Many couples only realise after divorce the price they have paid for failing to find common ground, and a few even manage to rediscover the forgotten path to their partner’s heart and to rebuild their relationship.
The love that rises from the ashes after months, years or decades seems like something out of a romantic film like The Parent Trap, where Hallie and Annie meet at a summer camp, realise they’re sisters, twins in fact, and hatch a plan to bring their parents together. It’s a seemingly impossible mission, given that their father is a winemaker in Napa Valley, California, their mother, Elizabeth, is a famous dress designer in London, and the former partners haven’t seen each other for 11 years. Improbable as it seems (as do other events and twists that fill the story), the reconciliation does take place, and the film ends with a lavish wedding, enjoyed above all by the twins, the architects of this family reunion.
The Parent Trap doesn’t depict the real world; it’s a fairy tale, as director Charles Shyer admits, but audiences are unlikely to be disturbed by this fictitious setting, which conceals a story as unlikely as it is seductive—that of divorced spouses who thought they’d never be together again, only to reunite and fall even more in love than they did in the first place.
In the real world, most divorce doesn’t leave ex-partners nostalgic for the good times and barely aware of the reasons for the split. But there are couples who discover that the flame of love is still burning and end up at the registrar’s office for a second time.
According to research, 10-15% of divorced couples get back together and 6% remarry, of which around 30% decide to divorce again later. That’s not to say that a second marriage to the same person is a mistake, says psychologist Ann Gold Buscho, pointing out that with the divorce rate for second marriages at over 60%, the figures show that a remarried marriage holds up better than one with a new partner. There is little data on couples who reconcile after divorce, but experts who work with ex-partners who are willing to give their love another chance say that these renewed bonds have characteristics that set them apart from other relationships and offer advantages that can be harnessed.
What we (don’t) know about divorcing couples
According to experts, around 60% of divorcing couples considered the idea of reconciliation at some point in the relationship dissolution process. Finding common ground before or during divorce is less costly and time-consuming than getting back together after divorce, and couples should know that time is of the essence if they want to save their relationship, says therapist Terry Gaspard.
Often asked if there’s hope for their marriage by partners trying to stop the downward spiral towards divorce, Gaspard admits that the counselling process can be complicated and there are no guarantees that the relationship will be saved, but he stresses the importance of seeking help early. In fact, according to therapist John Gottman, partners wait an average of six years before their problems get bad enough to prompt them to seek outside help.
Many couples who end up divorcing complain that therapy didn’t work for them. Reviewing the reasons why therapy seems to fail, Bucho points out that it is often about going to only one or a few counselling or therapy sessions, whereas it actually takes 10-20 sessions before spouses should make a decision about their relationship.
Divorce could be prevented at a much higher rate than society expects—that was the conclusion of Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce, published in October 2011 in Washington at an event hosted by two public policy research centres.
William J. Doherty and Leah Ward Sears, the report’s authors, debunked two common but mistaken assumptions about couples on the brink of divorce. The first, that most divorces occur among unhappy, high-conflict couples, is contradicted by research showing that between 50 and 66 per cent of divorces occur among couples who were averagely happy and low-conflict in the years leading up to divorce.
The second misconception is that there is little chance of reconciliation once a divorce is filed. In fact, according to the report, in 40% of divorcing couples, one or both partners are open to the possibility of reconciliation.
Therefore, given that most divorcing couples face similar problems to those who choose to stay together, and that a significant number of people want to reconcile with their partner even after the divorce process has begun, the report’s authors conclude that many families can be saved if they get the support they need.
How good is the idea of separation?
Marital separation (“a socially ambiguous status—not quite married, not quite divorced”, according to researcher P. R. Amato) is a phenomenon that is under-researched in the literature. It is estimated that between 6 and 18% of married couples in the US have separated at some point in their marriage.
Therapeutic separation, in which each partner receives separate counselling to clarify his or her intentions regarding the relationship, differs from trial separation, in which partners try to discover what it’s like to live apart, as a means of testing the viability of a relationship, says psychologist Stephen Sulmeyer, stressing that the former form of separation is preferable for clarification and eventual reconciliation. The chances of reconciliation increase if there is no contact between the partners during the separation, says the psychologist, pointing out that his experience as a therapist confirms the figures provided by researchers: about 25% of couples reconcile after a trial separation.
It’s risky to encourage couples to go through a period of separation, even a therapeutic one, says therapist Daniel Dashnaw. Although our culture supports the idea of therapeutic separation and many experts recommend it, Dashnaw believes the data speak eloquently to the ineffectiveness of separation as a tool to facilitate reconciliation: nearly 80% of separated couples end up divorcing, according to an Ohio State University study.
