Does a disastrous first marriage make your second more likely to succeed?

Beth Purvis was absolutely clear about what she wanted from her second marriage. Having blundered into marrying the first time as an idealistic young woman blinded by her romantic ideals, she was much more pragmatic second time around.

‘I knew what I wanted from a man — he had to be mature and financially responsible,’ Beth says. ‘This time I was determined I was going to choose the right man, and that it was going to be for life.

‘When you’ve had a disastrous first marriage, you know the mistakes to avoid, and you are much more rational in your choice. You don’t let your heart rule your head.’

Second marriages often begin later in life

Second marriages often begin later in life

Beth made a point of sitting down with her fiancé, Richard, before their wedding so she could explain to him her desires for the future. These included having children, and she categorically didn’t want a husband who would expect dinner on the table the moment he walked through the door at night.

Four years on, the marital flame still burns brightly for Beth and Richard, who took the time and trouble to learn from mistakes made in their first marriages, bringing a wisdom and maturity to bear in a much happier second marriage.

Beth says she and her first husband, Michael, didn’t communicate well.

‘We never sat down and talked through what we wanted from our marriage, and we both had conflicting ideas which could never be resolved,’ says Beth, 32, a mural artist and mother to three-year-old Joseph and Abigail, 18 months.

‘With Richard, I made sure we resolved any issues before the wedding.’
Beth was 24 when she met her first husband.

‘I went into my first marriage thinking everything was going to be wonderful. I was very romantic, and we had a big church wedding.

‘Looking back, I was too idealistic: I hadn’t thought about the type of person I wanted to marry, and whether our personalities would be suited.’

As it turned out, they weren’t. Beth felt Michael made too many demands of her. She worked long hours as a surveyor’s assistant, earning more than her husband, yet he stayed up late playing loud music that kept her awake.

Recipe for disaster: Beth realised that her personality just wasn't a good match with Michael's

Recipe for disaster: Beth realised that her personality just wasn't a good match with Michael's

‘I used to lie in bed thinking: “This is such a mistake”,’ she recalls. ‘We’d had this huge wedding and everyone thought I was happy, but inside I felt as though I was dying.’

Six months later, Beth faced up to the mistake she had made in marrying a man she didn’t even love.

‘I felt such a failure, but I had to go,’ she says. ‘I packed everything up and moved back in with my parents.’

Two years later, in September 2006, Beth met Richard, who is now 50 and runs a decorating business near their home in Bishops Stortford, Herts.

Friends introduced them, and there was an immediate spark.

‘Sometimes you just know, the moment you look into their eyes,’ Beth says.

‘Richard was in the process of divorcing after his wife of 17 years had left him, so we started dating, and this time round I was more clear-headed.

‘We moved in together before we married, in November 2007, and it was a delight to be with a man who offered to cook, or who cleared the plates away and stacked the dishwasher.’

Dr Michael Mantell says that couples marrying the second time around aren't blinded by love

Dr Michael Mantell says that couples marrying the second time around aren't blinded by love

She attributes the success of her second marriage to the fact she and Richard are companionable friends, whereas she and her first husband had a more volatile relationship.

‘Richard and I have shared goals, and we express our innermost feelings. I think second marriages can be much stronger and happier than first marriages. I went into this one with open eyes, and this time I chose the right man.’

The failure of a marriage counts as one of life’s most traumatic experiences, so anyone willing to embark on it a second time doesn’t do so lightly.

For many years, the received wisdom was that second marriages were a particularly delicate institution, doomed to fail by virtue of resentful step-children, bitter ex-spouses, arduous financial commitments to first families, and a host of other emotional and practical baggage.

Today, however, many believe that marriage is better second time around: that learning from one’s previous mistakes, before embarking on a new relationship with wisdom and maturity, increases the chance of its success.

Businesswoman Rochelle Peachey, 47, certainly agrees with that sentiment. She describes herself as feeling ‘like a bird in a gilded cage’ during her first marriage.

‘Looking back, I don’t even recognise that woman as me,’ she says. ‘My first and second marriages are like chalk and cheese — I can’t believe how happy I am now, and how unhappy I was then.’

Rochelle married for the first time aged 23, but felt miserable and misunderstood for much of the six years she was with her husband.

Eventually she left, taking their young son with her.

‘I was 32 when I met my second husband, Phil, on a night out with friends in London. He was divorced, and I realised he was the kind of man I should be with: strong and capable. I saw in Phil a man who would protect me, and he’s never let me down.’

When Phil proposed, Rochelle was determined not to repeat any of the mistakes of her first marriage. She wanted equal status with her husband, she would have a career, and she was going to make sure Phil knew how much she loved him.

Fifteen years later, their marriage is happy and strong. Rochelle runs a dating agency, Phil, 46, is a property developer, and they live in London and the U.S. They have a successful relationship founded on hard work and loving commitment.

