Frank Sinatra once crooned that love is lovelier the second time around. For couples who enter a second marriage, running the gamut of love another time is, if nothing, a very different ballgame to the first.

In theory, second marriages should work better. Practise makes perfect, after all, and there’s experience, insights, internalised lessons from the past... All the soul searching and self-reflection, all the mining of the first marriage for golden nuggets of missteps and misunderstandings, blind spots and blunders – they should hold you good when you walk down the aisle the second time, right? 

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But then there’s also the baggage. A second chance at happiness can also mean a second stab at unhealthy relationship patterns brought over from the first marriage.

The potential of the toxicity of the first relationship poisoning the well of happiness of your second one is also present. As a cynic once said, is a second marriage just a triumph of irrational hope over experience?

Smita Parikh and her husband Rajen disagree vehemently. In the second marriage for both, they see their new life more as an opportunity to use the relationship-building skills that they didn’t the first time around.

Meadows residents in their early 60s, the couple have been married nine years after they met in Dubai thanks to a common friend. Both had divorced a few years earlier, and they decided to tie the knot after dating for two-and-a-half years. From day one, ‘we were more tolerant, more understanding and gave each other more space,’ says Rajen, a businessman.

Smita, a homemaker, agrees. ‘In our first marriage, we had high expectations of each other – the difference now is that it’s been scaled back.

‘The first time we were younger, and raising families, and the pressure [to succeed] was high. This time around there’s more clarity, more open-mindedness, more personal liberation.’

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Rajen puts it down to simply being ‘more grown-up now. And you always watch out for mistakes you committed in the past and try that extra bit to make the relationship work, because you don’t want a third, fourth, fifth try.’

It’s a thought echoed by Umm Suqeim residents Anna Yates and her husband Mike, 64. ‘A first marriage is like a Hollywood fairytale with sky-high expectations,’ says 66-year-old Anna, with a laugh. ‘With the second, you start off by being more realistic. You realise nobody is perfect; we all have our histories and issues from our childhood that impact our adult life. You go in with a more mature mindset – a mindset that having differences of opinion doesn’t mean something is wrong.’

Anna, a hypnotherapist and psychotherapist by profession, met Mike, a product manager, in a running club in London. Both were divorcees but hit it off well from the start. Two weeks later, they were engaged, and got married soon after before moving to Dubai.

Any dismal second-marriage statistic can quickly be dispelled here – Mike and Anna have been married for 25 years.

The quarter-century path wasn’t all paved with daisies. After a marital breakdown, pledging yourself to a life of eternal singledom can be tempting. Anna admits she definitely considered it. ‘I came out of my first marriage thinking that’s it, never again. But 18 months after the healing had taken place, I realised I didn’t like the idea of spending the rest of my life without a partner.’

Anna had been in her first marriage for 16 years and has three children. ‘Our split wasn’t mutual, it was my decision,’ she says. ‘I was in a very controlling marriage that I eventually decided wasn’t for me. I’d had a very controlling father, and had a Victorian upbringing; then I went into a controlling marriage.’

Did she enter her second marriage with the pall of the fear of being controlled again hanging over her?

‘A few times, yes. I felt I was being controlled by Mike when actually that wasn’t the case,’ admits Anna. ‘And I would fight against it intensely just because of my past.’

But she also took away from her failed first marriage two key lessons: the importance of respect, and why you should not look outside of yourself for happiness. ‘When I had therapy to give me confidence to leave my first marriage, I realised that you should never depend on someone else to make you happy; that’s your responsibility.’

Anna (with husband Mike) says she brought in a more realistic approach to her second marriage

Gleaning lessons from the past is also what helped Bharati, 37, and Rohit Ahuja, 39, sail forward smoothly in life.

Both had been divorced for a few years but, looking to take the plunge the second time, had registered on the matrimonial website Seven months later they were married.

Bharati, who works in marketing, admits that in the beginning of their second innings, they both revisited memories a lot, often without realising it. ‘It took some time [to stop going back in time],’ she says. ‘Removing the block in your head is necessary before you start anything.’

Over time, as their marriage grew stronger by the day, the room for the past shrunk. ‘We started focusing on what made our relationship special, on keeping that charm alive,’ says Rohit, a manager in Dubai.

