Clearer Connections

Remarried couples often bring baggage into their marriage. Here's how to work through the issues to gain stronger communication skills.

My husband's favorite proverb is, "Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife." He usually quotes that right before I agree with him by sending him to sleep in the garage.

How is it that the one topic we've had drilled into our heads over and over is still one of the most difficult for us to master—especially for those couples in remarriages? We know how important communication is. But remarried couples have unique communication challenges that can be difficult to overcome without really grasping the problems of the past marriage and the needs of the current one. So how can we sort through everything that hasn't worked to find the things that do?

Talk to yourself first

If your spouse has done or said something that bothers you, before you confront, ask yourself some questions:

Could my mate's fear, stress, worry, or hurt have provoked his action or words?
Is she reacting more to her own painful past than to me?
Did my spouse say or do that to hurt me on purpose?
Am I feeling frustrated? Hurt? Angry? Scared?
Is this bothering me because I'm feeling insecure? Why?
Does this stem back to an experience from my previous marriage?
Am I misreading or exaggerating his actions?

Answer honestly, so you can tell your mate, "I felt frustrated when you charged all those clothes last week. It brought back the paranoia from when my ex-wife would spend money we didn't have. And that scared me."

Naming exactly what we're feeling allows us to confront gently and with more clarity. It also keeps our spouse in the dialogue.

Check out your expectations

Ask yourself if you expect too much from your spouse. It's impossible to enter marriage without certain expectations—that our spouse will love and respect us, remain faithful and loyal, and be our companion and encourager.

However, some expectations are unrealistic and unfair. In "Special Tasks in a Second Marriage" from The Complete Marriage Book, author Jim Smoke writes, "It is easy to compile a long list of what did not happen in a prior marriage and expect your new list to be fulfilled in the first three months. Hope often lies in your new spouse doing all the things that your former spouse did not do: namely, fulfill all of your new expectations."

It's important that we consciously reprogram our expectations, reminding ourselves, "He is not my ex, and I can't expect him to fulfill what my ex never did."

Be honest about trust issues

Part of communication involves trust. Yet fear plays a strong role in second marriages, says Dr. Gary Oliver, in his MP article, "The Upside of Failure."

"Say a wife feels panicky every time her husband is 10 minutes late … because her first husband had an affair … It's okay to admit that some days we're just needier than others. This wife can occasionally say, 'I know it's irrational, but I'm having a panicky day. Pray for me, and please try to come home on time today.'"

Janie remembers the first year they were married, Sam's ex-wife kept showing up to cause trouble. One day Janie arrived home from work to discover her husband's ex-wife had pulled into their driveway, cornered him, and was talking nonstop. So Janie quietly moved where she could hear everything they were saying without being discovered.

"I'm not proud I reduced myself to sneaking around and eavesdropping," admits Janie. "But I wanted to hear what his ex had to say. Not only that, I wanted to hear how Sam was relating to her when I wasn't around."

Later that evening, she confronted him. At first, Sam was upset. But she explained that she was feeling insecure because she didn't feel he respected her enough to draw boundaries with his ex-wife.

"It would have made a huge difference if he'd refused to talk to her without me being there," she admits. "I figured it was better to tell him the truth than to keep quiet and let it eat me up. He was hurt that I still didn't trust him completely. But once he understood, he said he'd try to show me that he did respect me and our marriage."

Don't resort to threats

You've probably heard this one from just about every marriage counselor, pastor, teacher, expert, and friend. Yeah, yeah, you think. I know. But it's amazing how easily this little word—divorce—can pop into your head, and worse, your mouth. Especially if you've already been through one. This isn't just about not using the word; it's about not even thinking it. That includes "fake outs," such as, "Why did we even get married?" Or other threats: "If you … then I'll …" "You'd better not …" "Don't you ever say or do that again, or I'll …"

Janet and Greg struggle with using threats. "Whenever we argue and I feel I'm 'losing,' I become so upset that I fight dirty," admits Janet. "I tell Greg I'll leave him or that we should never have gotten married. I don't mean any of it, but I don't know what else to do."

There are several problems with threats. One, of course, is that they put a spouse on the defensive. And someone on the defensive will never be able to hear you—which means nothing will change.

If that's not enough incentive, here's what Jesus had to say, "I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37).