Rochelle says: ‘We never let the sun set on an argument because we know life’s too short. I’ve learned so much from the wreckage of my first marriage.’

Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Mantell believes second marriages can be more successful than first, since couples have typically matured, learned from any mistakes they made and taken stock of exactly what they are looking for second time around.

‘They understand their mistakes, typically they have spent longer getting to know their future second spouse, they are more open and willing to develop new routines and they are not blinded by love,’ he says.

‘Often they are older and wiser, and understand that falling in love doesn’t last — that choosing to love every day is what makes a relationship last.’

Of course, there are practical considerations which help, too. Early married life is often scarred by financial worries which lessen as people become established in their careers.

Romantic notions are replaced by a more realistic and mature understanding of what keeps a relationship afloat, and finding love later in life avoids the pressures brought to bear by raising a young family.

'The failure of a marriage counts as one of life’s most traumatic experiences, so anyone willing to embark on it a second time doesn’t do so lightly' 

Cynthia Spillman, 52, says that with the failure of her first marriage came wisdom. ‘I don’t believe there’s a perfect match out there for all of us — it depends what stage you are at in your life, and how well you know yourself,’ she says. ‘When I met Peter, my second husband, I was ready for him, and he was ready for me.

‘He’s loyal, trustworthy and affectionate, and he makes me feel safe and loved for the first time in my life.’ Cynthia and Peter, 56, were married nine years ago.

The couple, who live in London, met in 2002 when Cynthia was grieving the death of her young son in a road accident and trying to piece her life back together following the collapse of her first marriage.

‘I was in bits, and Peter healed me,’ she says. ‘He was my rock.’

Cynthia’s first marriage had been whirlwind: they tied the knot in 1997, but it was only after she’d had her son and a daughter that Cynthia discovered she and her husband were totally incompatible.

‘When I met Peter at his neighbour’s surprise birthday party in March 2002, I was looking for someone on whom my daughter and I could rely. I realised Peter was the most interesting man I had ever met, and we saw eye-to-eye on every level,’ Cynthia says.

‘Years have passed, and I know this marriage is for life. I feel so lucky to have found Peter, because I was beginning to think I would never have a successful relationship.

‘I’m not saying our life together is perfect — it takes a lot of work to be married — but we have both learned how to keep our marriage strong and happy.’

The Spillmans’ strategy includes surprise date nights, being careful to nurture each other’s interests and giving each other space.

‘We plan for the future,’ Cynthia says, ‘and we never take our eye off our relationship.’

That close attention to the marriage is key, according to clinical psychologist Dr Mantell.

So, too, is ‘settling’ your first marriage: that is, leaving it behind while also understanding the mistakes you made in it.

‘This means allowing your new partner to really know you,’ Dr Mantell says.

‘Pre-marital counselling is a great idea for a successful second marriage, as it will help the couple identify the mistakes, patterns and routines they may have fallen into.’

Second marriages often begin later in life and are more likely to end when a spouse dies.

Their success can hinge in large part on how well the couple dealt with their divorces. Timing is also critical, according to some experts. After a divorce, people who wait to gain a sense of themselves and what they are looking for have a much better chance of making a second commitment work.

Divorced people who don’t explore their past mistakes will often either marry the same type of person again and repeat the pattern of their first marriage, or seek out the opposite of their first spouse.

Naomi Collinson, 54, says she often reflects on how lucky she is to be married second time around to Richard.

‘Second marriages can be the happiest, because you finally know who, and what, you want,’ she says.

‘My second marriage feels like the real thing because I have met a man who is my equal in every way. I now know who I am and what I want. In my first marriage, I deferred to my husband and let him take the lead, whereas Richard and I are equals.’

Happy ending: Naomi Collinson and second husband Richard

Happy ending: Naomi Collinson and second husband Richard

Naomi first married when she was 20, but admits now she was too young to know what she really wanted. Six years later Naomi left her husband because she felt there was something missing between them and, following an amicable divorce, she was single for 20 years.

‘When I met Richard at a work event in 2009, I was running an art gallery and was very much an independent career woman: the last thing I was looking for was a man,’ she says.

‘Neither of us were spring chickens. I’d been divorced, and he was widowed and had recently retired from banking.

‘Immediately I met Richard, I saw integrity in him; here was a man I could trust. I surprised myself — and a lot of my friends — in marrying  again, but there is a feeling of ‘rightness’ about this marriage, as if it was meant to be.’

To make it work, Naomi made significant life changes, moving from fast-paced city life to the country in West Sussex. She and Richard, 66, married the year they met, and have since set up a company together.

Their positive experience of remarriage is typical of many couples whose first marriage taught them what they need in a partner and what they cannot tolerate, making them more careful about choosing a second spouse.

The 18th-century diarist Samuel Johnson referred to second marriage as ‘the triumph of hope over experience’.

But, several decades after that famous pronouncement, it seems the success of so many second marriages may just have proved that experience triumphs after all.

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