Most likely, when you remarry you’ll feel excited about having a second chance at happiness. However, both partners might hold unrealistic expectations that things will run on automatic and love will conquer all problems. Being aware of potential communication differences and barriers to positive ways of relating can help you stay strong and resilient as you navigate the challenges of remarried life.
For instance, we all have a unique style of communicating based on our upbringing, culture, personality, gender, and past relationships. Maybe one of you is extroverted and the other is more reserved. These differences in personalities can cause significant misunderstandings and become potent filters or lenses for how you see and interpret your partner’s behavior.
It’s also true that in a second marriage, couples bring styles of communicating based on their first (or second marriage), and their way of relating to their ex-spouse, that may become deeply ingrained and thus more difficult to alter. Over time, the challenges of living in a remarried or blended family may accentuate conversational differences – especially if one or both partners have unresolved trust issues.
The Key To Success in Second Marriages
For instance, Pam and Dave, both in their late fifties, remarried for fifteen years, and living in a stepfamily, grew up in vastly different cultures. Pam describes her family as loud and expressive, while Dave’s family is reserved and stoic. During our in-depth interview, Pam said she found these differences interesting in the early stages of their marriage, but they began to irritate her after several years of living together.
Pam explains: “Because I was raised in an Italian family that had poor boundaries, my tendency is to say what’s on my mind. Dave, on the other hand, usually weighs out what he is going to say and has a good internal filter. It’s also hard to know what he’s thinking because he shuts down a lot. The problem is that we can both be judgmental and we have misunderstandings and disagreements because we don’t trust each other.”
During our interview, Pam and Dave both acknowledged they had trust issues from their first marriages that were filters for how they interpreted each other’s comments and behavior. For instance, Pam’s ex-husband left suddenly to move in with a co-worker. After Dave’s divorce, he discovered that his ex-wife cleaned out their savings and had been hiding credit card debt that he was unaware of.
Dave: “Honestly, Pam can be a bit harsh and blunt at times. I grew up in New England and my family is private – we believe that it’s best not to disclose much about yourself. But I learned from my first marriage that communication is important so I’m trying to open up. I have some trouble with Pam’s intrusive communication style but I love her and I think loving someone is what matters in a marriage.”
Pam responds: “We have similar interests and taste in entertainment, movies, and music. We also have similar occupations and love to travel. I’m learning to deal with unrealistic expectations and accepting Dave for who he is. When Dave shuts me out, it sounds like an echo from my first marriage (when my ex pushed me away) but Dave is not him.
Many remarried couples have established an unfortunate pattern of disagreeing over trivial matters because of the high level of stress in their lives. Seasoned remarried couples will tell you that even the happiest partners will have problems. In remarried families, there are many issues that first time married couples don’t face, such as adding children to the mix – yours, mine and ours. Couples also argue about finances, housework, in-laws, and disciplining children.
Take for example this conversation between Pam and Dave after a long workday. Their dialogue illustrates the inconsequential nature of most arguments between remarried couples. Couples often fight about nothing. Most of their disagreements arise out of differences of opinion about unimportant matters such as making dinner or chores. They both admit that their raw spots from their first marriage set the stage for feelings of vulnerability, defensiveness, and fear of rejection.
Dave: “What kind of pasta should I make tonight?”
Pam: “Tortellini, what else?”
Dave: “What do you mean, “What else”?”
Pam: “Well, we usually have tortellini but I guess I could make something else.”
Dave: “Does that mean you don’t like the way I make it?”
Pam: “No. I like it but go ahead and make something else.”
Dave: “Not if you want tortellini to go with the red sauce.”
Pam: “I don’t. Make ravioli tonight.”
By this dialogue, you can see how Pam and Dave’s difficulty being clear and misreading each other’s intentions set the stage for a disagreement. When Pam added the tag onto her response “What else?” the meta-message (or underlying meaning) was “You’re a jerk for asking, you should have known.” Understandably, Dave could interpret Pam’s comment as critical and demanding (she wanted him to read her mind) and lacking in directness and clarity.
In “That’s Not What I Meant!” author, Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. explains, “Things seem to get worse in close relationships that continue over time because we don’t realize that communication is inherently ambiguous and that conversational styles differ, so we expect to be understood if there is love. When misunderstandings inevitably arise, we attribute difficulties to failure: our own, or the others, or a failure of love.”
The story of Pam and Dave illustrates how unresolved differences can drive a wedge between remarried couples if they’re not repaired.
The following are three tips to use to improve your communication.
- Decide together to make a face-to-face twenty to thirty-minute stress-reducing conversation happen daily. In The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman explains that this conversation can help you feel more attuned with each other.
- During this conversation (and at other times) acknowledge and show affection and appreciation for each other. A three-second kiss, holding hands, or cuddling on the couch will help you stay physically and emotionally connected. Be sure to show appreciation by pointing out something your partner does that you love. For example: “I love it when you make me a fresh cup of coffee every morning!”
- Practice active listening and validation. Put your own agenda aside and suspend your worries and concerns about your own life while you focus on what your partner has to say. Giving your partner feedback will validate that you’re listening and that you understand and want to be close. For instance, you might say “It sounds like you had a tough conversation with your boss, that must have been disappointing since you worked so hard on that project.”
Keep in mind that active listening isn’t the same as advice and that it may take you a while to get used to this way of communicating. Most people rush in to offering solutions and solving problems and skip over listening and validation. You can strengthen your remarriage by improving your communication and making a commitment to learning more about each other every day!