Learning From the Past, Altering the Future: A Tentative Theory of the Effect of Past Relationships on Couples Who Remarry
By Brimhall, Andrew Wampler, Karen; Kimball, Thomas
Using grounded theory methodology 16 participants, each in a second marriage as a result of divorce, were interviewed individually and with their partner. Participants were asked to describe how their first marriages were currently affecting their second. Trust was the central category that emerged. From this central category 3 additional categories surfaced: lack of trust in the previous relationship, attempts to increase trust while dating, and presence of trust in the current relationship. Participant feedback, internal and external auditors, and the existing literature were all used to validate the results. A tentative theory, complete with provisional hypotheses, was developed that could help clinicians address some of the challenges described by couples who remarry. Keywords: Remarriage; Trust; Couple relationship; Grounded theory; Divorce
Fam Proc 47:373-387, 2008
Generations of research on children of divorce have revealed that children suffer when conflict exists between parents (both pre- and postdivorce; Ahrons, 2007; Amato, 2003; Grych, 2005), and children lose access to a parent (Cookston, Braver, Griffin, De Luse, & Miles, 2007). Based on these findings, divorce scholars recommended that ex-spouses establish amicable coparenting relationships (Adamsons & Pasley, 2005; Ahrons, 1994; Amato, 2000). While this level of cooperation is crucial for children, it may negatively affect remarriages (Buunk & Mutsaers, 1999; Ganong & Coleman, 2004; Knox & Zusman, 2001). One example reports how remarried wives experience less marital happiness, increased thoughts of divorce, and more regret about remarrying when they perceive an attachment between their current husband and his ex-wife (Knox & Zusman, 2001). Other scholars indicate that the impact of the past relationship on remarriage depends on the type of relationship between ex-spouses (Ahrons, 1994). Most agree, however, that former partners likely “have a psychological presence in the stepfamily household, which can affect couple dynamics” (Ganong & Coleman, 2004, p. 77).
While current findings report the outcome of past relationships on couples who remarry, relatively little is known empirically about the interpersonal processes remarried individuals face as they integrate these relationships (Bray, 1999; Coleman et al., 2000; Ganong & Coleman, 2004; Ihinger-Tallman & Pasley, 1997). Understanding how a first marriage influences a remarriage is a complex process. Instead of manipulating single variables in an attempt to explore relationships of cause and effect an approach was needed that could explore, describe, understand, and explain these underlying complexities (Charmaz, 2003; Hylander, 2003). The purpose of this research was to use grounded theory methodology to explore process-level information that could guide future interventions for clinicians working with couples who remarry.
The sample consisted of 8 couples (n = 16 individuals) in a second marriage following a divorce. All participants reported being married for
Telephone screenings were completed to ensure participants met the selection criteria. If they did, participants were invited to an interview at a family therapy clinic. Based on a pilot study, it was determined that participants would be interviewed individually and then together as a couple. This allowed participants to openly discuss experiences they felt uncomfortable sharing in front of their current spouse while simultaneously providing the depth of multiple perspectives. During individual interviews, the nonparticipating partner filled out a demographic questionnaire asking them questions regarding both relationships. Participants were interviewed as a couple after both individual interviews. Individual interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes and couple interviews 30. The first author conducted all of the interviews.
Participants were informed that answers would remain confidential, even within couple interviews. Participants were given as much time as necessary to answer each question and at times were asked to clarify and/or expand the response. Questions focused on the past relationship, its impact on the current relationship, and participants’ reactions that were similar and different between both relationships. The interviewer remained open and provided cues that encouraged participants to continue exploration.
The goal of the couple interviews was to provide each partner an opportunity to share how their partner’s past relationship was impacting their current relationship, as well as discuss the transition between relationships. Although in general questions remained the same, some modifications were made. For example, the question “What advice would you give others going through a similar transition?” was not added until the fourth interview. Modifications were made based on previous interviews, postinterview notes, and discussions with the internal auditor.
