If you were injured and trying to reach a safe place, would you step onto a rickety, swinging bridge?
That's a fair description of too many second marriages. When the remarriage creates a blended family—in which at least one of the spouses becomes a stepparent—the footing's even more treacherous. Couples may have charged ahead, stepped on a couple rotten planks, and now dangle, holding on for dear life.
Sadly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, almost 65 percent of remarriages end in divorce. And Barna Research shows that born-again Christians divorce at virtually the same rate as the rest of the population.
Here's the added complication for blended families: Experts say it typically takes four to eight years for a new family to blend—to feel like a real family rather than a stepfamily. But of the second marriages that fail, most do so in the first four years—before families realistically could have expected to blend.
So wouldn't you feel more confident crossing that remarriage bridge if you had a map, drawn by couples who have crossed before you, that revealed which planks were secure and which were rotten?
Any marriage sees its share of conflict in its early years, as couples realize they're not Cinderella and Prince Charming. The fairy-tale view of a second marriage assumes that all the mistakes and pain from the first marriage are ancient history. This time, couples say, we have a clean slate.
Reality hits as couples realize the new marriage, just like the last one, holds big challenges. Some are brand-new, such as getting a feel for each other as new husband and wife while also trying to parent one or two sets of kids. Some are reruns, such as staying angry at a former spouse and not realizing what that anger is doing to the new marriage.
Pat and Ricki Giersch, a suburban Chicago couple, have been married five years. Each spouse's first marriage ended in divorce. Each brought two children to the new marriage . . . and found their early disagreements stressful. That clean slate wasn't so clean. It contained a long list of hidden wounds.
Ricki remembers when she and Pat would sit down to pay bills. Maybe there would be a higher-than-normal credit card balance. Pat would ask what they were going to do about it, and complain that everything was going to the credit card company. Then he'd launch into a diatribe: "Am I here just to pay the bills? Am I in this all on my own? You guys just want a piece of me."
Ricki would think, Wow. Where is that coming from?
It was coming from Pat's first marriage, where finances had been an emotionally charged issue. If a spouse's spending habits caused trouble in a first marriage, Pat says, you will be keenly aware of that trait in a second spouse—even if it's not a real problem. And you may overreact. "The siren goes off," Pat says, "and it screams, 'Here we go again! Protect, protect, protect.'"
After four sometimes-shaky years, the Giersches finally went to a Christian marriage and family counselor. Today they acknowledge their marriage might have ended had they not found help with what turned out to be common marriage and parenting issues.
The Giersches also credit another blended-family couple, Moe and Paige Becnel, for helping their marriage grow. The Becnels work with blended families at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and are authors of the book, God Breathes on Blended Families, which Ricki and Pat used in their church-based small group.
Ricki and Pat found safe footing on a treacherous bridge. Here are several key planks to step on that can help your blended family survive the dangerous marriage crossing.
Recognize memory triggers. Moe and Paige Becnel know—from their own experience as a blended-family couple and from counseling others—that anyone in a second marriage will face bad memories. You can stuff that pain away, or you can confront it.
"If you work through it," Paige says, "eventually it doesn't bother you any more. That makes you a healthier person, which in turn gives you a healthier marriage."
If something your first spouse did made you feel betrayed, then you need to recognize that as a rotten plank and make your new spouse aware of that. Margaret Broersma, author of Daily Reflections for Stepparents: Living and Loving in a New Family, has a friend whose ex-husband was an alcoholic. "If her new husband even drank at all, she would panic," Margaret says. "It was too scary for her. Drinking wasn't that important to him, so he stopped."
Forgive. Many a second marriage has been doomed by lingering pain—especially if the marriage has come too soon after a divorce or a spouse's death for there to be enough healing time.
"They take the hurt, anger, bitterness, and vengeance, and bring that into the new marriage," Moe Becnel says. "You can't channel anger at one particular person; it spills onto every person in your life—including your new spouse."