And that – keeping the past behind – is just what the doctor orders to ensure a healthy marital life.

‘Grieving and forgiving the loss of an old relationship, releasing negative emotions, being more self-aware and resisting projecting past hurt and pain onto your new spouse can help a new relationship immensely,’ says Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director and counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

Mike and Anna have been married for 25 years

Smita and Rajen, too, did just that. Having lived on their own for about five years after their first marriages ended, the time helped complete the grieving process of their previous marriages. ‘It helped us speed up the process when we met; we were more confident going in,’ says Smita.

Hesitation is normal

Apprehension at the start of a relationship, particularly after coming out of a failed one, and reservations about the future are what many second-time-lucky couples often contend with.

‘You definitely have many reservations,’ says Smita, ‘because you are embarking on a brand-new life for the second time. You wonder about many things: what if things don’t work out, what if you can’t adjust to each other’s habits and routines, what if the kids don’t take to [your spouse]... We also started so late – I was 49, he was 50 plus, so [the age factor] was there to deal with.’

Experts say such misgivings are par for the course. Marriage isn’t easy, and second-marriage couples have to contend with a series of factors that didn’t figure in the first, says Tanya. ‘The projection of issues from a previous marriage onto a new marriage; “blended” families (bringing together children from two families), ex-spouses and concerns about loyalty; co-parenting with ex-spouses and the current spouse; financial strains; anxiety/fear of recommitment...’ the concerns and issues could be many.

Add to this the element of vulnerability, and bringing to the fore hurtful and negative emotions they felt in the first marriage, and it could be a recipe for a rocky start to a relationship.

But communication is clearly one of the best ways to iron out all these differences, say experts. ‘I feel I communicate a lot more than I did in my first marriage,’ says Anna. ‘If I’m not happy with something, I’m not afraid to express that.’

Strong and loving open lines of communication go a long way in sealing the bond in a relationship, Tanya confirms. ‘It is key for a re-married couple to work on and establish their interpersonal communication through trust in their partner. They need to be able to communicate with love and respect by sharing their emotions about how they are feeling, in addition to creating an element of appreciation.’

Smita would vouch for it. ‘Being on the same wavelength and being best friends help,’ she says. ‘Also, we give each other a lot of space. That’s very important – [there are moments when] he does his own thing and I do mine. We don’t have to be together 24/7.’

Bharati and her husband Rohit say learning from their past has helped them build a more happy future
Stefan Lindeque

Despite the space they give each other in the relationship, Rajen says the couple make sure to consult each other on everything. ‘Our fears, apprehensions, dreams – yes, we still have dreams at this age,’ he says. ‘We love travelling together, eating out and watching movies. There are so many common areas, there’s never a dull moment.’

He talks about how setting up a home can often lead to friction between couples. ‘It might often head to a breaking point because they can’t agree on things. But we’ve done three homes together and we’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’d happily do a fourth home with her, and that’s a big sign that all’s right.’

Anna also swears by communication – the two-way kind – and sharing common ground. ‘Things you do together, what you share [is important]. We shared a love for running, but after my knees gave way, we found different things to do together. A lot of times the husband is out playing golf while the wife is stuck with the kids or doing her own things – [a recipe] for trouble. People often ask us why we go to Friday brunches and don’t invite anyone else along. The answer is that we just want to spend time with each other. This seems to be unusual for people our age.’

Give yourself a second chance

Even considering spending her life with another person was something Bharati struggled to accept after her first marriage ended. She was convinced she couldn’t love or trust anyone again. ‘I was so depressed and my confidence hit a low,’ she says. ‘I [felt I could] never have faith in men again, particularly after a traumatic experience in the [divorce] court,’ she says. ‘I met Rohit when I least expected it, when I had zero hope.’

Bharati, however, says that she decided to take a plunge again after some thought while keeping her eyes wide open. ‘I learnt you just have to give it a second chance. You have to mingle again, make friends again – and trust your instincts more than ever.’

Psychologist Tanya concurs. The eyes-wide-open approach in a second marriage can indeed often be easier than the first if the couple has had the opportunity to reflect on their previous relationship and ‘are able to openly and honestly communicate and discuss any past challenging and negative behaviour. It is vital that both partners reflect upon and be clear about their values, their life dreams and their vulnerabilities, and highlight their expectations with regards to respect, trust and communication from the outset.’