Before you say anything, think about the consequences. If you still have trouble holding your tongue, ask if you can talk at another time. That will give you a chance to calm down, think rationally, and consider your response without the heat of the moment.

Beware the ghosts of conflicts past

While my husband, Scott, and I were dating, I overheard a country song on the radio that struck me. Tricia Yearwood was singing, "The Woman Before Me and You": "The woman before me must have been hard on you 'cause that look in your eyes I never put you through. Sometimes I think you must be talking to the woman before me and you."

One of the consequences of being the "next" spouse is that we're stuck holding the baggage from the previous "owner." If his ex used tears to manipulate him, don't hold your breath for sympathy when you start to cry. Your tears, however sincere and innocent, will push a button within his head that says, Danger! Danger! Manipulation ahead.

Jennifer remembers the first time her second husband didn't come home when he said he was going to and he didn't call. That was a big issue of resentment and distrust in her first marriage. But when she explained to him why that pushed a button for her, he never did it again.

"Through the five years we've been together," says Jennifer, "when I've overreacted to something he does, he's assured me, 'I'm not your ex.' Through his patient proving of himself, he's earned my trust. Now I don't react to things like I used to."

Sometimes remarried spouses become hyper-vigilant. Little things suddenly are misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. It can become easy to assume the worst. While unfair, it's the partner's responsibility to "prove" himself or herself. But the more you do, the more your spouse will be able to trust and see that you aren't, in fact, the ex.

Leave the bodies buried. Don't think the problems you had before are destined to repeat themselves.

Use healing words

I met a writer at a conference who made an interesting statement about her marriage: "I wouldn't be the person I am today if my husband hadn't used words to heal and comfort me." This woman had been sexually abused as a child and felt unlovable and unlovely. But her husband would tell her, "You're the most beautiful woman I know."

"At first I wouldn't believe him," she admitted. "I'd tell him to be quiet and stop saying things he didn't mean."

Although it took a lot of time and prayer, his words started to sink into her soul and she realized her feelings, not his words, were incorrect. "God worked through my husband's words until I accepted the truth. I am beautiful! I am lovable."

My husband's first marriage was rife with his wife's infidelities, which caused a lot of pain and fear of abandonment. So I often tell him, "I'm not going anywhere. You're stuck with me!" We joke about it, but the underlying current is a comfort. I'm telling him that no matter what happens, we're doing life together until we die.

A few things to keep in mind about healing words:

Use them often. If you think your spouse is beautiful, funny, smart, a good money manager, a nice dresser, a charming person, tell him. Your words help to build trust.

Make them sincere. During Cheri's first marriage, her husband would say, "I love you" in the same way he'd say, "This was a good day." It didn't have depth.

Think of your words, especially "I love you," as holy, particularly the second time around. After all, your spouse heard those words the first time and look what happened.

Tell the "why." Often when Eileen would tell Lee, "I love you," he'd come back with, "Why?" The reasons were important to Lee because during his first marriage, his wife would reluctantly tell him she loved him only after he'd say it. In the meantime, she showed more interest in other men, so her words were empty.

"When Rick says, 'I love you,'" says Carly, "I'll ask, 'What made you say that at this moment?' He'll say, 'I was just looking at you sitting there and thinking about how much I love you.' And I'm sitting in an old stained t-shirt, I haven't washed my hair or brushed my teeth. I'm thinking, Yeah, right. But for some reason, it works. It means more when he identifies it."

If you receive healing words, accept them. For years into their marriage, Katie was suspicious of the words I love you. "My first husband would say them, but it always felt as though he was trying to convince himself," says Katie. "My current husband says it all the time. One day I told him, 'Please don't say, "I love you" so much, because it gets cheap.' He said, 'But I mean it.' I told him, 'Yes, but if you say it too much, I feel you're just looking for something to say. Make sure you tell me at the right time—not when you're watching football or whatever.'"

Later, though, she realized, Who am I to tell him when to say he loves me? "I'm sure that conversation stemmed directly from my first marriage."

Although her husband doesn't say the words I love you as much anymore, that doesn't mean he hasn't gotten creative! Now he says other things: "I miss you," "I'm no good without you." It's still saying I love you, but in a different way.

"I'm learning to accept what my husband says," says Katie. "And you know what? I like hearing it. He makes me feel more secure about myself and our marriage."

Adapted from Surprised by Remarriage. ©2006 by Ginger Kolbaba. Used by permission of Revell Books.


Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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