Demographic Information for Participants in the Study
Data analysis began from the onset of the first interview and ended once saturation occurred (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). During an initial reading of the transcripts in vivo codes were highlighted. In vivo codes are “catchy terms that immediately draw our attention to them” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 115). Based on these codes, a preliminary analysis was completed. In a separate email, each participant received two preliminary analyses (individual and couple). They were asked to correct anything that was inconsistent with their experience and encouraged to include additional information that emerged since the interviews. The primary investigator called each participant and asked for feedback. Participant feedback was incorporated into the continuing analysis.
After receiving confirmation that the preliminary analyses were consistent, the other three stages of data analysis began. The first consisted of coding each preliminary analysis line-by-line, specifically focusing on words used by each participant. Once a general list of themes was developed (open coding), a table, including every code, was constructed. Next, a within and an across participant analysis was conducted to see which concepts were most consistent. The next task became defining the dimensions, the properties, and subcategories (axial coding) of each category. Selective coding was used to integrate and refine the emerging theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
Based on these analyses, one central category and three main categories emerged. From those categories a tentative theoretical model was constructed (see Figure 1).
Trust in Relationships-The Central Category
The purpose of the central category is to condense the products of the analysis into a few key words that explain the essence of the research. Trust in relationships emerged as the central category because it met the six criteria discussed by Strauss and Corbin (1998), which are (a) it was connected to most of the data; (b) all the participants discussed it; (c) the explanation that evolved by relating categories was logical and consistent; (d) it was abstract enough to warrant additional theory development; (e) it grew in depth and power as it was defined analytically; and finally (f) it explained some of the variation experienced by participants (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 147). Although trust in the relationship was the central category, how it impacted the relationship varied based on three categories.
Category 1 -Lack of Trust in Past Relationships
Twelve of the 16 participants described how the ability to trust their current spouse was influenced by experiences in the past relationship. For example, Bobby said:
I was hesitant about trusting because . . . in the past . . . there was no trust there . . . so that was a problem for us in our marriage at first . . . We were very instinctively protective and cautious because of old memories.
FIGURE 1. Theoretical Model for Trust in Relationships
Bobby’s wife Kay agreed with him and shared her own struggle with trusting again. She said, “[when my ex-husand] told me that he had taken the money I was just slapped in the face . . . the trust was betrayed. I just felt betrayed. And I could never trust him again.” Finally, Jill described her experience by saying, “I just wasn’t as trusting as I used to be.” Participants’ lack of trust varied based on two subcategories: level of betrayal and personal experience of divorce.
Level of Betrayal
Nine of the 16 participants described their past experiences as an act of betrayal. Seven of these included affairs and 2 were related to financial betrayal (see Jill’s previous quote). Garrett, who found out his wife was having an affair, said: [The affair] turned out to be the downfall of the relationship . . . if God can put me through the biggest trial . . . it would be betrayal and that is what I felt . . . it just felt like a Julius Caesar thing.
Not all participants described the events preceding the divorce as an act of betrayal. Three of the remaining 7 participants used a less intense description (i.e., I felt “unstable,” and “I felt like I couldn’t rely on my husband”) while 3 attributed the divorce to a lack of communication.
Personal Experiences With Divorce
It appears that the lack of trust experienced in the past relationship influenced how people experienced the divorce. Three groups emerged from the data: (a) those whose trust was betrayed and as a result had a very difficult time with the divorce; (b) those whose trust was lost several years ago and as a result experienced the divorce as a relief; and (c) those that had a mixed reaction, it was hard but also a relief. Six of the 16 described the divorce as really hard. Frank said, “I took it real hard because when I went into it I gave everything. I put my whole heart into it . . . you drink enough you forget about it but . . . .”
As a result of losing trust in the relationship there were several that emotionally withdrew from the relationship. For these participants (6 of 16), they described the divorce as a relief. According to Hannah, the divorce was, “a relief . . . at least something was going to be resolved” and Ashlee said, “[the divorce was a] total weight lifted off my shoulders . . . no tears were shed.”