For Anna, a second marriage brought with it a shift of focus from what she wanted, to what she didn’t want. ‘In your first marriage you want a lot, and have a very glamorous idea of what a partner should be.

‘The second time around, you concentrate on what you don’t want – you don’t want a controlling partner, you don’t want a non-animal lover. You also realise that people are different and you learn to adapt.’

Factoring in children

Another major concern for couples is wondering how their spouse will adapt to their children and vice versa. Smita says being sensitive to ex-partners was a concern, but not as big an issue as being sensitive to their kids. ‘Rajen had three daughters and I had a son who was 12 [at the time we got married],’ she says. ‘I didn’t commit to Rajen until my son was also ready [to accept him]; it took him two years to do that. But now they get on great.

‘Similarly, Rajen’s daughters took a while to get to know me. Now it’s one big family together. We spend Christmas together, go on holidays together… In fact, we took all four kids along on our honeymoon!’

Anna says Mike took to the kids as if they were his own and moulded himself into the family, ‘the laid-back, even-tempered man that he was. His parents, too, were unbelievably welcoming and took the children on as if they were their own grandchildren.’

Bharati says she wouldn’t have been able to endure her court processes if not for her parents. ‘They stood by me through it all, every single day of it, and that made all the difference,’ she says.

Rohit and Bharati focused on what made the relationship special to keep the charm alive

Just like the family, the importance of a strong supporting cast including friends can’t be underestimated. ‘From our siblings to our friends, we had the backing of all,’ says Rajen. ‘Smita is a very sociable person, and one of her concerns was if I would be accepted by all her friends; she didn’t want to lose them after our marriage. Now her only complaint is that they like me more than her!’

Getting over the past

Both Bharati and Rohit say doing away with the blinkers helped, and accepting their part in their past relationship failures was key to future success. ‘I had a communication problem, I wasn’t transparent or open,’ Bharati admits. ‘Those few years after my divorce when I was alone helped me grow and develop my personality. Now I make sure to discuss things more – you can’t run a marriage on assumptions.’

Rohit says he used to travel a lot in his old marriage, which meant less time spent as a couple. He has made sure to rectify that with Bharati. ‘Whether it’s just by talking about our day or going out just the two of us or socialising together, we make sure to get time in with each other.’

Anna says she and Mike have been married so many years that major relationship issues have been ironed out. ‘Of course we do have arguments due to work stress or whatever, but we [quickly] get over it. Neither of us hold on to resentment.’

For those jaded from a first marriage, just give it another go, Anna says. ‘Look at Zsa Zsa Gabor, she was married to seven men and yet said she never hated a man enough to give him back his diamonds.’

How to give a second chance at love

Deep, personal reflection into what went wrong, ways in which their values were compromised and finding their own sense of peace with the ending of that relationship are all crucial to moving on. These reflections then need to be effectively communicated to the new partner.

There are several ways that couples can interact to ensure they are working towards a healthy, happy and fulfilling marriage:

» Build a culture of appreciation: Appreciate the little things that spouses do, like dropping off the kids to school, taking the car in for a service, bringing you a cup of tea.

» Communicate with open-ended questions: For example, how are you feeling? How do you see this working? How can we move this along?

» Accept that conflict will arise and know how to manage this through communication techniques: For example, have regular ‘check-ins’ with your spouse to see how he/she is, postpone your agenda, hear your partner, reflect what the other person has said, be present with your partner and ask open-ended questions. Do not try to pass judgment or criticism.

» Accept your role as a stepparent if children are involved and understand what that role means: an adult friend, role model, guide but not disciplinarian, which is the role of the parent. This bond does not develop overnight and will take effort on both sides. However, a great deal of stress within the family will be avoided if this is worked on.

» Reflect on any disagreements by sharing your feelings, explain what the disagreement did to you and how it made you feel: Identify what triggered your actions and feelings during the disagreement, own your part in the disagreement and find techniques that the two of you can use next time a disagreement occurs.

» Forgiveness is key: Accept that we are all human and can hurt each other unintentionally. By forgiving you are not excusing the hurt but rather allowing you both to move on together.