Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about what makes a second marriage work and about vulnerability leading to trust and intimacy in relationships. However, I didn’t make the connection between these two topics until I listened to a client lament about the problems in her marriage during a counseling session. As Kelly talked about the impending collapse of her second marriage, it came to me that she was walking on eggshells and couldn’t be vulnerable with her partner.
Here is how Kelly put it: “We’ve only been married for a few years,” she paused, “but it’s going in the same direction as my first one did – full of mistrust and arguments; and we’ve grown distant from each other.” As Kelly described the problems she was having with her husband, Mark, she seemed fearful of exposing parts of her personality that he wouldn’t like. Their interactions also appeared to be characterized by fear and shame – as well as difficulty managing these emotions.
My session with Kelly got me thinking about how it’s all too easy to carry relationship patterns over from one marriage to another. While many couples see a second marriage as a fresh start and a new chance at happiness, the statistics tell a different story with the divorce rate being 60-67% compared to close to 45% for first marriages.
Why is this so? There are many reasons and most of them seem to involve the complications of adding children to the mix – discipline, the stepparent’s role, loyalty issues, and rivalries. However, it strikes me that if a couple have a foundation of trust and intimacy, they will be better able to withstand the stresses and storms inherent in most second marriages and stepfamilies.
Opening up to our partner can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, but it is the most important part of an intimate relationship. In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Given this definition, the act of loving someone and allowing them to love you may be the ultimate risk. Love is uncertain. It’s risky because there are no guarantees and your partner could leave you without a moment’s notice – or betray you or stop loving you. In fact, exposing your true feelings may mean that you are at a greater risk for being hurt or criticized.
For those of us who have been divorced, we know all too well the reality of lost love, mistrust, and even betrayal in some cases. Even if our partner wasn’t unfaithful, we may feel that he/she didn’t have our best interests at heart or threw in the towel too easily – choosing to split rather than work on the marriage.
Consequently, it makes sense that a fear of being vulnerable may be a real dilemma in a second or third marriage. Yet not expressing our innermost feelings, thoughts, and wishes can put our relationship at risk because we lose out on trust and intimacy. As we become more and more disengaged from our partner, the risks of betrayal or falling out of love become apparent.
In my Huffington Post article How Can Couples Avoid The Pitfalls That Threaten A Second Marriage?, I write that we can easily be blindsided by the ghosts from our past that tell us that our marriage is doomed to fail like our first marriage did. Certainly there are many obstacles to success – especially if we are a newly blended family. But a lack of intimacy and emotional attunement may be the biggest risk factors. In my opinion, this can stem from a fear of being vulnerable and shame related to our past or present failures.
Intimacy can be a source of comfort and provide predictability in an uncertain world. However, couples that carry baggage from a first or second marriage may lack the insight and skills needed to avoid the pitfalls that threaten their happiness and success.
It’s key not to let your feelings of discouragement win over because there will be bumps along the way. Visualizing yourself in an open and honest relationship is the first step. Don’t let fear of rejection, failure, or past hurt stop you from achieving the love and intimacy you deserve.
Here are 10 Rules for a Happy Second Marriage:
- Practice being vulnerable in small steps so you can build confidence in being more open with your partner. Discussing minor issues (schedules, meals) is a great place to start before tackling bigger matters such as disciplining kids or finances.
- Honesty and communication are key issues in a second marriage. Be sure to be forthcoming about finances, your past, and concerns with your former spouse and children that are relevant.
- Practice Forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it willallow you to move on. Try to remember you are on the same team.
- Take time as a couple to do things you enjoy without your children. A “date night” or couples time can be very enriching – even if it’s a walk or grabbing a sandwich at a restaurant together.
- Express thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Resentment can build when couples sweep things under the rug, so be vulnerable and don’t bury negative feelings.
- Discuss hot button issues such as money and personality conflicts privately – but hold regular, informal family meetings (where everyone feels heard) to clear the air and address family issues.
- 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.
- Accept that there will inevitable ups and downs. Try to be more understanding with each other – and your children and stepchildren.
- Don’t make ultimatums such as “I’m leaving if things don’t improve.” Take the “D” word out of your vocabulary. According to renowned researcher E. Mavis Hetherington, seeing divorce as an option and talking about it can increase your risks for breakup.
- Make a commitment to practice endurance and patience. In time, many of the kinks inherent in stepfamily life will smooth out.
The best way to beat the odds and to see your marriage succeed is to risk being vulnerable with your partner. Determination, respect, acceptance, patience, and having a good sense of humor can go a long way to improving your chances of success in a second marriage.
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