Several months after John and I became engaged, I was assisting a journalist at the New York Times with a story—part of my regular duties as director of communications for the music conservatory where I worked. During our e-mail exchange, I mentioned that I was getting remarried, relocating to Virginia, and would soon be leaving my job. She wrote back to wish me luck and tell me about a book that crossed her desk when she was an editor at the Times Book Review. She found it “extremely interesting and well written,” she wrote, and sent me a link that led me to Wendy Swallow’s The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Something told me to read it—most likely the voice inside my head suggesting that after a quarter century of marriage and seven post-divorce years on my own, advice from a person who had been in the trenches might be useful. Deeply in love, John and I share a common sense of how to be in the world and of the world—with the same values, faith, and politics—and we operate from the same zone of trust and honesty. We’ve always been able to communicate easily and openly about our relationship. Still, advice from an expert is always welcome, and I was curious to see how someone else navigated the waters we were about to enter. I should mention that Wendy and her second husband each had two sons when they remarried—all of them teenagers.
THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE OVER EXPERIENCE: A Memoir of Remarriage
By Wendy Swallow
296 pp. Hyperion.
Her book was a comfort to me, a survival guide, user’s manual, and road map all in one. I have recommended it countless times—and not just to second couples—anyone in a relationship will benefit from reading it. Regular followers of this blog already know that I’ve cited Wendy’s wisdom before. One of my favorite quotes appears on the “Secrets to a Happy Relationship” page, which you can find at the top of the blog. When I began formulating the editorial objectives for The Midlife Second Wife, I determined that mine would not be the only voice you would hear; a section devoted to interviews with experts was therefore essential. Wendy Swallow is the first person to whom I reached out. I’m pleased and honored that she agreed to do this interview. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation, which took place on Thursday, December 1, 2011:
Wendy, thanks so much for participating in this interview. I’ve been looking forward to our conversation for some time. So have some of my readers. One of them sent me this e-mail:
I’m not in midlife … and not a second wife, but I’m having thoughts and fears of a second marriage. I’m 43 and said that I would never remarry, but I have recently found someone who I would consider marrying and I’m scared as hell!
Based on the research you did for your memoir of remarriage—and based on your own happy experience—what do you say to people who are genuinely frightened by the prospect of “stepping off the cliff and hoping to be able to fly?”
Those fears need to be taken seriously. That doesn’t mean you give in to them, but you listen to them and examine them. You have to trust your gut on this stuff, but you also have to really believe strongly—and the research bears this out—that the people who do best in a remarriage are those who have really worked to process what happened in their first marriage and their divorce, and who have grown from those experiences. That means perhaps going into counseling, accepting your role in what did not go well in your former relationship and where those problems lay, and in your ongoing relationship with your ex—even if the person that you left seems mostly to blame for the marriage’s failure from your perspective. Everybody has to look at how they contributed to the marriage not working out—even going so far as to ask why you married that person in the first place. This is especially true if you have children. I believe strongly in this. I don’t think it’s an easy process to go through. But if you want to grow and be able to marry again, this is an important piece of the puzzle. You have to keep those lessons in front of you. Researchers find that people who do not do well in remarriage never really learned the lessons of their first failed marriage. The statistics for second marriages succeeding are not great. And for those who remarry a third time, the odds that that marriage won’t work increase, and they go up for each subsequent remarriage.
I know. The numbers are pretty grim. Your reminder that we learn the lessons from our past experiences is critically important. What other conscious decisions must a couple make, and what actions must they take, for their second marriage to have a shot at success?
One of the things Charlie and I told each other early on was this: “I just want to be clear: I’m not rescuing you.” We were mostly talking to ourselves. We married our first spouses because we wanted to help them be more stable in the world. After my marriage ended, it ultimately became more important to me that I be really stable and happy in my single, divorced life. I knew this for myself, but I wasn’t sure that Charlie saw that.
