marriages offer, they come with their own challenges, chief among them the melding of finances and families, along with the ability to communicate honestly about both. Carter’s experience was typical of failed second marriages in that regard. In addition to not contributing to the marriage financially, Husband No. 2 wanted nothing to do with her family and just wanted to be alone with her. “My kids were 12 and 13 but he never made an attempt to blend my kids with his,” she says. "He just didn’t step up to the responsibilities of their joint everyday life." Her experience was not uncommon. According to National Center for Health Statistics data, women who brought children into their second marriages — about 40 percent of them — were more likely to see them fail within a decade.

Even though Carter knew what marriage entailed, she still went into her second marriage with blind spots. “It wasn’t just one thing that made it not work — it was a bunch of different things — but the lack of communication ahead of time certainly didn’t help,” she says. “I think you have to talk about things first, like finances, who’s going to pay the bills and how you are going to support yourselves. I never talked about money beforehand.”

In Jenny Matthews’s* 12-year second marriage, her husband contributed equally to household expenses and they were able to manage life with four kids and two ex-spouses. What the California mom didn’t realize until a year or so into the marriage was that her second husband was bipolar; things were great in the beginning because he was on his meds and in therapy, she explains. But when he stopped both, he insisted they get a divorce. Matthews loved him and would have stayed in the marriage but felt she couldn’t communicate honestly with him. “When things were good with him, I didn’t want to rock the boat,” she explains, “but when things weren’t I didn’t want to add to his troubles.” When he stopped therapy and meds, she felt she had no choice but to leave.

After marriage number two broke up, Matthews went to see a therapist in the hopes of not repeating the same mistakes with a future number three. “Part of what I learned, as silly as it seems, is that you need to make an exhaustive list of what is most important to you in a partner,” she says. “Then pare it down to your top five attributes and don’t settle for anyone who doesn’t have them all.” Number one on her list is communication or “having the ability to say what’s on your mind and knowing that a partner will embrace that honesty with an open mind.”

Some people carry issues from their first marriages into their second.

After a brief first marriage — full of lots of love, she says, but also many arguments and zero conflict-resolution skills — clinical psychologist Dr. Cheryl Fraser of British Columbia, Canada realized that good intentions and vows you mean in the moment weren’t enough to take a marriage the distance if you don’t have the necessary self-awareness and interpersonal skills. “We should sue Walt Disney with its ‘happy ever after’ myth,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy ever after but rather that happiness has to be created.”

The second time around Dr. Fraser looked for — and found — someone with more maturity “who could weather the storms and not run away from conflict.” She also let go of the popular assumption that if it was the right person, everything would be easy. “Marriage can be hard work,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong relationship.” We all marry the wrong person if we expect them to make us happy all the time, she says, because no one can live up to the subconscious template of the ideal partner, especially when real-world issues like paying alimony and dealing with exes and kids come up.

Holly Davis, a matrimonial lawyer in Austin, TX who is in a happy second marriage, has seen these relationships from both sides of the conference table. So why does she think the failure rate is higher the second time around? “I think people are not doing the work they need to do between the first and second marriage in order not to carry the same mistakes with them into the second,” says Davis. Like Fraser, she believes that people aren’t taking responsibility for their role in the failure of the first. “It’s all the ex-spouse’s fault, so many people think. But marriage is the work of two people and so your breakup has to do with you, too.” People also aren’t identifying what they want very well, she adds, unlike Matthews with her “top five” above.

Still, second marriages do have certain strengths, says James Miller, a Ft. Lauderdale, FL psychotherapist. “Unlike in many first marriages, people often know what they want from a second marriage and partner,” he says. They also tend to be more mindful of "yellow flags” and so, “when a situation seems off, people in a second marriage are quicker to bring it to attention.” That allows them to mitigate a problem before it escalates, he says.

Ideally, the participants bring a bit more wisdom to their second marriage. Having gone through a divorce, they don’t want another and are less likely to let the marriage go without a fight, says Dr. Fraser. “With a bit more maturity, you realize that there are usually two points of view.”

What do happy second marriages look like?

So does the whole Brady Bunch myth live only in TV reruns? Happily, no. At the time of her second marriage, New York’s Debbie Gabel and her husband, both divorced and now happily married 26 years, brought together four children under ten. Her advice to those who are hoping for a similarly happy, long term second marriage? “Take what you learned in the first one, both the good and the bad and try to move forward,” Gabel says. “It takes two people to break up a marriage — and it takes two people to make it work. I worked harder with the second than the first and tried to learn from the first.”

Gabel also advises that in second marriages with kids, “Make sure you have alone time together with your spouse and don’t make it all about the children.” In her case, she and her husband did have that child-free time. (“It was almost like dating.”) They synced their custody weekends so they had all four kids on one and none the next. They would also vacation both alone and with all four kids. “What I am most proud of,” she says, “is that all four grown children are still very close and love and support each other.”

Lisa Beck of Connecticut had a very happy four-year marriage to her second husband, until he died unexpectedly. In Beck’s case, one challenge was that her three kids were older and at different stages than her husband’s. “We all bring baggage to a second marriage,” she notes. “As my husband used to say, I had a carry-on and he had steamer trunks — younger kids who weren’t yet launched.” Her advice? “So much is common sense. You need a super high level of communication regarding parenting styles and what you expect from a person as a stepparent if there are kids, the division of labor, how you’re going to handle finances and so on,” she says. “Also, you need to be flexible, have respect for your new mate, and not be judgmental — and try to keep your mouth shut if a situation with their kids or an ex doesn’t affect you.”

So is the third time the charm when it comes to marriage? Neither Carter or Matthews have given up hope and are open to marriage number three, even though the failure rate for those unions is a whopping 74 percent. “I believe in love,” Matthews says. “I miss having that person to share my life with when not in a relationship.” She is currently living with her boyfriend who, she says, “has all my top five criteria.”

Happy Ever After Second Marriage Hacks

Want to increase the chances of your second marriage going the distance? Our experts suggest the following:

Ditch unrealistic expectations. Don’t anticipate perfection the second time around. “Marriage is still work and if anything, there are even more responsibilities this time, says Davis.” Many couples have a very naïve view of what a marriage should be, she adds. “People should take heart when they’re struggling. It doesn’t mean that your marriage is broken or you’re with the wrong person. It means that you’re in a real relationship, for better or worse.”

Consider therapy — both for yourself in trying to understand what went wrong in marriage number one and/or together with spouse number two. “There’s a misconception that couples go to therapy only when having problems,” Miller says. A couple’s therapist can offer communication tools and conflict resolution techniques that can help prevent issues from escalating.

Own your past mistakes to prevent future ones. “Work on developing enough self-awareness to understand the failure of a first marriage is partly your fault as well,” Dr. Fraser says. “Changing the person doesn’t mean you’re necessarily changing the patterns you’re bringing in.”

Get the differences out in the open. “When couples don’t communicate enough about their differences and then disagree, they may freak out instead of seeing this as something they can work through,” Davis says.

Make “love” a verb. Work on cultivating the ability to fall in love over and over again with the one you’re with,” suggests Dr. Fraser. “And work on not taking them for granted.”

Be respectful about your ex if you co-parent. “If you can be mature and have appreciation for your past relationship, your kids will see that and trust your parenting and your choice to divorce,” says Davis. Aim to create stability within the four walls of your own home, she adds. “When you’re angry and resentful, it causes so many problems for your kids. Being stable for the kids creates a greater likelihood the second marriage will succeed.”

Take it slow. “Ideally you should give yourself at least a year to process what the heck happened back there before marrying again,” Davis says.

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

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