By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Recently my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary and we have a deep commitment to our second marriage. At our celebration several friends asked me how we’ve stayed together over two decades. Although there are many reasons, two things stand out: learning how to manage and repair from conflicts effectively and making our marriage a priority.
That being said, I believe that If you adopt a perspective that conflict is an opportunity to grow and learn about your partner, you’ll be more likely to find happiness the second time around.
Expect plenty of storms in remarried life. The complications of a newly created stepfamily or blended family can be daunting and it can take years for the family “norms” to take hold. Conflict and rivalries between family members – especially stepparents and stepchildren – can make day to day life stressful and chaotic at times. Adopting realistic expectations will help you navigate these challenges.
Most experts agree that it can take a remarried family up to four years to reach a state of equilibrium. For instance, Justin and Maggie were not prepared for conflict between themselves and their children. Since Justin is a licensed couples’ therapist, he thought he knew all the tricks of the trade but found out soon enough that it’s hard to be objective and counsel your own family members.
Justin reflects, “I just wanted my two daughters to get along with Maggie’s three girls on weekends and didn’t anticipate all the drama and yelling between the girls. Sometimes, I literally had to leave the house and would go hang out at Starbucks just to breathe or get some work done.”
Maggie responds thoughtfully, “It’s so true! One of Justin’s girls, Lizzie, is a real cute kid but because she’s eight and jealous of the time I spend with her dad, she can act out and pitch a fit over the littlest thing. We have to remember that her feelings are normal and so Justin has been giving her one on one time Sunday morning – like going for a bike ride or long walk – so he can fill her cup with daddy time. It seems to be working so far and we’re always on the alert to the emotional needs of our other kids.”
Be Vulnerable and Take Risks
Taking your time to decide the kind of marriage that would work for you can be a silver lining to divorce because you’ll be more likely to go into your second marriage with your eyes wide open. And the fact of the matter is that you can create a more fulfilling second marriage if you give yourself permission to be vulnerable and take risks such as telling your partner what you need to be happy in a positive way.
Honesty and communication are key issues in a second marriage. According to author Marcia Naomi Berger many couples believe the myth that if a marriage is healthy all issues get resolved. She writes: “Simply put, it is not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it is the manner in which the couple responds. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving.”
Additionally, relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, advises us that happy couples don’t necessarily have less conflict than miserable ones. He informs us that 69% of problems in a marriage don’t get resolved but can be managed successfully. Gottman writes “Successful couples know how to exit an argument.” Discussing issues in a timely and respectful way will help you become better at repair skills, allow you to bounce back from disagreements faster, and build a successful long-lasting relationship.
After all, when people get remarried, they carry baggage from their first marriage that can cause them to sabotage a new relationship if they haven’t healed and worked through the issues that contributed to the demise of that relationship. Add to that baggage is the realization that there are often a lot more players in a second marriage – such as children from former spouses, step-children, and sometimes even new children from this marriage. Couples also often rush into tying the knot without truly getting to know each other.
8 Secrets to Success in a Remarriage:
- Create a relaxed atmosphere to spend time with your partner in new ways. For instance, changing the topic to something unrelated; using humor to diffuse tension; or offering your partner signs of appreciation such as “I love it when you snuggle with me on the couch.” Take a walk or enjoy time in nature to enhance positive communication.
- Establish an open-ended dialog regarding concerns of ALL family members. Don’t be surprised if some of your discussions are heated – especially around hot-button issues such as money, custody plans, chores, vacations, etc. Remarried couples bring emotional baggage with them from their first marriage so be sure to set ground rules for respectful conduct such as “No name-calling or yelling is allowed.”
- Don’t let resentment build. Express thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respect and timely way. Take a risk and deal with hurt feelings – especially if it’s an important issue rather than stonewalling or shutting down. Doing this allows you to be a good role model for your children and stepchildren. This is especially important since they probably did not observe this before their parents’ marriage collapsed.
- Discuss hot button issues and personality conflicts privately – but hold regular, informal family meetings (where everyone feels heard) to clear the air and address family issues. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement.
- Learn to apologize and practice forgiveness. Apologize even if you didn’t mean to hurt your partner, child, or stepchild’s feelings. Be sure to be specific about what you want to make amends for and say something like “I hope you will forgive me for calling you a name because I really care about your feelings.” Granting a partner forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it will allow you to move on. Try to remember you are on the same team.
- Make your marriage a priority. Make a commitment as a couple to do things you enjoy with and without your children. A “date night” or couples time can be very enriching – even if it’s going for a walk or grabbing a sandwich at a restaurant together.
- Don’t let differences in child rearing come between you. The role of the stepparent is one of a friend and supporter rather than a disciplinarian. Learn new strategies and share your ideas.
- Don’t issue ultimatums such as “I’m leaving if things don’t improve.” Take the “D” word (divorce) out of your vocabulary. Make a commitment to stay together (unless there is abuse) and accept that there will be ups and downs. Discuss expectations to avoid misunderstandings.
Successful remarried couples use productive disagreements, which are more like discussions than arguments, to improve communication. They’ve learned how to bounce back from conflict in a healthy way. Learning to fight fair and repair hurt feelings is something that most happy couples have mastered.
If you embrace the notion that conflict is an inevitable part of a marriage, and that not all problems have to be resolved, you’ll bounce back from disagreements faster and build love, trust, and intimacy with your partner. Over time, many of the kinks in your marriage will smooth out and you’ll adjust and thrive in your second marriage.
The best way to beat the odds and to see your second marriage succeed is to risk being vulnerable with your partner so you can repair conflicts, making your marriage a priority, and having realistic expectations. Determination, respect, acceptance, patience, and having a good sense of humor can go a long way to improving your chances of success the second time around.
Follow Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and you can order it here.