The final group (3 of 16) reported that although the divorce was difficult, there was also a sense of relief once it was final. Dee said, “[the divorce] was hard for me to deal with . . . when he finally left . . . I breathed a sigh of relief because it had been so bad for so long.”
Category 2-Attempts to IncreaseTrust in the Dating Relationship
The second category was participants’ attempts to increase trust in the dating relationship. The lack of trust experienced in the first relationship appeared to impact participants’ dating behaviors. The specific behaviors mentioned were marrying “polar opposites,”"been there, done that,” and finding somebody that “just clicked/ felt comfortable.”
All 16 participants described the current spouse as the “polar opposite” of the first spouse. They used descriptions like “the difference is night and day” or they are “polar opposites.” In fact, the only similarity reported by 7 participants was the spouses’ gender (i.e., “they are both male/female”). However, participants varied on whether or not they intentionally chose a partner that was different from the first. For 9 of the 16 participants the decision was deliberate. Many developed a list of qualities from the negative experiences of their first marriages. When asked if she intentionally chose somebody different, Jill said, “Oh you bet . . . I had a pro and con list. Things that I totally wanted to avoid and things that I was looking for.” Similarly, Garrett explained that he “sort of had in my mind what I was looking for as far as qualities and stuff.” More poignantly, when asked to describe how he came up with his list he reported, “It was burned on my forehead [referring to the betrayal from his previous marriage].”
Five of the remaining 7 participants reported that they subconsciously chose somebody different. For Bobby, “It wasn’t something that I necessarily thought about. When you walk into a room and it doesn’t feel right, you walk out. And if you walk into a room and it feels okay . . . you just sit down and go on with life.” Although the final 2 participants agreed that the current spouse was the polar opposite of the first spouse, they did not notice the difference until after the marriage, suggesting perhaps that the choice was subconscious.
Been There, Done That
The other behavior that was common among participants was an unwillingness to tolerate the same behavior they received in the first marriage. Thirteen of the 16 participants reported that if the current spouse exhibited similar behaviors as the first spouse they would end the relationship. According to Bobby:
I’d have point blank addressed it right then and there, [and if it continued?] History, see ya! I don’t want that relationship again. I have been there done that . . . We’re not going to tolerate the kind of crap we did the first time around … I had too much of it the first time. I don’t need it again. She doesn’t either.
Jerry and Jamie share a similar story. They said:
Jerry-Gone! Because [I've] been there done that. I know what it’s like.
Jamie-I wouldn’t wait very long to be out of there or have him out because I’ve been there, done that, and did it too long.
Not only were participants unwilling to tolerate similar behavior, but a few of the partners described how they understood the message being sent. For example, Frank said, “she told me early on some of the things that her ex did and I just made it a point to not act that way . . . I figured if I did I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Although most of the participants reported that they had been there, done that, the level of intensity varied among participants. While many would end the relationship a small minority said it probably wouldn’t be enough to make them leave. Two examples include Barbie and Frank, both of whom said, “I doubt it would happen, but if it did I would say ? don’t like that, don’t do it.’” When asked how it would affect the relationship Barbie reported, “It would make it harder but it wouldn’t be enough to end the relationship.” Frank agreed.
Just Clicked/Felt Comfortable
Finally, 12 of the 16 participants reported that they committed to the next relationship because it “just clicked.” In Frank’s words, “we met and I don’t know. Something just told me here it is. Go for it.” Other participants like D said, “at the restaurant he sat beside me and I felt comfortable with him.” Boomer described how this level of comfort was related to the other subcategories listed above. He said, “Someone who was 180 degrees different from my ex was more attractive to me. So in that way . . . I was able to feel more comfortable with her, and eventually married her, because she was totally opposite.”