Couples facing intractable problems should know that the optimal window for reconciliation is quite small—the chances of reconciliation after a separation drop dramatically after about two years, while the average period of separation for a couple is just over a year, says the therapist.
The biggest problem with separation is that it helps both partners learn to live on their own, and this reduces the chances of reflecting on one’s own responsibility for the decline of the relationship, Dashnaw concludes, insisting that separation is nothing more than “the highway to divorce.”
Post-divorce: what brings couples back together?
“We didn’t divorce because we stopped loving each other, but because we were both very unhappy,” says a woman who remarried her ex-husband years after their divorce. The two have four children together, and during the years of separation, the children continued to be a bridge between them, says the woman, who took part in researcher Nancy Kalish’s study. The study involved 1,001 participants aged between 18 and 89 who were trying to reconnect with someone they had loved in the past but had broken up with.
More than 70% of the reunited couples said they were still together, but only 6% of the participants said they had married, divorced and then remarried their former partner. However, Kalish suggests that the chances of success in a second marriage to the same spouse may be better (than in a marriage to a different partner), noting that 71% of study participants said their remarriage was “their most emotional romance” in comparison to other relationships they’d had.
When reviewing the reasons why people return to former partners, psychology professor Theresa DiDonato cites a sense of familiarity (they know what to expect), a desire to avoid loneliness, seeing the loved one in a new light or coming to the conclusion that the breakup was a mistake, late regrets about the relationship, failure to find a better partner and, most often, the realisation that they still have strong feelings for their former partner.
What many people don’t consider is that once the turmoil of divorce is over, they will begin to miss their partner and question the wisdom of their choice, says therapist Michele Weiner-Davis.
Recalling the circumstances that led to the end of her marriage as well as the reasons that led her to return to her ex-husband, author Rachel Clark says she realised late in life just how tight her bond was with her ex-husband. The marriage failed not because of the poor quality of the relationship, but because of the fears caused by her parents’ divorce, the external stresses that crept into the relationship, and the unrealistic expectations set by our culture.
Divorce is our response to the ideal model of marriage that society presents to us, one in which our partner must be a superhero, who must flawlessly fulfil a whole range of roles, from confidant and friend to perfect parent and soul mate. In the end, however, good marriages are not the ones that fairy tales tell us about, but those in which each partner works conscientiously to grow the relationship, concludes Clarke, who believes that the determination not to give up is often the difference between relationships that fall apart and those that endure.
Reasons for hope for those reuniting after divorce
Although there are little-studied aspects related to marriages that are restored, experts say there is a tendency for former relationships (whether official or not) to be rekindled, so there is more data on what works and what doesn’t in these revived relationships.
Reconciled relationships don’t have the same magical ability to work as those that start from scratch, but one advantage is that partners restart their love story with more experience, hope, and determination to make things work. Perhaps also with a little more humility as a result of the failure of their marriage and a greater willingness to compromise.
The benefit of knowing one another is a big one, too. Therapist Michael McNulty explains that there are advantages to knowing your partner well before starting a relationship, but also that all relationships, even happy ones, involve differences that can lead to conflict and that never go away. Reconciling with an ex-partner means returning to those already known differences (rather than choosing a different relationship that only changes the reasons for disagreement without eliminating them), but for the relationship to work, people need to be aware of what the irreconcilable differences were and commit to not falling back into old patterns of responding to them.
For many people, returning to an ex-partner they know is more desirable than starting a relationship with someone they know nothing about, says therapist Judith Kuriansky, especially since in the former scenario, the two can see if (and to what extent) the ex-partner has made positive changes. One of the most common reasons why separated couples decide to start over is the belief that each partner has matured as a result of the separation.
For rebuilt marriages to survive and thrive, says therapist Susan Zinn, they must learn to forgive and move on from the pain and misery of the past.
Also, when we open the door to an old love, we need to understand that we are ultimately responsible for our own happiness, and that developing the ability to manage our emotions will create an environment in which healthy relationships can flourish, Zinn points out.
Noting that research suggests that a rebuilt marriage is more likely to last than one with a new partner, marriage counsellor Scott Jakubowski advises couples who are starting over to approach the relationship in the same way as any couple considering marriage: by considering the issues that affect the quality of the marriage (such as shared values and goals) and seeking counselling if the issues that led to the dissolution of the marriage are still unresolved.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the rebirth of a relationship is that love is like a sleeping cat that can be woken at any time, Dr Kalish concludes, pointing out that people do not significantly change their expectations of a potential partner, which means that if their ex-partner seemed suitable in the past, they are likely to be attracted to them a second time.
There will always be too many couples who lament, next to the smoking ruins of their marriage, that it didn’t work out for them. But at the same time, among those who dare to transcend the past, there will be couples who discover with joy and gratitude that “divorce didn’t work out” for them.