With the divorce rate in Australia nearing 43%, re-partnering (and often re-marrying) is now very much the norm. In the 1960s, the baby-boomer generation frequently married in their early twenties; today, young people are often nearer thirty before they are ready to tie the knot. Many will have lived together before marriage, thereby getting to know their partner on both good days and bad. This is very different to those of us who married young first time around, often within a couple of years of leaving school; we had very little understanding of our own emotional life, much less that of our partners.

A song made famous by Frank Sinatra begins:

‘Love is lovelier the second time around
Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground’

‘With both feet on the ground’ is perhaps an obvious pre-requisite for committing to a long-term partner. We know that for the first six months of a relationship, a new partner is often viewed through rose-coloured glasses; however, the old marriage vows ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’ sum up well the challenges faced by any couple. For those entering a second committed relationship, there may be an additional challenge: the so-called ‘baggage’ brought into the partnership from previous relationships. While this can include painful emotions, such as hurt and abandonment, children can also be part of the mix.

When a relationship comes to an end, taking time to face one’s feelings is a crucial first step. There may be a temptation for many of us to seek another relationship immediately in order to soothe feelings of loneliness or abandonment, particularly if we are the one who was rejected; however, before committing to a new partner, spending some time getting to know oneself better and understanding why the first relationship failed will improve the chances of a new or future relationship thriving. It is often hard to spend time alone, particularly after years in a relationship or family, but the benefits are considerable. Counselling at this point is highly beneficial.

If there are young or adolescent children from a previous relationship, these must be a vital consideration as many will be distressed by the ending of their parents’ relationship no matter how amicably the split is handled. Where a parent has died, children may not have grieved and may bring their emotional difficulties into the new family. Fairy tales invariably give step-parents a negative image, and many children find it difficult to accept a stepmother or stepfather. They probably have not asked for a new family. Becoming a step-parent, particularly when a child is demonstrating overt hostility, can be confronting and puts great pressure on the relationship. This is particularly the case during adolescence when young people are already dealing with their own turbulent feelings. How satisfying it must be to declare ‘You’re not my mother/father’ when consumed by anger, even when it has nothing to do with the step-parent. I generally explore whether a couple has thought it through: do they need to live together, at this time? Would they be better maintaining two homes for a period?

A couple came to counseling who were still deeply in love, having married after knowing one another for just 9 months. John had a 14 year-old daughter, Lucia a ten year-old son. Both parents expected they would be able to re-create a happy family with no effort. Neither had considered the different cultures the two children had grown up in: John’s first wife was volatile, while he was permissive, indulgent even. His daughter was accustomed to getting her own way, and resorted to angry outbursts when thwarted. Lucia, on the other hand, came from a migrant background and had raised her son strictly. Within weeks, access weekends for John’s daughter were agony for all concerned; not surprisingly she rebelled, vehemently, against the rules. ‘You can’t tell me what to do’ and ‘You are not my mother’ became daily utterances. In an attempt to appease his daughter, John would communicate with her without Lucia’s knowledge, leading to bitter arguments.

After several months in couple counselling, John and Lucia recognized they needed to support one another and to appreciate how difficult the situation was for his daughter. Lucia accepted that she needed to refrain from disciplining her. John’s daughter refused to attend counselling with them, but agreed to see the school counsellor. In a matter of months, access weekends became calm, if not perfect.

Love can be lovelier the second time around, even if sometimes it takes courage and strength to address the issues that arise. However, we can become stronger people through facing the difficulties and enjoy good relationships as a result.

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