Category 3-Presence of Trust in the Current Relationship
The final category was the presence of trust in the current relationship. Despite the participants’ best efforts to marry polar opposites, to not tolerate similar behavior, and to find somebody that just clicked, every participant discussed a time where the trust in the current relationship was threatened. These threats were linked to the past relationship and are discussed under the subcategory physical and emotional reactions. However, unlike the past relationship, the partner did not react in a manner that damaged trust but rather responded in a way that maintained its presence. Other subcategories include (a) acceptance and trust, (b) avoiding similar behaviors, and (c) being open.
Physical and Emotional Reactions
Every participant described a very specific incident where they reacted to the current spouse in a manner that seemed harsher than the situation warranted. When asked to describe the reason for the reaction, the participants linked the current reaction to past experiences. For Bobby, it was the phrase “we need to talk.” He described:
“We need to talk” . . . when my first wife told me that there was hell to pay . . . so when Kay would say that . . . I went off the edge . . . I got psyched up, pumped up, ready for war. I put on the battle armor you know, load the pistol, ready to fight. It was just like ringing the bell for the dog you know, start drooling at the mouth. I mean immediately … it took me awhile to get past “we need to talk.”
Similarly, Hannah explained how an experience in her second marriage was magnified based on the past:
There was one time that [my current husband] got real upset and laid down on the couch instead of coming to bed and I was freaked. I was really freaked at the withdrawal of the physical affection because that is what I had had for 28 years. So that was a real obvious residual thing for me . . . [it] was really magnified because of what I had been through.
Every participant described similar experiences where they recognized that a physical and emotional reaction to the current spouse was influenced by experiences in the first marriage.
Acceptance and Trust
Based on the partner’s reactions participants had one of two options. Either they could respond the same way the partner’s ex- spouse responded (damaging the trust in the relationship) or they could respond differently. Eleven of the 16 participants reported risking again because the partner responded in a way that created acceptance and trust. Richard described how Hannah’s response helped facilitate this process:
The biggest thing is just acceptance . . . I started dragging out all my dirty laundry a piece at a time. And every time [she] was accepting . . . so then it was like “ok if you are not running away because I told you this then let me tell you this” . . . until there wasn’t anything else. And all my secret fears and all the things that haunted me were out on the table . . . I [didn't] want anything to ever come back and haunt me and so I was just completely open with everything.
Hannah described a very similar process during her individual interview. According to her:
Trust was a big issue for both of us . . . and as we opened up little by little the other one didn’t reject the other. And that acceptance . . . just to be absolutely who you are and for another person to think that is just great. It was unbelievable . . . that built trust, a lot of trust.
Avoid Similar Behavior
Not only was acceptance listed as an important aspect of creating trust but 9 of the 16 participants described how they, or their partner, avoided repeating any behavior from the first relationship that was harmful to the second. For example, Olivia reported: I will never cuss at him because I know that she did that . . . he can drive you to the point where you want to just unleash obscenities on him but I will never do that.
When asked to describe her rationale for avoiding those behaviors Olivia responded:
I know what will hurt his feelings and what will disintegrate his trust … she betrayed his trust on a variety of levels with a variety of different outcomes. So I know that he values trust very much . . . and I always want him to be able to trust me.
It appears that avoiding hurtful behaviors from the previous relationship is an important way to maintain trust in the current relationship.
Being Open and Honest
The final subcategory is being open and honest. Eight of 16 participants focused on the need for greater openness from their partner while 8 of the 16 participants focused on the choice to be more open themselves. Kay, who was financially betrayed by her first husband, described how difficult it was to trust Bobby initially and noted how important it was that “he was real open with everything . . . he just opened up and showed me everything and that made me feel a little bit more comfortable . . . both of us have access to everything . . . because I don’t want anything hidden.”
Olivia reported that in order to maintain trust in her current relationship she needed to be more open with herself. She realized that “If I wanted the relationship to work . . . I had to be more willing to be open, to share more of me than I have ever shared with anyone else . . . and do a lot of things that I felt uncomfortable doing.”
