Why Second Marriages Fail More Often

Second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience.” — Samuel Johnson

Anywhere you go in the world, it’s an inescapable fact that second marriages fail more often (about 60%) than first marriages (about 40%). And third marriages (about 70%) fail more often than second marriages, and so on. The obvious question is why. After all, it’s far less likely you’ll get fired from your second job than from your first. And generally speaking, the second child is significantly easier to rear, provided enough temporal distance from the first. Why are second marriages so much more failure-prone?

The Stress-Fractures Theory
In your typical first marriage, the people getting married are usually relatively low-baggage. Regardless of their personal foibles, they generally come into the marriage with no children, parents who can care for themselves, and relatively little attachment to their job or living space. By the time the average person is saying the vows at their second marriage — 33 years of age — that’s no longer the case.

Those factors matter. Children that need care, parents that need attention, careers that must be maintained, and just generally being less willing to adapt to a foreign lifestyle all cause stress, and stress (through a number of routes) causes divorce. This is especially true when the preexisting children/parents/friends/exes are openly hostile to the new spouse. Tack on the potential stressors of child and spousal support, co-parenting, and schedule juggling, and it starts to become obvious why some second-newlyweds might come to see their new spouse as an obstacle rather than a partner.

Once Bitten…
Then there’s the simple psychology of someone who has felt the sting of a painful divorce: they tend to be paranoid about it happening again. This can mean that any behavior they observe that reminds them of their ex is suddenly grounds for a significant reaction, whether that means getting angry or pulling away.

On the flipside of the same coin, people who have been divorced once know what it means to get divorced. They’ve experienced the social stigma, the drama, the emotional wreckage…and they’ve survived it. The idea of getting a second divorce is much less frightening than the idea of getting the first one, because it’s not a looming mystery anymore. You know what it feels like to be on your own again, with no one to depend on, and you’ve done it. You can do it again if need be. Why worry?

Finally, we have a gem of insight from one of my favorite authors, social historian Stephanie Coontz. According to Coontz, by the time a second marriage rolls around, women no longer feel like they need a man to provide for them financially — and men no longer feel like they need a woman to hold down the fort at home.

This combined with changes in the law that are making it easier to get divorced in almost every state in the Union means that second divorces are strikingly more common, in Coontz’ estimation.

What Does This All Mean?
No one is saying you shouldn’t get remarried. Ultimately, no one is even saying second divorces are bad — not for you, not societally. What it does mean, however, is that you should go into a second marriage with eyes wide open, knowing full well that the balance of probability is that you’re headed for a divorce within a decade, maybe half that.

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