How do you know if you still need to forgive? If you're having an argument with your spouse and your ex-spouse's name comes up in comparison—either in your words or your thoughts, Moe says—you probably have bitterness toward that ex-spouse. That's not fair to the new spouse.
You'll see it in your prayer life, too. You'll try to pray, Paige says, and suddenly you're thinking horrible thoughts about someone who has hurt you. Your lack of forgiveness drives a wedge between you and God.
The solution? Rely on God, not on your new marriage, to purge your life of past bitterness. That includes forgiving your ex and anyone else who helped kill the previous marriage.
"If you can't think about that person without having negative thoughts, you probably lack forgiveness," Paige says. "One way to forgive is to write down the names of the people you're struggling with. Then think of a blessing you would want. Write that blessing next to their names. Then pray that blessing over them."
Margaret Broersma, who with her husband, Roger, has worked with blended families at their church in Michigan, even will encourage people to write a letter of forgiveness. In that letter, you acknowledge your own mistakes, too. Divorce generally isn't the fault of just one spouse. "Until you can say, 'I know what I did wrong,' your new marriage will be poisoned," says Margaret.
Genuine repentance before God is needed, too, for your new marriage to be healthy. The Becnels see four steps. First, realize that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Second, ask God to forgive you for the part you played in the breakdown of the former marriage. Third, learn from what you did wrong so you don't have a repeat performance. And fourth, commit to God to make your new marriage last a lifetime.
Put the marriage before the kids. Sixteen years ago, the Broersmas, both widowed, married to form a blended family with five kids. Dinner-table arguments surfaced early-on between Margaret's son, Aaron, and Roger. Margaret remembers looking at Aaron like, I understand, you poor thing. I'm on your side. Later, as she prayed for family unity, she recognized those silent glances were dividing their home.
The single most destructive thing a husband or wife can do in a second marriage, Margaret says, is to side with their biological child against the spouse. "We have a natural, biological instinct to protect our own flesh," she says. "So if the stepparent tries to discipline, and if we react in the normal, biological way, we're going to protect our own child—even if the spouse is being reasonable."
Conquer those biological tendencies and you'll build your marriage. That's the greatest thing you can do for kids who have been through the intense pain of seeing their previous family disintegrate.
"You and your spouse go behind closed doors," Margaret says, "away from the kids, and say, 'We're going to present a united front to the children.' Your relationship will last when your marriage is given priority."
Lose the "loser" label. "If you're divorced, you may feel that people see you as a loser," says Pat Giersch. "That something is wrong with you."
To fight that, and to keep yourselves from believing it, you need a support network. Finding a church with a strong blended-family ministry may be the most important step a couple can take. It can point you toward counseling, toward a mentor couple, or toward small groups where blended-family couples hash out tough questions together.
Given the divorce statistics, it stands to reason that blended families make up a significant portion of any church. Still, some churches have resisted such ministries, either unknowingly or for fear that they would be giving silent approval to divorce. But that view is changing. "You don't have to embrace divorce, you just have to embrace the divorced person," Moe says. "You have to realize if God forgives murderers and adulterers, he forgives divorced people, too."
As Ricki Giersch points out, "Jesus said, 'I come to give you life, and life abundantly.' He didn't say, 'If you've been divorced, that's not for you.'"
If your church doesn't offer this type of ministry, it may be because no one has asked for it—perhaps because of fear of the "divorced" label. Step forward and identify yourselves as a blended family who could use help. Fight the fear by realizing the dangerous territory you're in. With a support system, your chances of falling off that bridge are far less.
"We like to tell remarried couples that they're giving their families a chance to see what a healthy marriage is all about," Paige says. "It's not a chance that's necessarily deserved—some people are divorced because of their own wrongful actions. But it's a chance you've been given by the grace of God. What are you going to do, at all cost to you, to save this marriage?"
Jim Killam, an MP regular contributor and co-author of When God Is the Life of the Party (NavPress), teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.