A happy marriage? Both simpler, and tougher, than we realize

If experience is the mother of wisdom, why aren’t second and third marriages more successful?

Take a look back on how little you knew when you first got married: heart full of romantic bromides, head convinced that the statistics don’t apply, because the two of you are exceptional.Take a look back on how little you knew when you first got married: heart full of romantic bromides, head convinced that the statistics don’t apply, because the two of you are exceptional.(Source: SITA/AP)

We all know what a bad marriage looks like, it seems, and if prodded could summon a parade of marital sins.

Insouciance for the other, or for the undertaking; disloyalty in the face of misfortune, misery or monotony; long silences; sulking and punishing each other for petty grievances. “A bleak and eternal contest”, as US writer Scott Turow soberingly put it, “with each partner holding the other responsible for his or her deepest unhappiness.”

We are less sure, however, when it comes to good marriages. It’s not just that the things driving couples apart are usually more apparent that the bonds that hold them together; it’s that achieving happiness is so much more than ticking the right boxes with each other (good communicator, easy-going, warm, etc.). If we knew what to do to fix our relationships or make better choices in our partners, presumably, we would do it.

A risky venture

Just how risky a venture is marriage these days? According to statistics, plenty – around half of first marriages in the US end in divorce, with the failure rate rising to two-thirds for second marriages and almost 75 percent of third marriages.

The greater fragility of successive marriages, by the way, is not an anomaly but goes to the core of the problem. Half of those first marriages break up despite all the glue holding them together (finances, social and professional standing, the emotional health of the family members). So how many of those marriages that do survive can be considered truly happy? How many couples stay together merely because separating is only marginally more painful? And for people who remarry, why is prior experience so little help to them in avoiding divorce once again?

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