Remarriage Is-and Is Not-What It Used To Be

Olympia, (Wash), June has arrived and, with it, wedding season. Sociologist Wendy Manning, in a new paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), "Remarriage in the United States: If at first they don’t succeed, do most Americans 'try, try again'?" reports that in 2013, 40 percent of all marriages -- four out of every ten -- were remarriages for one of the partners. One in five were remarriages for both partners. Based on previous years, that could mean more than 40,000 remarriages just this month!
 
The CCF, whose Director of Research and Public Education is renowned Evergreen faculty member, Stephanie Coontz, seeks to further a national understanding of how America's families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.

In her new paper Manning reviews key studies—including her own at Bowling Green State University—and reveals surprising trends, along with complicated pros and cons, for remarried couples and families:
 
"Divorced or widowed men and women are not giving up on intimate relationships: Among men and women in their early 40s, more than half of all marriages are remarriages—and more than half of divorced and widowed people in this age group expect to marry again. Many do not wait for a license to repartner: Nearly half of all currently cohabiting adults were previously married.

Yet rates of remarriage are down by 40 percent since 1990—a trend that mirrors the decline in marriage overall. In addition, the length of time between divorce and a subsequent marriage has increased.

Men are twice as likely to remarry as women: either because they have more enthusiasm for it—or more ability to find someone who will marry them. In 1995, 54 percent of women who divorced before age 45 had remarried within five years of divorce. A decade later that had declined to 38 percent.

Nearly 70 percent of remarried women under age 45 are part of a stepfamily, yet less than 10 percent of these women are living with a stepchild. More often, it is the man who moves in with a new partner and her child or children. Almost half of remarried men in a stepfamily have a co-resident stepchild.

The challenges of remarriage have changed as stepfamilies have become more common.

  •  In 1980, the presence of stepchildren was associated with more marital conflict and lower satisfaction. But by 2000 that trend had reversed, so that remarriages with stepchildren had better marital quality (on average) than those without.
  • Yet on average, remarriages are less stable than first marriages – and they have become even more unstable over the past two decades. In 1995, less than a quarter of remarriages ended in divorce within 5 years. Today that is up to 31 percent."

But averages do not tell the whole story. Some people are serial marriers and divorcers. Others learn from their first mistakes. In “Remarriages and Stepfamilies are Not Doomed to Fail” (an appendix to Manning's report), CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar Braxton Jones lists some of the factors that help produce successful remarriages and stepfamilies. Many remarried couples report having closer and more egalitarian marriages than in their first marriage. And Jones cites research showing that heterosexual stepfamilies report no more stress than biological families when they avoid traditional gender roles and have high marital quality.

The past and the present of remarriage: Historian Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen points out that remarriages were even more common in the past than they are today. The typical tension in remarriages of the past, she argues, occurred when the biological relatives and step-relatives actively sabotaged the emergence of love and obligation in a blended family, trying to deny inheritance and assistance to one set of children in favor of another. The typical tension in most remarriages today occurs when people expect love and obligation to develop too quickly, or try to force a newly-blended family to behave exactly like a first-marriage family. “Stepfamilies have to be more elastic in their understanding of parental roles and more flexible about family boundaries,” Coontz suggests, “but when they achieve this, they can actually be a model for all families in a world where fewer and fewer marriages are marked by rigid gender specialization and more families have to adjust to changes such as older children returning home or an aging parent moving in.”

As June brings new hope and optimism for many young couples headed to the altar, it can mean new commitments and relationship stability for those who have loved and lost, for older Americans and blended families as well.
 
CONTACTS:
Wendy Manning, Co-Director, National Center for Family and Marriage Research, wmannin@bgsu.edu, 419-372-2850.
 
Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, Council on Contemporary Families, coontzs@msn.com.