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Putting the past behind you

Getting remarried? Put the past behind you Why are so many remarriages happier, sexier, and more successful than the ones that preceded them? Finally, there’s s some great news about remarriage: It can — and does — work. To help women successfully make a second union last, Susan Kelly — happily remarried for more than a decade herself — provides guidance needed to face and solve new challenges and avoid past mistakes.

Many people have told me that divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to them and it was also the best thing that ever happened because of the changes that occurred in them. They ended up so much stronger and wiser. — Audrey Wentworth, family therapist

It is impossible to exaggerate the amount of trauma and the degree of feelings of failure and loss that are associated with the end of a marriage.

Fred and I got together in college and married immediately after graduation, then packed our few possessions and many books and went off to graduate school. The marriage started to deteriorate very quickly.

Fred totally immersed himself in his studies, and I felt abandoned and isolated. I wasn’t looking to get involved with someone else, but shortly after I started my second year of graduate school, I found myself swept up in a passionate affair with Brent, a wildly attractive and charismatic colleague. Within months, I had divorced my husband in order to marry him. One night, in our third year together, he turned to me, said, “I don’t feel well,” and died. He had had a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a congenital problem. It’s twenty years later, and I have a new husband and children, but I can honestly say that going through that early divorce, even though it was at my instigation, was a lot more shocking and unsettling to me than Brent’s death. I guess it made me profoundly aware that nothing is forever. — Caroline, 55, university professor

Adding to the pain of divorce for many people is the feeling of being judged by a collective external conscience that is assigning them blame. But a spouse may also experience feelings of failure and guilt even if the marriage was terminated by death. You may think, If I had done more — pressured my spouse to take better care of himself (or herself), helped with the economic burden to reduce the stress on my spouse, spotted the signs of illness earlier, tried harder to find new doctors — then things might have turned out differently. In addition, you may have other, unresolved issues stemming from the marriage, ranging from anger that the spouse has “left” you to remorse for acts of omission (not having been thoughtful or loving enough) or commission (having resented the need to care for an ill spouse; having been unfaithful). Or you might simply feel guilty for having made such a wrong choice.

A big source of stress for me is my guilt about the failure of my first marriage. Counseling has helped me quite a bit. I’m not sure I will ever fully overcome it, but I don’t dwell on it anymore. I can now tell someone without feeling embarrassed that I rushed into my first marriage. — Ruth, 25, data entry clerk

Society deems it a failure if you end a marriage after eight years because you’re supposed to stay with one person for your whole life. But who has that kind of a plan? You have to think of it as a success if you stayed together for eight years. It’s not a failure. It just ended. But not everyone can tell herself that. — Vickie, 40, music teacher

Along with a sense of failure, it is very common to feel a deep sense of loss in the aftermath of a terminated marriage. Wanting to feel connected and attached is a very basic human desire. For a woman, a marriage may even represent her identity and, in certain communities, her position in the community may be totally defined by her marriage.

Feelings of failure and loss alone may be sufficiently overwhelming to make you want to climb into bed and pull up the covers. But in the face of this trauma, you have to figure out a way to cope and deal with the practical matters that need addressing, ranging from those that concern your own well-being to the obligations you may have to others, such as children and business partners. Though it will be little or no consolation to you at the time — and you may even be appalled at the notion — the terrible feelings you experience may eventually help you to make a happier remarriage.

“I don’t think there is a person on earth who, no matter how right his or her reasons for leaving the marriage, doesn’t regard divorce as a failure,” says psychotherapist Jill Muir Sukenick. “Every one of them has a great desire not to reexperience this failure, which is the impetus for learning what you need to learn in order to make a better choice the next time around.”

“People who are in a second marriage have learned what they value and what is special about being married. Your willingness to preserve the institution means you don’t take it lightly,” concurs therapist Judith Siegel. “This is a life lesson, and it may make you more sensitive to a new partner and more willing to compromise, out of respect for the institution of marriage.”

What to expect when a marriage ends

What were the circumstances of the dissolution?
If it was a mutual and relatively amicable decision that you should go your separate ways, you will experience some pain. Your grief of course will be far greater if your spouse died, or if the marriage broke up as the result of serious incompatibility, anger, hostility, betrayal, or abuse.

The negative feelings associated with the breakup may catapult you back to an earlier time in your life, specifically your adolescent years, when you began interacting in new ways with the opposite sex and you probably experienced typical anxieties regarding your popularity — or lack of it. In the wake of a divorce, you may experience the present as the past. Now becomes then. If your spouse announces that he or she is leaving you for another person, this blow to your self-esteem takes you right back to high school, and you may reexperience feeling “unpopular” and insecure.

The marriage wasn’t flourishing, so I filed for divorce. My ex became vicious. He started dating immediately and got engaged before we were even divorced. Then I started hearing about bow unfaithful he’d been all during the marriage. Everything I had believed was crashing down on me, and it took me a long time to recover. — Chloe, 50, artist

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