Are Most Second and Third Marriages Likely to Fail?
Statistics reveal love isn't always lovelier the second time around, especially for midlifers. Here's why — and how you can avoid another trip to divorce court.
Divorce is hardly the stigma it was in the 1950s and '60s. In today’s world, where people are living longer, more active lives, second and even third marriages have become commonplace. The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 75 percent of women and 80 percent of men who have a failed first marriage will remarry, usually within five years.
The main reason for tying the knot again, marriage experts told me, is that people walking down the aisle a second time typically feel their first, failed union gives them the experience and wisdom to make their second marriage a success.
But statistics are more on the “I don’t” side than the “I do.”
Exact figures for second divorces are hard to come by. “Divorce rates are always tricky,” says Skip Burzumato, assistant director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “People are still married and not divorced yet, so we really don’t know until the generation is gone what the divorce rate is. If everyone would simultaneously die, I could tell you exactly what the divorce rate is.”
Burzumato and psychiatrist Mark Banschick, author of The Intelligent Divorce, estimate that approximately two-thirds of second marriages end in divorce. Banschick says the divorce rate for third marriages is 73 percent.
A Second Walk Down the Aisle Can Be Bumpier
The marriage experts I talked with agreed that second marriages come with more baggage and complications than first marriages, putting more stress on the new relationship. “The major problems reported by remarried folks who get divorced are children from prior relationships and money,” says Professor Larry Ganong, a board member of the Council of Contemporary Families.
“Remarried families are pretty complicated systems,” he says. “There may be child support money from previous marriages or relationships, there may be child support money going out. You’ve got kids coming in and out from prior unions. Oftentimes the couples are more diverse — there are bigger age differences, bigger differences in backgrounds.”
While first marriages typically have time to solidify before children arrive, second marriages often have to hit the ground running with children already in the mix, he says. Add this to the tension that often comes with having to maintain relationships with former spouses.
Marrying someone with grown children doesn’t erase the potential complications with stepchildren either, Ganong says, particularly in this new economy where multigeneration households are on the rise. “When we’re doing educational programs or workshops, I tell people if you remarry someone with kids — I don’t care how old the kids are, they can be 35 — I just tell them, count on those kids living with you at some point. Because they often do.”
“Once you’ve already been divorced, it can be easier to get divorced once again,” Burzumato says. “If you have a scarlet letter, no one’s going to notice if you pin it back on. So whatever stigma there is anymore in our culture — maybe in one’s family or religious community — that’s already gone.” Also, he points out, remarried people may notice the signs of an impending divorce sooner, sometimes leading them to end the marriage rather than try to salvage the relationship.
Changing gender roles and shifts in the economy also factor into divorce rates, as do the growing number of individuals who choose to forgo marriage altogether. Women no longer need to rely on a man for financial support, enabling them to leave unsatisfactory marriages. Women in past generations needed men for financial support, notes social historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage and The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap." Men, on the other hand, needed women to maintain the home and found it easier to get raises and promotions if they were married. In addition, the absence of divorce laws made it difficult to leave bad marriages.
How to Live Happily Ever After
Despite the high divorce rates for second and third marriages, statistics probably have never stopped anyone from taking another chance on love and remarrying. But given the obstacles, how can couples beat the odds?
Coontz says a couple has a better chance of making it if they take a lengthy amount of time to get to know each other rather than rushing into a new relationship shortly after divorcing.
“Research suggests that divorce is much more likely in a second marriage if the relationship is less than a year old,” psychologist Kalman Heller writes in a recent article on Psychcentral.com. Divorced men are quicker to remarry than women, he says, because they “are often driven by an extreme discomfort with being alone ... they are typically seduced into thinking they are in love with someone who is willing to listen to their pain and make them feel important again.”
For older people considering remarriage, Ganong stresses the importance of getting legal advice prior to the wedding. “I would talk to an attorney to do some estate planning,” he said, noting that in many states property goes to the spouse in the event of death, often causing stepchildren to lose family heirlooms. For remarried people who have young children, Burzumato recommends seeking the help of a family counselor to aid with stepfamily issues.
Burzumato also cautions against the conventional wisdom of delaying divorce until children come of age and find their footing in the adult world. “The boomer thing to do is wait till the kids are out of the house and then you and your spouse go your separate ways,” he says. “I think one of the worst things that can happen to a college student is his or her parents getting divorced — the one thing in your life, a home base that you can keep running back to, all of a sudden starts to shatter.”
But the most important step couples can take to prevent a second divorce is honestly recognizing why the first marriage didn’t work, according to the experts I interviewed.
“They need to have some good conversations with each other — and themselves — about what they contributed to the failure of their first marriage and what they saw as problems in their first partner that they would like to avoid the second time around,” Coontz says. “In other words, the process of re-evaluating, stepping away from the anger, blame, disappointment and self-righteousness that often come with the first emotional responses to divorce. They have to analyze what they need to do differently this time if they want to succeed.”
She says start by asking hard questions: "What kind of partner should I be looking for? Maybe I made the mistake of falling for somebody who was exciting but basically not a stable person. Is that happening to me again?"
No one wants to repeat the past, even if divorce isn't a stigma.