Think twice before marrying twice.

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. 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.

This article was featured on Huffington Post on March 7, 2017.

Being relational: This couple could be having a respectful conversation about something very serious. They’re making it safe for each to say what they need to say.

Mike refused to speak to his wife Laura for weeks at a time, and by the time she dragged him to my office she was at her wit’s end: “What do I do if he refuses to speak to me?”

They told me their issues, which weren’t that complicated or major, but could not be resolved because Mike always clammed up whenever his wife approached him with her criticisms and complaints. Mike refused to talk because he said his wife was witchy when she came after him and once he responded he couldn’t trust how she’d react.

“Doctor Becky this woman is like a damn drill sergeant,” he said as he glanced at Laura. “You have no idea how impossible it is to get a word in with her, so I have chosen not to even try.”

“From this day forward,” I said to Mike. “You need to know that it is never acceptable to give your wife the silent treatment, no matter what she says or does. You may never go mute again, get it?”

He nodded, but said, “What do I do, then? She might bite my head off. You don’t know what she’s capable of.”

“No matter what she does or may do, talk to her like an adult when she approaches you with a concern. Stay calm, and no matter what she says or does or how she does it, YOU will respond with calm words, you will be an adult, OK? You need to know that it is childish to stop speaking to your spouse. It is not relational.”

I then turn to his wife, Laura. “It is also not relational to chew a person’s butt out with criticism and harsh complaints. What you are doing is childish, too. You can’t play the drill sergeant anymore. You must find another way to approach your husband with your needs and wants.”

“Well how do I approach him, then? He’s not a great listener.”

“I don’t listen because of how you approach me,” Mike said.

“You have a right to make a request,” I said. “Adults know they can’t control their partner, so they don’t demand, they make requests. Like, ‘Would you mind turning the TV volume down, please?” Or, Honey, ‘If you find it difficult to pay the bills on time, would you mind allowing me to take charge of it?’”

“What you don’t do is walk in and tell them what a loser or jerk they are, or how badly they screwed something up, cause if you do then they’ll shut you out,” I said.

One term I use a lot in my private practice as Marriage & Family Therapist is: being relational. I think it is a pretty huge concept that everyone should be aware of – here is how it works: Most couples that come into see me are behaving in ways that block relationship, or back-and-forth healthy interactions. They do this by being verbally aggressive or harsh on the talking side, and defensive or shutting down on the receiving side – a couple cannot communicate if this is what is going on. What we need in a relationship is for both partners to be able to keep their emotional walls down so they can communicate and connect on an ongoing basis. You do this by being respectful and making it safe for the other person to talk to you by remaining calm and adult-like in what you say, and in how you receive information.

Here’s a few rules of thumb on how to do this:

When you become aware of an issue with your partner, don’t let it sit too long.
Choose the right time for the conversation. Don’t ask to talk on the last win-or-lose play of the Super Bowl. Wait until you both have some relaxing space and time and then softly and gently request a conversation.
The conversation. Your tone and body language must be soft and non-intimidating and your best self must be in charge. Tell your spouse how you feel about a certain situation, then make a humble request that you two work out a change or compromise. Ex: “Honey, it hurts my feelings deeply when you talk to your mother negatively about me. It has a feel of disloyalty to me, so I really need to make a request that you not talk to her about me. Would that be OK? I really need this from you.” If your spouse refuses to cooperate after such a reasonable request, you probably have deeply serious issues a therapist could help you with.
If your spouse approaches you softly for a conversation, then you as the receiver need to be open and soft in return. Sit in a relaxed, non-defensive position with your best self firmly in control. Make sure your facial expressions and body language are open and relaxed. No matter what your partner requests, promise yourself you will make sure they feel heard by validating their feelings, then respond calmly and respectfully. Ex: “Wow, honey, I see that my confiding to my mother in a negative way has really hurt you and caused you to feel I am disloyal. That is not the kind of husband I want to be. I will not speak to her again. You can be sure of that. I am there for you and I want you to know that. I am so sorry I did something that hurt you so much.”

Remember, the idea in these conversations it to be, kind, soft, respectful and recognizing of each other’s feelings. This is what being relational is. It is creating a peaceful and safe environment so you can talk about your feelings and concerns without fear, and controlling your responses and reactions so your partner can say what they need to say without fear, too. The next important step is to be responsive to what your partner is requesting, so long as it is reasonable. Honoring your partner’s reasonable requests and needs is a very important piece of being relational. You bend, and they bend for you.

What first appointments are like for the therapist.

First meetings are very interesting for a therapist. A person, couple or family comes in with a problem or concern, and I know nothing. I view each first meeting as an interesting movie, and the characters in the movie have no idea what to do about the problem they’re facing. The story I am about to hear involves a puzzle we need to solve, and I find every story I hear and every character in it fascinating. The work will be challenging. There will be surprises and there may be red herrings, gas lighting, and/or gut wrenching stories of unimaginable abuse. I take the challenge very seriously, and consider myself a sort of therapeutic Sherlock Holmes who is charged to solve the mystery of why their life isn’t working and how to create an environment so it will.

Most clients are at least a little bit nervous in that first meeting. I am going to take a health and family history from them, find out what they’re goals are, and do a session with them – asking lots of questions but also hoping to leave them with something really helpful they can start using right away.

Once the client or clients leave that first meeting, I usually have a pretty good idea of what is going on from a family dynamics standpoint, and I’m already on the scent of the root of the problem. What I usually will know is:

  • How serious the problem is. There are tooth aches and then there are jaw breaks, and the more serious situations often need immediate, serious, attention and care. Physicians and other resources may need to be part of the process. If it’s serious, we get the ball rolling wherever and however, right away.
  • How motivated the person or couple is. In therapy, motivation is everything – you can’t inspire a person to do much of anything if there is no interest or desire. People can be miserable in their lives, but not miserable enough to do the work to change. I bring everything I’ve got to be helpful, but some will choose to stay comfortably uncomfortable. The good news is that after the first session with an unmotivated client, I won’t give up hope that their desire for a healthier life will change.
  • If they’re not leveling with me. Therapists can’t help people who are not honest, and I can often figure out when a client is not. How? If what people report doesn’t make sense, I know one or both are leaving out important information. Part of the challenge is, some people are covering something up, some are worried about what I’ll think of them, while others lie or have a perverted or distorted sense of reality.
  • If the client perceives themselves as blameless. People with victim themes are easy to spot, and they’re in plentiful supply. They’re also some of the most difficult to work with. How can you create a journey of healthy change when a person cannot take responsibility for any part of the dysfunctional situation? We all play a role when relationships aren’t working.
  • If pride and ego are going to be an issue. Humility is required for a great therapy result. If I encounter pride, ego and stubbornness, I think of it as an out-of-control bamboo patch that must be cleared before any meaningful work can be done.
  • Whether addiction may be playing a role. There are many types and I ask about it in every first session My gut usually hones in on addiction quickly, if it’s there. If it is, it must be dealt with before much else can be done.
  • How mentally stable a person is. Most therapists get a good feel for this in a first session using the client’s history and just visiting with them for a little while. Things people tell us, their tone, expressions and body language can be used as guideposts for understanding how they handle life situations. If the spouse is there, it’s even easier to figure out.

One thing that is always true, after the first meeting I know I’ve got my work cut out for me. Every person and case is different, and I do the best I can to help people in a way that is suitable for them.