There’s a moment in the book where I write about how we went to counseling with a minister. At the very first session, she managed to surface the whole issue of money, because we had a wealth disparity in our relationship. It wasn’t a bad thing—we didn’t think that money was something we’d have to spend a lot of time worrying about. But we had slightly different attitudes to this disparity in our relationship—we had two alien cultures coming together—and we recognized that it could create challenges in the future. It took—it always takes—compromise and communication to work those things out, so having these counseling sessions helped us; even if you think you know what you’re doing, a little premarital counseling can go a long way.
I want to return to the topic of compromise, but first I have to say something about premarital counseling. In our case, that train had left the station; that’s why I was so glad to read your book. How risky is it to take on a second marriage without going through couples’ therapy first? What advice do you have for those who are leaving it to their own devices?
I do think there’s a lot of good literature out there, and many excellent books that deal with stepfamilies, so there are a lot of resources. You can get counseling in various ways. A wise, good friend can be helpful. Definitely you have to talk to each other.
Before I left my first husband, I remember talking to a friend who remarried. I asked him what worked in his second marriage that didn’t work in his first. He said that when he married his second wife, he told her, “If you have a problem with something I’m doing, tell me right away. Don’t let it snowball.” That was their mantra.
I really thought about that. If you establish that you can talk about the difficult issues together early, then that’s good.
Very early on, our kids got into this habit that we worried about at first: drinking milkshakes at 10 at night and watching South Park in the kitchen. At first Charlie and I hung around, but then we realized they had more fun without us there. So we started taking our dog out for a long walk while they had their time together. It was perfectly natural; we didn’t like South Park. We’d leave the house with the dog for those long walks, and that was when we could talk without people hearing us or wondering why we were huddled together and whispering. We were both working full-time and running all over D.C. with these kids to play practice, SAT prep—we had very little downtime with each other—so those walks were very helpful in giving us a chance to download. His boys would bring their issues to him, mine to me; kids communicate with their own parents, mostly. Sometimes there were things I needed to know, and I wanted to anticipate what level of support was required of me.
That’s a great example of using every opportunity to keep the lines of dialogue open. Let’s get back to the subject of compromise. It’s undoubtedly important, but is there such a thing as too much compromise?
I think you have to trust your gut. You might agree to compromise on something but it doesn’t sit right with you. Trusting your gut has two actions:
1. Listening to your inner feelings, and assessing those feelings. How fair are they?
2. Acknowledging that there may be something you either need to bring back or learn to deal with. Which is it?
It’s not enough to listen to your gut—you must assess your feelings. Let your rational, less emotional brain think about it. Once you’ve done that, ask yourself what you really think will be different after your compromise—what outcome are you looking for?
There’s a famous moment in our family when we all learned a lot about compromise. My youngest stepson, Sam (the second-youngest of the boys) was advocating for a cell phone; he went to a school that was farther from home than the others. We worried about the cost of four cell phones, thinking that if we got one for Sam, we’d have to get phones for all four boys, as they were close in age. It begged the question: Who is ready for something, and who isn’t?
Each boy got his own computer when they started high school; before that, they had to share. And they would be taking their computers to college. We thought we were being fair and equitable. But after much discussion about the cell phone, Sam turned to us and said, “Can no one be special anymore?”
The truth is, each boy was different and had different needs, but we were trying to homogenize everyone. Benjamin called it “the kindergarten effect.” When we all moved in together, I had a cubby for each boy, color-coded toothbrushes and towels. The boys saw it as infantilizing. The house would have run more smoothly if the Wendy-scheme had worked, but the boys weren’t in that place.
Sometimes you set out with a plan that you think is fair and equitable, but life is a lot messier than that. The boys picked up on the fact that we wanted to be fair and equitable—and they appreciated it—but we were also able to articulate that within the family, some had specific needs.
The lesson is, compromise is a double-edged sword. Sometimes an imposition of the will of one person over the other has to be negotiated.
Here’s another compromise-related question, and a timely one, with Christmas only two weeks away: How do you handle the holidays?
