How Successful Are Second Marriages? What The Research Really Tells Us
Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Going through an unsuccessful marriage and subsequent divorce can really change your entire understanding of relationships, the sometimes fantasy-like meanings and expectations we assign to them, and what's really practical. To feel this sense of skepticism is only normal after your experiences.
Ah, but then there's that exceedingly unpractical thing called love, which can always find a way to sneak into even the most decidedly closed hearts. You meet someone new, you feel things you haven't felt in years, and suddenly you're back to questioning everything. No matter how much we think we've learned from our past relationships that tells us to be cautious, that warm feeling called love can make us suddenly willing to take all the same risks all over again. And that's not a bad thing—it's one of the great joys of the human experience that we're able to feel so connected to another living being that we're willing to accept the potential consequences.
But in the interest of self-protection and making fully informed decisions, here's what the science tells us about going in for a Round 2 with marriage.
The unclear statistics on second marriages.
The existing research on second marriages shows mixed results and doesn't really give us a clear answer about their success rates.
While oft-repeated statistics hold that about half of all marriages end in divorce, the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University found that number "rises to 60 percent for second marriages and to 65 percent for third and fourth marriages," per a 2013 report in the New York Times. But in the same year, a separate report from the Marriage Foundation commissioned by and based on data from the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics found couples where one or both spouses are marrying for the second time faced a 31 percent risk of divorce, compared to an estimated 45 percent risk for marriages between two first-timers. The data is from two separate countries, notably, but does that account for the differences in their findings? It's hard to say.
Other popularly cited statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau also indicate second marriages have a worse success rate than first marriages, with some 60 percent of second marriages ending in divorce. But these estimates are from around 1990 (the numbers from the Marriage Foundation are also from around this time period), and we know that marriage and divorce trends have changed tremendously in the last three decades. Recent reports say even the overall divorce rate has fallen approximately eight percent between 2008 and 2016, suggesting the "half of all marriages end in divorce" stat is now outdated. Some experts say the number of marriages that end in divorce may be closer to 40 percent now. BGSU found just 16 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2017.
As for second marriages in particular, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Family Issues found that even though remarriages have "consistently demonstrated higher divorce rates," their analysis of some 2,000 couples suggests "a direct causal link between marriage order and relationship stability should not be inferred."
A Pew Research Center analysis of 2013 U.S. Census data found the number of remarried people tripled since 1960, with 42 million Americans having been married more than once. Four in 10 new marriages in 2013 involved at least one person who has been married before, and about a quarter of married adults had been married before. What's more, 57 percent of divorced or widowed adults had since remarried, and about one in five divorced or widowed folks said they want to remarry again eventually.
Remarriage seems to be just about as popular as marriage in general these days. Do either of these things work? That's a valid question, and to pivot back to the Journal of Family Issues study mentioned above, it's not totally clear if the answer has much to do with which marriage you're on.
Why second marriages fail—and what sets apart the ones that work.
"Many people leave first marriages blaming the other person and never dealing with their own end of their dysfunctional system," relationship counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., tells mbg. "In other words, they take themselves with them into their second marriages and often create the very same problems, and then think they have chosen wrong again instead of looking to their own behavior—their own self-abandonment and lack of love for themselves."
For a second marriage to work, you need to get real about what went wrong in the first one—including understanding your part in causing its demise. You need to be willing to do the serious inner work it takes to make sure you're not repeating the same problems in the next relationship. It's always a combined effort of two people that causes any relationship to fail, so if you haven't made any personal progress since the last breakup, why would you expect your next relationship to be any different?
Linda Carroll, a licensed marriage and family therapist, doesn't believe second marriages are ever doomed by nature. "It all depends. Did people leave their first marriages blaming the other, thinking it was all the other person's fault? Did they learn anything? If they did their own work in that relationship, then they have a lot more chance of success," she tells mbg. "It all comes down to the circumstances of how they left the first marriage or how they managed being left. We all carry our unfinished business with us wherever we go, so depending on the inner work (and sometimes with the help of a good therapist or life coach), what we have done with what happened will determine how we select the next person and how well we manage the inevitable complications and conflicts."
One more thing: Recognize this new love of yours is not "the one," either.
A great thing about divorce (and any breakup, really) is that it really pushes you to recognize that, at the end of the day, your happiness and well-being is not contingent on any one person. This was true of your last spouse, and it will be true of your next one if you choose to get married again. Carroll and Paul both stress that having this recognition is absolutely necessary for any new commitment to work.
"Sometimes people are looking for a magic solution to the problems of being a human being and feel as though 'finding the one' will be the answer. In that case, it doesn't look so great for their chances of success," Carroll says.
Paul adds, "When they get into a marriage to get love, rather than having done their inner work to be able to share love, they will almost always be disappointed and think it's the other person's fault."
So what does this all mean for the divorced person considering the potential of a second marriage? You'll need to really make sure you've spent time processing how you contributed to the trouble in your last relationship and what you're looking for in the next one. Success rates can be insightful information for thinking through your choices, but at the end of the day, whether your next marriage will be successful is completely on you and the work you're willing to do before it and throughout it.