The State of our Re-Unions
Hal explores why second and third marriages end in divorce at a much higher rate than first marriages. What could be the root of this trend? And what can these failings teach all of us about our own hopes for marital bliss?
In 1996, Glynn “Scotty” Wolfe married Linda Essex. For Linda, it was her 23rd marriage. For Scotty, it was his 29th. Both, as far as we know, are the record-holders for marriage futility (or dogged perseverance). Now, to be clear, not all of their marriages ended in divorce; a couple of their spouses died. But all the rest of their “I do”s ended, voluntarily, with the words “I don’t.”
And, unfortunately, more and more of our blessed unions are ending that way. Depending on whose study you’re reading, 1st marriages in America end in divorce between 43% and 50% of the time. This is a very common statistic, one that most people know and commonly quote. What people may not know, however, is that 2nd marriages fail at an even higher rate: between 62% and 67%. That’s a fairly steep increase. Surely the third time’s a charm, though, right? Actually, no. 3rd marriages fail at an even higher rate: 74% to 79%. Three out of four will end in divorce.
As a therapist and relationship expert, I’m paid to be curious. And these stats certainly leave me curious. What, for instance, accounts for such high failure rates? Bear in mind that these are not just 2nd marriages where both partners are in their 2nd go ‘round; two out of three of all marriages with at least one previously married partner end in divorce. And three out of four marriages with at least one twice-divorced partner end up in court. These are astoundingly high rates of failure.
So what gives? What could possibly account for these repeat tragedies? Especially considering how painful, how costly, and how detrimental divorce is—to our children, to our communities, to our health, to our economy, to ourselves. So what compels us to either ignore, or perhaps fully accept, those costs and get divorced and remarried, anyway?
Now, I will be the first to admit that the reasons for these marriage/divorce stats are so monumentally diverse and complex that to even begin to offer a simplistic single explanation would be, simply, ridiculous. There is no clear-cut “why.” I know this as a social scientist, as a licensed therapist, and as a reasonably logical human being. And yet, offering a simplistic single explanation is exactly what I’m going to do here. Ready? Here’s my hypothesis:
The reason we go through 2nd & 3rd divorces is the exact same reason we go through 2nd & 3rd weddings in the first place. Simply put, that reason is this: we want to find the right match. We go through multiple weddings because we’re searching for the right match (and, obviously, think we’ve found it). And then we go through multiple divorces for the same reason: we’re searching for the right match (and, obviously, no longer think we’ve found it).
I really don’t believe it’s much more complicated than that. Your first marriage failed, but you still want to believe that the right match is out there. And so, you go for it a second time. Now, for one out of three in this situation, perhaps they find this long-sought-after right match. For two out of three (67%), though, this 2nd attempt fails. For some of those 67% (we don’t really know how many), it ends right there. Perhaps the pain and anguish and cost of two failed marriages is enough to get ‘em out of the marriage game. Perhaps they simply don’t find another “right match” that’s worth all the effort.
For others, however, in a tremendous triumph of hope over experience, they go for it again. They find the right match…again, and wedding bells ring out…again. Now, logic would tell us that having been through two marriages and two divorces in their lives, these thrice-wed folks would be well-equipped to create and maintain a successful marriage, till death do them part. And some of them do. One out of four, to be exact.
The Right Match for Whom, or What?
There was a landmark study a few years ago, which followed a huge group of couples for 15 years. After extensive, repeated interviews with the 24,000 couples, the conclusions of the study were profound:
a) marriage did not make people substantially happier, and
b) one’s level of happiness before getting married was in fact the greatest predictor of that person’s happiness within the marriage.
I don’t think we can underestimate the clarity of these results, nor ignore the clarion call they ring out to all of us: it’s not about the match. And that’s what the failure rates of our re-unions tell us as well. It’s not about the right match.
I know this is not going to please all the dating websites, but one of the biggest problems I see in couples is the misplaced hope in finding, and keeping, the right match. I know it’s there whenever I hear statements about “the one,” or “soulmate,” or “compatibility.” I know that misplaced hope is there whenever I hear that “it’s just not working anymore,” or “it just shouldn’t have to be this hard.” All those expressions are actually indictments against ourselves that we have fallen victim to the lie that says it’s all about the right match.
See, the real problem is that whenever we set out looking for the right match, we most often aren’t aware of what we’re trying to actually match up. Yes, I know, we think we’re trying to match two different people into one new union, but that’s not really what’s going on. What our repeated failed re-unions tell us, as well as the study mentioned above, is this: what we’re really trying to find is the right match for our own loneliness. Our own incompleteness. Our own unhappiness. We’re looking for another, or a union with another, to salve our wounds and solve our problems. We’re looking for the right match to end our wrong situation.
As if that’s what marriage is all about.
Our marriages will never survive as long as we are looking at our spouses as the right match to, Jerry Maguire-style, “complete” us. Our marriages will never thrive as long as we are looking to that relationship to create a happiness with ourselves and with life that we never had before. Marriage is designed not as an end to our search for fulfillment, but as perhaps the greatest challenge in that search. Rather than providing an answer, marriage, again and again, is continuing to force us to ask better questions of ourselves, like:
- Instead of looking for my spouse to make me happy, what would it look like for me to make myself happy, through a variety of relationships and experiences—and then share more of my happy self with my spouse?
- In what ways have I asked my spouse to make up for my own deficiencies, or those areas of myself I just don’t to work on? (like taking responsibility for the housework, or the parenting, or the finances, or the relationships with friends & family)
- How would life be different if I stopped blaming my spouse for any of my own decisions? (like whether I work or stay-at-home, or whether I participate in church, or whether I go to counseling)
Now, am I saying that mate selection is not important? That anyone can marry anyone and have an equal chance of creating a successful union for life? No. Absolutely not. Of course not. What I am saying, though, is that finding the right match pales in importance to being the right match. Not being the right match for your spouse, mind you, but being the right match for yourself.
Being the right match for yourself means continually knowing, loving, growing, and sharing more of the real you (even if it makes you, and your spouse, a little uncomfortable). Being the right match for yourself means asking your spouse to hold you accountable for certain areas you struggle with (like screaming at your kids, for instance). Being the right match for yourself means calmly representing yourself when your spouse, in your opinion, fails to live up to her own stated vows. Being the right match for yourself means growing so much in self-direction and self-sufficiency that you no longer need your spouse—which powerfully opens you up to wanting him instead.
Or maybe you just need to divorce and resume another search for another match. That’s what Linda Essex did. She divorced Scotty not long after the ceremony, it turns out. Interviewed later, she was asked if she’ll ever try it again. “Yes I would,” she reported, “because, you know, it gets lonely.”
[Is this a different way to think about it? Yes. Does it feel self-centered, in an uncomfortable way? Possibly. And does this little article fail to fully explain this different path forward? Yes. That’s why my wife of 18 years, Jenny, and I wrote our book, The Self-Centered Marriage: Rebuilding Your “We” by Reclaiming Your “I”. Click here and you can order it or download a free copy of the first chapter.]