The divorce rate for second marriages is estimated to be around 65 percent – significantly higher than that of first marriages. There are numerous reasons why second-timers have a harder time, such as personal baggage carried in from other relationships, whether to have a pre-nuptial agreement, how and whether to meld long-established belongings like businesses, money, houses, furniture and pets, and heck, it’s easier to leave a second time once you’ve done it a first time.
Still, nothing ups the odds of divorce more than having children from another marriage added to the dynamic. There are a multitude of ways having kids can send a couple who otherwise might stay married, running to divorce court. This is the reason that I tell couples with kids still at home to think twice, three, four times before saying I do again. And if your kids are grown you should only have to think twice.
Here are the kid-related complicating factors that often break second marriages:
- A spouse doesn’t bond with the other person’s kids. Sometimes a step mom or dad doesn’t feel the love for the new step kids and doesn’t appreciate spending time with them. It can create a situation where the parent feels torn between the new spouse and kids, and that’s a terrible feeling.
- A spouse puts his or her kids before the new marriage. If you decide to marry, your spouse needs to come first. If you put the kids first, the chances you’ll divorce go even higher than the already high average. In any marriage, no matter if your first or fifth, marriage always comes before kids.
- Preferential treatment of biological children. When the love, money, time and treatment blatantly favor a spouse’s own over the steps, it causes the new spouse to resent and lose respect. The kids see it, too, and it’s especially troublesome and dividing when one set of kids get to live a higher socio-economic lifestyle than the others.
- The kids hate and refuse to accept the new step parent. Why? Because the relationship started as an affair, or the kids perceive them as an obstacle to their parent’s reuniting, or the kids want their parent all to themselves. Kids will be fiercely loyal to a parent who was left due to an affair, and a step parent who was the “other” woman or man will have a next-to-impossible job winning them over. Also, kids want their parents together, and if they can’t have that, they want their parent to themselves. A stepparent is difficult to tolerate, and that’s what many kids do, tolerate. Putting innocent children in such a position of discomfort is unconscionable.
- One spouse is enmeshed with a child, creating jealousy from the new spouse. Sometimes a parent has a relationship with a child or children that is close in an unhealthy way. If a new spouse feels like a third or fourth wheel it’s not going to be good for the marriage.
- Differences in disciplining the kids, or one spouse telling another how better to raise their child. If you judge and criticize there is an 85 percent chance you’ll be divorced in 5 years. If your spouse has kids, it’s best to step aside and allow them to raise them in their preferred way, and you raise yours your way, or if you don’t have kids, stay out of it. (That is why I think the role of stepparent is exceeding difficult. Doing it successfully requires a person to set their feelings aside for the higher good of the family.)
- One spouse attempts to parent older children he or she didn’t raise. When you marry someone with a baby or toddler it is entirely appropriate to treat the child as any parent would. But when you come in late in the game, when a child has a history of two parents and is age 9 or over, you best defer to the biological parent to do the disciplining or face serious resentment from the child. For older children, your best bet is to stand by in a supportive friend role.
- Older kids don’t feel comfortable with a new person in their world. Think about it … a new adult arrives in your house and you’re supposed to live with them all or half the time … it’s not comfortable, it’s weird, sort of like having a house guest that doesn’t leave, and this hurts their soul. It makes me cringe when parents try to force their children to “love” the new intruder. For most kids it will take them years, often five or more, to adjust to it, if they ever do. Knowing the children are uncomfortable will weigh on many biological parents.
I am a hard-liner when it comes to second marriages when young children are involved because I deal with the damage of it most days of my professional life. If your marriage ended in divorce, I think the best thing a parent could do is hold off on serious relationships until the children are launched – at least until they’re in their teens or later. While I am a huge believe in adult self-care and being pro-active about getting your needs met, I think if you divorce, your focus must be on your children first and foremost. They didn’t choose divorce, you and or your former spouse did. What kids need after such a huge change and disruption in their lives is you. Bringing in a stepparent is usually unwanted and barely tolerated, except in rare cases.
Becky Whetstone, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Texas and Arkansas and passionately dedicated to the creation of healthy relationships. You can find more of her work on the web sites www.doctorbecky.com and www.marriagecrisismanager.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @doctorbecky.