Building a successful remarriage after divorce is a common struggle for millions of Americans. What’s the 1 thing you must know?
Why Remarriage After Divorce is So Challenging…
As a Clinical Social Worker who has worked with traumatized clients for the last 12 years, I was often baffled to hear nearly identical Post-Trauma stories.
The level of distrust after a traumatic divorce is usually high (understandably so), but it is also unusually high even with remarriage after divorce. But why are subsequent marriages so challenging?
Remarriage After Divorce and the Re-emergence of a Trauma Response
This level of distrust presents itself in different ways for different partners.
Some spouses, when outside of their comfort zone, whether that’s emotionally, physically, or psychologically, will enter a “hyper-arousal” state.
In this state, they may become obviously anxious, somewhat hyperactive, overly talkative, and in some cases, aggressive and/or impulsive in their behavior toward their partner.
Others may enter what’s called a “hypo-arousal” state, the opposite of hyper-arousal, this partner may become completely disconnected from their body and emotional state mentally.
Many of us often do this without realizing it, such as driving home after work and not being able to recall how you even got home when we do, you essentially emotionally disconnect from the situation, some call it “checked-out.”
For partners who have experienced a traumatic event in their life or series of traumatic events, it can present itself in more severe form and more frequently. It is unfortunately common for someone who has experienced trauma to experience these kinds of scenarios with their spouse as well.
Does Remarriage After Divorce Present Stressful Situations That Elicit Old Trauma?
The answer is yes, according to Dr. John H. Harvey, author of Perspectives on Loss and Trauma: Assaults on the Self, and well-renowned social psychologist.
According to Dr. Harvey’s research, a relationship loss due to divorce or disillusionment is amongst the top 15 types of traumatic losses a human being can suffer from in their lifetime.
Amongst those traumatic losses he also included, are unemployment, homelessness, suicide, sudden losses, violence, war, genocides, etc.
This is evidence that stress incurred during a divorce or the ending of a long-term committed relationship is not to be taken lightly.
Does Remarriage After Divorce Require Constant Vigilance?
For anyone who has experienced what Dr. Harvey acknowledges as a traumatic loss such as a divorce, chances are, your guard is pretty high and for good reason.
Metaphorically speaking; your heart has been hurt terribly before and the brain is armed and ready to protect it from getting hurt again.
One way it does this is by staying activated to detect any form of the potential risk of a recurring betrayal, lie, or any trigger that can put you in a position of shock and despair all over again.
Neurologically speaking: your brain is doing exactly what it is meant to do, it is protecting you from what has been perceived as a threat, in this case, psychological harm.
Remarriage Will Evoke Old Triggers
Our brains are made up of neural-networks linked and connected to synapses of memories of our past.
If your remarried partner begins to show sternness in his voice about something that is upsetting him and before you can catch yourself, you’re raising your voice in defense… all of a sudden you may almost feel like you’re inside a scene of a bad memory from your previous relationship… this is an automatic response to what your brain has recognized as a previously harmful situation, it was triggered (you were “triggered”).
We React in a Similar Fashion…Our Baggage Has Arrived…
We go into auto-pilot and automatically react to defend ourselves from something disturbing. This may have triggered feelings from our previous relationship (based on our brain’s collection of memory associations).
Not only did we react similarly, but we are also now experts on how to defend ourselves in these kinds of situations before they escalate. As a result, it is likely that your reaction in this situation with this partner is far more exaggerated than in your previous relationship.
Our Brain Doesn’t Care If We’re Happily Remarried…It Only Cares That We’re Safe
It’s almost as if your brain, on its own, determined that you needed to “beat this to the punch.” This style of response is a prime example of Brene Brown’s caution about the tendency to “dress rehearse tragedy.”
This high level of defensiveness comes from feeling attacked or from our sense of security being threatened. When we have much distrust in others and, sometimes, even in ourselves, our level of defensiveness may go from 0 to 100 within seconds when our brains are triggered and become activated upon sensing insecurity in our surroundings. This causes us to defend, believing that an attack is currently happening or about to happen.
This is challenging and I empathize with my clients who I see for couples therapy who present with these kinds of automatic reactions.
Know Your Triggers…But Learn Each Other’s Triggers as Well…
I would like to offer some reassurance that as “un-normal” as this may all feel, it is unfortunately pretty “normal.”
You’re entering a new relationship and your heart has felt the pain of a disillusion before, it’s only natural for you to have some skepticism of your new partner.
Another piece of reassurance is the fact that our brain is functioning on survival-mode when it becomes “triggered.”
If you or your partner has experienced a traumatic event in your life, which can also include a previously failed marriage or long-term committed relationship, it is imperative that you learn what your triggers are.
Here’s the 1 thing you must know about remarriage after divorce…Kowing your own triggers, and learning each other’s triggers is a great way to bond and amplify that connection with your partner especially when your partner shows interest in helping you with them.
What is a Trigger?
Triggers can be absolutely anything that reminds you of bad memories or provokes your brain to become preoccupied with past hurts.
It could be the shirt your ex-husband wore when he yelled at you for the first time and now 10 years later you’re getting ready to go out on a date with your second husband and he comes out of the room with that same exact shirt.
What do you do?
The advice in this situation is to first take a deep breath before your brain pushes your impulses to react. Then gently let your husband know that he looks dashing as always and inquire about this shirt. Let him hear your story and why this shirt is a trigger for you.
The best way to manage a trigger is to notice what is happening to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, externalize the trigger, and ask your spouse for what you most need in the present moment to self-regulate.
What is Flooding?
Sometimes the trigger is so overwhelming that it can send you into a state of “flooding” and then a hypo-arousal-like response.
Gottman therapists will use the term “flooding” to describe this state of emotional overwhelm.
You may experience the trigger in a way that leaves you drowning in thoughts, emotions, and images so much so that you have a hard time grasping on to any one of them at the time.
The Problem of Shutting Down Or Avoiding Conflict
The danger here is the “shutdown” response which can then lead to conflict avoidance. While conflict avoidance may sound like a sound coping mechanism, it can later become a habit of repressing thoughts and feelings from your partner. This adds to a sense of emotional disconnection (from self and partner) and feelings of disillusionment with the current spouse can gradually rise, potentially causing unhealthy patterns of communication in the relationship.
As our rates of divorce increase, more blended families are being formed through remarriage after divorce. We are in a time where American society is more accepting and encouraging compassion for those folks going through their second, third, or fourth marriages. We should applaud them for their bravery in seeking out good science-based couples therapy in pursuit of what is best for their families!
Final Thoughts on Remarriage After Divorce
Remarriage after divorce may present an intricate, and complex situation. I call these situations “complexities” and they have a resolution. Together we can find the right resolution to your unique “complexities.”
One aspect that is most challenging for couples, and highly necessary for a healthy relationship, is what the Gottman Institute recognizes as “accepting your partner’s influence.”
I want to end with a quote by Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart:
“What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck.”
Learning your triggers will reveal your relationship’s “complexities” and these could be the key to creating a healthy life-long remarriage after divorce.
It starts with realizing what triggers you, what “complexities” you relate to, learning how to work through them, and in the course of that journey, you become a closer and stronger couple.
I hope that we can get a chance to work together soon!
-Beatriz Alaniz, LCSW-