In the early days we had a little trouble, because although Charlie and I tried to organize things well in advance, not all parties involved were planners—they would do things at the last minute, or not consult with us, so the matter of who was even going to be with us was often up in the air.
We did okay, though. One of the things we decided early on was that because our kids were teenagers, we were not going to pretend to make a happy family out of the six of us just because we were cohabitating. Both our sets of boys spent time with their other parents. Both of us had joint custody, which was nice. Sometimes we just had his kids, sometimes just mine, sometimes all four, sometimes nobody. We’d have four different alternatives in a two-week period. My older sister, who is a minister, says, when something is stressful:
“I’m trying to hold this lightly.”
This Christmas we’re expecting to have all four boys together for the first time in four years; all four of them without other people. We’re still waiting for word on the fourth and hope we get him. But we’re “trying to hold it lightly.” If it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world.
I learned from my first marriage that the good moments in life are not necessarily going to happen on a designated day. Many wonderful moments take place on completely average days.
The other thing is, we really didn’t want the kids to feel the stress of two families on the holidays, so we would accept that the kids were happy with the parent they were with. We’d have a night two weeks into December where we did something special together, like decorate the tree. We learned to get very flexible.
People get into trouble when they have a preset romantic notion of how something should look, whether it’s marriage, or what a holiday is supposed to look like. Life is way more variable. What is precious in life is not a perfectly decorated tree with all people in their seats at the table. Life can be messy.We’ve had holidays where we didn’t even put lights on the tree. It just has to be good enough as it is.
Whatever it is, Charlie will always say, “Let’s make this fun.”
Our first Thanksgiving in a restaurant was kind of sad for me; it wasn’t with my big family. Charlie found this cool restaurant and we were seated way up high. It was a lovely experience, but partly it was because he said “Let’s just make this a really cool event they’ll always remember.
One day we were trying to choose a movie to rent, deciding which one would be the most fun. The boys said, “Let’s do several movies!” It wasn’t what I had in mind, but I took Charlie’s line and asked myself: “Is there some way to have fun here?
Compromise again, which takes negotiating. Pro and Con lists are great tools for that—especially for working through big decisions. For a couple about to get remarried, what in your view are the top three things that should appear on the Pro side of their ledger? And what top three items on the Con side of the list suggest trouble ahead?
On the Pro side, I think that these must be at the top of the list:
1. Both parties need to be tolerant, patient, mature, and capable of self-examination.
In my first marriage, I didn’t understand how mature I had to be in the world. In my second marriage, I learned, partly from working for many years, that there’s something about the business world that enables most people to deal with people even if they don’t like them. A lot of the attributes about how we behave outside of the family can help us be better members of our own family. I don’t think I should give voice to all of my angry moments. I do a lot of waiting, so I don’t feel so strongly about the issue and can then address it with my more mature self.
2. Each person needs to be truly loving. They have to really love each other—love all of each other—the whole ball of wax.
None of us are perfect. We will all disappoint each other at times. But who is really there for me? And who am I really there for? Charlie and I didn’t get married for three years; we didn’t make any rash movements. I had worked so hard to recover from my first marriage that it took my brain time to catch up with my heart in order to accept him with all of his baggage. I knew that it was going to take time. Research bears this out: Rapid remarriage is dicier statistically than thoughtful, careful remarriage.
I knew that there was a whole process that Charlie had to go through—that he and his ex had to go through—without me coming in.
3. Your kids have to be in a place where they will be able to cope with your remarriage.
Charlie and I did not move in together before we married—not for moral or religious reasons, but because I was not going to ask my children to be at the kitchen table with a stranger every morning unless I was sure that this was a permanent thing. And his kids were really not ready; it was a little harder for them when it did happen because their parents’ divorce was more recent.
Not all kids are going to be ready for their parents to remarry. I know marriages that have sort of gone forward without everyone at the table. It’s not that they won’t be successful; it’s just that things will be tougher. It can be painful. I’ve watched a couple of families whose kids went into battle mode. Our own kids did not need to make us unhappy; they were very relieved that their parents were happier once they remarried.
