After being divorced for 2.5 years, I now find myself navigating a new relationship. I really want to be smart and to make good decisions this time because it affects not only me, but my children. I certainly don't want another failed marriage, yet the divorce rate for second marriages is a frightening 60%. My divorce was so painful I don't know if I could live through another one. To be honest, when I got divorced I was pretty convinced that I would never have another relationship. I was middle aged, with 3 kids and more than chubby. Who would want me?
Yet still, last year I reconnected with a man that I went to school with in the '80s. We dated for a year back then and had a nice relationship that was cut short by circumstances beyond our control (college in separate time zones and then a family move). But we had a good relationship dynamic. As a matter of fact, when I was 27 years old, I told my best girlfriend that my first relationship had been the healthiest and best relationship I had ever had. I knew he was married by that time and we had long since fallen out of touch. That was back in the dark ages before cell phones and email. How did people ever stay in touch?
In the past year we have spent as much time together as possible. We are having a long distance relationship but talk and text frequently every day and strive to spend 1-2 weekends together a month. Between us we are responsible for: 6 kids, 2 marital homes, 1 apartment and 3 dogs. Oh, and our jobs. It is a struggle. But in addition to the logistics, we find there are so many triggers, little scars left over from our marriages, that cause angry flare ups and a breakdown in communication that we never had in our relationship before. Most of the triggers are irrational. But because of our past marriage conflicts they seem very real.
For instance, if he is quiet, then I immediately fear he is emotionally unavailable because my ex was very quiet and emotionally unavailable. I pout and think of a way to take my suitcase and sneak out quietly only to discover a few minutes later that he has a headache but didn't want to tell me and ruin our day. My marriage was tense and quiet but there were no loud fights. His marriage was loud, volatile, and full of conflict. When he raises his voice to me (just speaking emphatically) I immediately trigger and shut down. I'm not used to it, I'm not comfortable with it, but that was the way he and his ex communicated for 20 years. He feels like he was mostly ignored in his marriage, and when I have days that I am overwhelmed with work and kids he triggers. He feels ignored again and insecure. These triggers are just the little ripples left over from those marriages but they certainly impact our relationship at times.
Then there are the hidden landmines that we trip over that causes major dissonance and real arguments. Our landmines thus far include money, exes, and parenting. All married couples have a way that they manage (or mismanage) money. The new partner comes in and sees the decisions that have been made, money wasted, and BOOM. I don't particularly appreciate when he must spend time with the ex-wife, time that to me seems excessive, although I spend much more time with my ex-husband while co-parenting. With the additional burden of distance in our relationship, time with the exes is a landmine waiting to happen. Then there are the kids. The biggest landmine of all. People parent differently. Some parents are more lenient, some are strict, some believe in 12 year-olds having iPhones and some don't. Then there is the old tried and true landmine where one partner allows their children luxuries (that they can't really afford) and the other partner has their children living on a budget. BOOM! BOOM! AND BOOM!
Here are a few ways to avoid the triggers and landmines:
- Talk, talk, talk. We have both realized that when we feel a trigger coming that we can usually communicate quickly to the other person how what they did or said made the other one feel. It ususally starts like this, "When you are quiet I think you aren't interested in me because my ex was quiet and was actually NOT interested in me."
- Be authentic. It's time to be who you are. If you can do this then you can tell the other person, "I feel insecure about that." Really, no one cares if you are cool anymore. I'm 50, I'm divorced, I am who I am. I've been through a war, I have scars and I'm definitely not cool. Sometimes, I'm really insecure. But this is me. Irrational triggers and all.
- Anticipate the trigger for the other person and try to avoid it. When I want to criticize or question him, I try to pull it back. Because my new partner was in a relationship which was very critical. If he perceives criticism from me he flares.
- Realize that your partner made money decisions and parenting decisions with someone else. Really, the decisions they made in the past about how to parent their children or to spend their money isn't my business. Should we get married, then decisions going forward will be my business. If you can't live with how they spend money and parent, then move on.
- Never, ever criticize one of their children or pressure your new love interest to choose between you and their children. Ever. We all love our children more than anything else in the world. None of us can handle any criticism about our kids. One of the first decisions that we made when we got into this relationship was to both assume with the other that the kids came first. Always.
Just two years ago I thought I would never have another romantic relationship. But happiness is here now and he makes me giggle and sparkle. Sometimes I look back and wish I had just married him the first time when it was all so simple. There were no scars, no triggers, no landmines. The goal now it to navigate this tricky terrain and spend the second part of our lives together.