We speak to two relationship experts about the dynamics involved in second marriages, relationship coach Savannah Steinberg and couple's counsellor, Mary Ovenstone.
With actress Jennifer Aniston set to wed for the second time, this time to actor Justin Theroux, we look at the dynamics involved in second marriages.
What anxieties do people who are getting married for the second time experience?
Steinberg: It's the second time, so will it work, will it be different? Am I making a mistake again?
Ovenstone: It may be difficult to open up and one may feel insecure and afraid to open up your heart and truly love. They may hold back a little because of resentment from the last relationship. The new person needs to be treated uniquely and be given a chance to be themselves.
Is it normal to feel these anxieties?
Steinberg: Yes, for sure. A marriage is a life-time commitment.
What can one do to allay negative thoughts experienced in a previous marriage from creeping into a second marriage?
Steinberg: Really learn to distinguish the difference between story and facts. When we are nervous or suffer severe anxiety, it is likely, even normal, to start looking for evidence that it can’t work, if your fear is running you. As part of being human we spend every moment interpreting things, we are constantly judging things as good bad, right, wrong, positive, negative... it's the way we deal with the vast amount of info we have to deal with in a day. So said differently, we are meaning-making machines, and this is exactly the point to get, when we make something mean X, it's not the truth, it's an interpretation, and unfortunately, most of the meaning we add is from our filters, which is our outlook and based on our experience. A fact is what actually happened, an unbiased observation of the events in our lives. The story/fiction we create out of our own unresolved emotions from the past is rarely based on facts.
This is a powerful tip to bring into your relationship no matter where you are with it.... to notice when you are in story, and what are the facts. For example, the story is you feel he is starting to wonder; the facts are he still smses you daily and comes home each night to be “with you”. Or he doesn’t love you anymore and doesn’t make contact, then you notice, but actually in reality, you have gone distant and you don’t initiate contact anymore.... so look at your thoughts, what you are making the situation mean (the story), and then look at the actual facts of the situation.
Ovenstone: I think the key to the situation is to do good de-briefing with a therapist before entering a new relationship. One must be very careful as to what went wrong in the previous relationship. What did you do, what went wrong and how did you react to the problems? That needs to be unpacked so that one is clear and ready to go into the new relationship. As soon as there is talk of committment, the two must go and get relationship counselling so that the two partners can develop communication skills.
Would you recommend pre-marital or post-marital counselling for a couple/partner getting married for the second time?
Steinberg: Definitely, I would suggest it for the first marriage as well.
Should one use the previous marriage as a template of what-not-to-do in their second marriage?
Steinberg: Not necessarily. If the reason your marriage ended was due to you, lack of commitment, being a bitch, poor communication, cheating etc, then yes. If you continue to do that most likely this marriage will also fail, and that would give you clarity on where you can get support from a coach / therapist if you can’t address it on your own. If the reason it didn’t work was you see you didn’t have clear boundaries so you allowed your partner to leave you feeling compromised in many ways, then yes, learn from this, and set clear boundaries in this marriage. And in some cases, we gave everything of ourselves, we were committed, loyal, giving, supportive, and he called it off, then it may not be so much about you, but he just wasn’t the right person, in which case now going forward, find someone who loves and embraces you – all of you.
Are there any exercises a couple can do to strengthen their bond and to allay fears of divorce?
Steinberg: Make time to create a vision for how you see the relationship, one that aligns and energises you and brings purpose to the context. What is it you want to do together, how do you want it to be. Often marriages fail as they don’t have a purpose, and then life happens, and because there are no clear goals, the couple end up in constant reaction to circumstances, and this doesn’t work.
Ovenstone: It's important to sit down and describe what the values of the relationship are. Write down what you think and read through this together because it's easy to make assumptions about relationship values without sitting down and discussing what needs you have – what's negotiable and what's non-negotiable, such as having kids or not.
If there are children involved, what can the couple do to match or join families?
Steinberg: Depends on the age group and typically speaking, before the children get to meet, the couple would have an idea they want to get serious, and only then would they introduce the kids. I would suggest doing something fun and light together, a social event, again age-specific, going to a movie together, having a family lunch together, something relaxed and easy with time.
Ovenstone: A small child forms a bond with a new step parent deeply and the parent almost becomes like a second parent. If the child is older than 11 or 12 then the step parent will be like a mentor and never a mum or dad. The step parents and parents must understand that they are stepping into the role of a substitute and both should be ready for the responsibilities that come with that. Issues with the ex-partner must be sorted out and boundaries must be set to create a good working environment between the two families.
With children involved from a previous marriage, how can a couple or partner deal with the parents of the children (previous marriage partners or exes)?
Steinberg: Again, it all depends on the nature of that relationship. Some couples end in total hostility, some end in companionship. Some people make it easy and relaxed, so there is no issue, others make it really complicated. Sometimes the one wanted the relationship to end, and the ex did not, so jealousy and anger could occur here. Many things could impact. And no matter how it ended with the ex, the main tip is take nothing personally. When kids are involved, you are in most cases going to have to have contact with the ex due to the kids, so having this in mind, do what you can to make it amicable. A big cause of relationships ending are external stressors, especially when they have been going on for a long time. Do what you can to make sure this does not become a thorn in your relationship that drains your energy and causes fights and conflicts between you. Because each situation is different, maybe as the couple, discuss this, and how you both feel is the best way to address the ex – this way you as the couple are a team and united in this, and it's not a competition where all the difficult feelings come into play