Now, for the Con side …
1. Any impulsive behaviors
One example of an impulsive behavior would be getting together when it is motivated by something other than “this is the smart thing to do.” One thing I found in my research is that women are more likely to remarry partly to solve financial problems. Many women come out of a divorce living a more reduced life, and they struggle significantly. Women are somewhat motivated by financial concerns; who can blame them? But if that is the main motivation, that’s a problem.
Another impulsive behavior is getting married in the first blush of love before you know who somebody is—acting impulsively towards remarriage rather than thinking it out carefully and taking the time to know who you’re marrying. When you remarry, it’s not just the person you’re marrying; it’s their larger family. It’s their baggage. It’s their divorce.
2. Wrangling over property and money from early on in the relationship
We’ve all heard stories of someone who married a person who dictated everything, including where they will live, because the person they are marrying is very established in their lives and their career. If one party is having to give up everything and the other is not giving up anything, that’s destabilizing. It makes you wonder why they’re not compromising. One area where this comes up in a big way, even subconsciously, is property.
When the kids and I moved into Charlie’s house (partly for financial reasons) there were advantages. It was closer to my job. We would be only two blocks from my ex, which was a huge boon for my kids. But it was their house. When we moved my stuff in, I put it all in the living room, then I asked for a shelf or two. We worked it all out, negotiating so that decisions weren’t made automatically and arbitrarily. If one person in a proposed remarriage is unwilling to compromise on some of this stuff, that’s a problem.
The issue of property is interesting. When I was interviewing people for my book, I met one couple that fought because the husband needed a home office and he took away his young step-daughter’s playroom. By the time I’d met them, she was a grown woman who no longer lived at home, but she still hadn’t forgiven him. It’s all about territoriality. People identify certain things, rooms, and buildings with different stages in their lives.
3. The person you remarry doesn’t share your basic values and integrity
Here’s another thing I learned from my divorce. My ex and I had less trouble deciding about how to deal with our kids afterward because he’s trustworthy. He had issues, but trust was never one of them. He never once missed a support payment. He never stood the boys up. We shared the same values on education and on who the boys would become. We shared the same religious life. We shared the basic values.
If either party lacks integrity, then there’s going to be a lot more distrust in a marriage, and trust is the most important thing. You have to really know a person to know if they’ve got a spotty trust history.
Wendy, you’ve written a book about divorce and a book about remarriage. Do you have any plans for a third book about relationships?
I never really meant to write a memoir to begin with, and then I wrote two even though I thought I shouldn’t write one until I was 80 and my parents were gone. I don’t think I’ll write another book about relationships; I’m not really sure I have anything more to add to the literature at this point. I’ve just spent four years writing my first novel. I’m working with my agent, and hoping it will be published in the next year or so. Part of me wants to do more non-fiction. We now live in Nevada half of the year, and I’ve become very interested in climate change, especially as it relates to the West. When my kids were young, I had all sorts of story ideas in my head about families and kids with issues. Maybe if I ever have grandkids …
You’ve now been remarried for ten years. What would you tell your younger self if you could travel back in time to the eve of your wedding?
Wendy Swallow is an author and journalist who recently retired as an emeritus professor of journalism after nearly 20 years of teaching at American University in Washington, D.C. She started her career as a reporter and editor on the financial desk of the Washington Post, covering the savings and loan crisis, local business, and regional environmental issues. In academia, she researched and wrote about advertiser pressure on newspaper coverage and the influence of new technology on journalism. More recently, she has turned to writing about family issues. She has published two books with Hyperion, Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (2001) and The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage (2005). In addition to many newspapers, her work has appeared in MORE, Washingtonian, Ladies’ Home Journal, Readers’ Digest, Parenting, The National Journal, Washington Journalism Review, Journalism Quarterly, Journalism Educator, Newspaper Research Journal, and Extra! She is currently working on an historical novel and divides her time between homes in Reno, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. She and her husband Charles Shepard have four grown sons.