zoomer Magazine

I Do, Again

By Cecily Ross

No one said marriage was easy, but as Cecily Ross discovered, it can be more difficult the second time around.

The year was 1997. Basil and I were at a party, one of the first social events we attended as man and wife. The guests, friends and former colleagues most of whom had not attended our very small wedding a few weeks earlier, were seeing us together as a couple for the first time. Although my new husband and I had known each other for years, our romance was a recent development; our courtship and marriage had been an impetuous six-month whirlwind.

It felt odd -- unfamiliar and familiar at the same time -- to be there as a married couple, fielding good wishes, holding hands, smiling as our friends toasted our future happiness. Unfamiliar, because I had been single for 13 long years, ever since my first marriage ended. Familiar, because I had spent 18 years in that earlier relationship, and I knew a lot about being a couple.

Indeed, on that particular evening, I shedthe little black dress of divorcee and slipped into the flannel nightgown of married lady as though it were a second skin. The feeling of being married bubbled up like a warm bath. And as I clung to Basil's arm and chatted to my friends, to my horror, I heard myself calling him by my first husband's name. It tripped off my tongue like an old friend, and the slip stunned us all into silence. I blushed and stammered. Basil glared at me. Someone, thankfully, changed the subject. But the damage was done.

I thought at the time that I must have been drunk to make such an insensitive mistake. But the truth, I realize now 11 years into my second time around, is that marriage is as much about itself as it is about the two people living in the shelter of its sometimes suffocating embrace. My second marriage is not what I thought it would be. Like many divorced people, I reasoned that I'd simply married the wrong person the first time out.

And that older and wiser, this time I had met Mr. Right.
But I was wrong. Because if anything, my second marriage has been more difficult than my first.

By the time we reach middle age, many men and women of my generation have been down the aisle more than once. But are we really older and wiser? Or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Is remarriage, as Oscar Wilde observed, "the triumph of hope over experience"? Well, apparently it is, because the statistics paint a sobering picture: according to the Vanier Institute of the Family, remarriages after a divorce have a 10 per cent higher rate of dissolution than first marriages.

Toronto-based couples therapist Karen Hirscheimer confirms that "second marriages may not fare any better than first marriages." But she believes that people do learn from their mistakes. "I don't agree that people don't learn from the past," she says. "The pain of a relationship not working out makes it hard to imagine that most people don't do some soul searching."

As a result, our expectations are usually more realistic. Take my friend Jennifer, for instance. After her disastrous first marriage, she set aside her romantic illusions and approached her second with an uncharacteristic pragmatism.

"I consciously chose him. I wasn't intoxicated by romance or lust. His apartment was decent and nicely furnished. He could cook. His friends seemed to have a lot of affection for him. All these things made a positive impression."

Now, 14 years into her second marriage, Jennifer feels she has learned a lot. "It's funny, you grow up as this big romantic who sees love as the be-all and end-all. You do infatuation and sexual frenzy very well, but at the day-to-day? It's about getting over your disappointments, your hatred of his favourite music -- the Grateful Dead! -- his messy habits. Every couple has difficulties; everybody has flaws. Everybody has to deal with that stuff."

Still, Hirscheimer thinks that despite our tailored expectations, we can be unrealistically optimistic the second time around. "Good relationships have to be earned," she says. "They don't happen overnight. With a new partner, you have to start all over." And even if you are older and wiser, the challenges facing second marriages are usually way more complicated.

The children, for instance.

The tug of war that inevitably ensues when there are children from previous marriages comes as an unpleasant shock to some couples. He/she expects the new spouse to make him/her the priority; the kids want their parent to put them first. He/she feels caught in the middle, forced to choose sides.

When each of my grown daughters (they were 19 and 22 when we married) at different times wanted to move in with us temporarily, Basil balked. As their mother, I, of course, was eager to welcome them back to the nest without conditions, but the nest was a lot more crowded than when I'd been single. We worked it out eventually and, years later, my girls are happy and successful, and we're all getting along. But it has been a bumpy ride at times.

These conflicts left my children and Basil resentful and angry. They left me feeling I could never reconcile my divided loyalties. And they put an almost insupportable strain on our marriage, one that we have survived, but that many others don't. Indeed, the Vanier Institute reports that remarriages without children from a previous union have a far better chance of succeeding than those that do.

"I think," says Hirscheimer, "that remarriages face challenges and complications that weren't there the first time: dealing with step-children, ex-spouses, health issues and waning sex drives if you're older."

Another contributing factor to the higher failure rate of second marriages is that divorced people are more likely to see divorce as an option. As terrible as splitting up is, they also know from experience that prolonging a bad marriage can be even worse.

Another friend, Susan, recognizes this. Now widowed and in her early 60s, her second marriage lasted 22 years until number two's death three years ago. She acknowledges that both husbands were challenging men. "If they had been Olympic events, both would have been assigned high-difficulty factors," she says.

But as far as Susan is concerned, there will always be rocky spots in a marriage, and you have a choice: you can go or you can stay. The second time around, Susan decided to stay. "The best partner," she says now, "is someone you really like, given that passion has a half-life of about six months -- and probably less as one ages."  I, too, will stay, not just because I love this man and we are committed to one another but because I understand now that the difficulties I had in my first marriage were probably manageable.

Both my husbands have been good men. Today, older and, yes, wiser, I will not bolt at the first sign of trouble. Because I see now that Basil and I are two players in a very old drama -- one that is larger than the sum of its parts. Our marriage is bigger than either of us.