Second marriages have higher divorce rates than first marriages. You’d think it would be the opposite. You’d think that people would learn from their mistakes and go on to “get it right” the second time. Indeed, many people do. Second marriages can be very happy and can last.
They can also be miserable and destined for divorce. The odds of that happening are increased by a number of things, perhaps most especially the presence of kids / stepkids and the inability of one or both spouses to properly deal with that.
If you’re starting a second marriage that comes complete with an assortment of kids / stepkids, I have seven tips that might help you get it right. Even if one or two resonate, that can be enough to tip the scales in favor of a second marriage the lasts.
1. Acknowledge your role in the failure of your first marriage. Were you too defensive? Were you unfaithful or untrustworthy? Too self-focused? Did you spend too much or expect everything to be done your way? Did you let yourself dip into narcissism, criticism or self-righteousness? Were you immature or too negative? Sure, there are definitely scenarios where one spouse is more or even exclusively to blame for the breakdown of a marriage, but in the vast majority of cases, it takes two to tango. Be honest with yourself about your past mistakes and don’t repeat them.
2. Accept that you aren’t starting with a “clean slate.” Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “second wife, second life.” It speaks to those situations where a man (yes, or woman) basically forgets about their first batch of kids when they re-marry and have a second batch. There’s a scene in the movie Parenthood that dramatizes this phenomenon: the young Garry (played by Joaquin Phoenix) calls his father, who has re-married and has a new son, to ask if he can stay with him. The father says no… and the boy’s face contorts in rejection and grief. It’s a poignant scene, and too often, not a fictional one. Don’t do this. Don’t think you can completely or even partially will away your “first” children, or your spouse’s “first” children, so that you can start with a clean slate. Your children deserve so much better than that. Instead of acting like your or your stepkids magically dissolved in some kind of Marvel-inspired Snap or Blip when you said your wedding vows, make every effort to keep them not just in your heart, but in your home. Remember that they are powerless in all of this, and that your choices and the new people you are bringing into your life are quite possibly adding a lot of drama, insecurity, sadness, rejection and fear to their own lives.
3. Play fair, not favorites. Don’t be the stepmom who buys the brand-name cereal for her own kids, but the cheaper no-name cereal for your stepkids. Don’t plan an expensive trip to Disneyland, and then insist your spouse’s six-year-old from a previous relationship can’t come… because that’s precisely the kind of Cinderella-era nonsense that gave stepmoms such a bad rap.
4. Know your place. The comedian George Carlin famously said that “obedience and respect should not be automatic, they should be earned. They should be based on the parents’ performance.” I believe those words are very true. Don’t be the stepdad who swaggers into the home and starts laying down the law or disciplining someone else’s child “your way” because they’re living under “your roof.” Don’t bring your hero complex or your ego into this marriage, not if you truly want to make it work.
5. Figure out the finances. Re-read #2. Now read it again, and know this: kids are expensive, and the older they get, the more expensive they get. If you know you won’t be able to deal with child support payments, your stepkid’s dance lessons or hockey expenses, Christmas presents, must-have clothes, school trips to Europe, college expenses and so on and so forth, then do not marry someone with children from another relationship. Because yes, their kids are going to cost you money. Lots of it. And probably for longer than you think.
6. Embrace blended-family life and make it a home for everyone. You are not an exclusive nuclear family in the traditional sense, and you never will be. But if you approach that reality with the right attitude, you can actually have a lot of fun with it. Embrace the different ages, backgrounds, and personalities of all the kids under your roof, whether they live there full-time or part-time. Welcome your stepkid’s beloved pet and friends into your home and make them feel welcome. Make sure each kid, even if they’re in the home part-time, has their own space and is respected for the unique individual they are. Thrive on your differences and turn them into strengths, not weaknesses. Be a mosaic. Build it piece by piece and be proud of it.
7. Be an adult friend. You’d be amazed—or dismayed, more likely—by how many times I’ve seen an adult person basically get into what I can only describe as a pissing contest with their teenage or younger stepchild. They might do this for all kinds of reasons, but it’s typically a power struggle and an effort to force a certain type of relationship or dynamic on the child. Don’t do this. Instead, focus on befriending your stepchild. Learn about their hobbies or strengths, and show interest in their life. Remember their favorite movies or musicians and talk about them. Remember their favorite foods and make them. Remember dates or events that are important to them, and celebrate those or offer support. Do whatever it takes to show them that they are an important person in your life… because if they’re the child of your spouse, they should be. Take that approach, and let the relationship between you find its own trajectory. You might be surprised by the fact that both of you grow to really like, perhaps even love, each other.
Of course, every second marriage situation, every blended family situation, is unique. Not all of these points will be relevant to you. But I’m willing to bet that at least one or two are, and that’s natural. It’s natural to favor our own kids. It’s natural to want our new spouse and our new home to ourselves so that we can nest with the people we love most. But so what? That doesn’t mean you can’t be a family, or have fun living together, or develop meaningful relationships and friendships that you will enjoy for the rest of your life. Because as you and your stepkids get older, as your marriage matures, you will all change. Why not change for the better? Why not add more friendships and quality relationships to your life, instead of robbing yourself of those and weakening your second marriage in the process?
Remind yourself that divorce is no fun. Remind yourself that you don’t want to be (another) statistic. Make this second marriage what it should be—a chance to get it right not just for you and your kids, but for your spouse and their kids too. Show them all how it’s done, and that it can be better the second time around.