Similar to other relationships, it appears that relationships among these subcategories and the overarching category are intricately intertwined. Participants described how even in the midst of physical and emotional reactions to past experiences, they were able to work through potential threats to the current relationship by developing acceptance and trust. This was accomplished by avoiding behaviors that triggered past experiences, and being more open individually and within the relationship.
RESULTS IN THE EXISTING LITERATURE
Validating a study using grounded theory methodology requires using the current literature to confirm findings as well as illustrate any areas “where the literature is incorrect, is overly simplistic, or only partially explains phenomena” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 52). Three areas of current literature might confirm the findings associated with the lack of trust in the past relationship. They are (a) attachment injuries (Johnson, Makinen, & Millikin, 2001), (b) hostility between ex-spouses (Buunk & Mutsaers, 1999; Knox & Zusman, 2001; Madden-Derdich & Arditti, 1999; Masheter, 1997), and (c) gender differences in how men and women grieve divorce (Baum, 2003; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1996).
These different areas of literature might seem unrelated. However, using the central category of trust in relationships provides insight into potential interrelatedness.
For example, due to the length of intimate involvement associated with most marriages, partners can often hurt one another more than anybody else [hostility among ex-spouses] (Buunk & Mutsaers, 1999; Guisinger, Cowan, & Schuldberg, 1989; Masheter, 1997). According to attachment theory, hurt individuals seek proximity to an attachment figure (Bowlby, 1973). If that figure is not available, or worse, is the one inflicting the pain, hurt can be compounded, often referred to as an attachment injury. Johnson et al. (2001) use these guidelines for assessing attachment injuries: (a) the person uses trauma language, (b) he/she speaks in life and death terms, (c) he/ she talks of isolation and abandonment, (d) violations of trust are described and the person takes a “never again” stance, and finally (e) based on this never-again stance the person refuses to risk vulnerability. Consider Kay’s quote shared previously, “the trust was betrayed. I just felt betrayed. And I could never trust him again.”
Whether formally classified as an attachment injury or not, such experiences reinforce the partner’s belief that this relationship is unsafe (Feeney, 1999). How they grieve this loss of trust appears to differ for men and women. For women, it appears that they begin to emotionally detach from the relationship. Although men might also detach from the relationship, they do not seem to entirely mourn the loss until it is final, thus making the divorce process more difficult (Baum, 2003). It is interesting to note that 5 of the 6 participants who experienced the divorce as difficult were men while 5 of the 6 participants who experienced it as a relief were women. Based on the results of the study, and the existing literature, it appears that several components contribute to the lack of trust in the past relationship. The level of betrayal and experiences with divorce are supported and enriched by the literature on attachment injuries, hostility between ex-spouses, and gender differences in mourning divorce. Overall, it seems that the intense hostility, anger, and thoughts of retaliation between ex-spouses might be explained by the fact that the person who was supposed to treat you the best was the one who hurt you the most (Buunk & Mutsaers, 1999; Masheter, 1997; Stokes & Wampler, 2002).
Although there is support for attempts to increase trust in the literature, the amount of research is significantly less. One study that specifically focuses on the difficulties faced by remarried partners is Stokes and Wampler (2002). They observe:
A spouse who has remarried someone believed to be “totally opposite” [polar opposites] from the previous partner may continuously compare the behaviors of the new partner to those of the previous spouse, alert to any sign that the pattern of behaviors is similar [been there/done that]. Discovery of such parallels in behavior between the ex-spouse and the new spouse may lead to temper outbursts, frequent arguments, feelings of inferiority or selfconsciousness [physical and emotional reactions], along with a growing feeling of hopelessness about the future, (p. 103)
Although the quote by Stokes and Wampler does an excellent job of describing a difficult internal process faced by remarried couples (which is supported by this study) it fails to provide couples direction on how to manage that dynamic. Thus, the importance of the final category in this model: the presence of trust in the current relationship.
According to Scheinkman and Fishbane (2004), past traumatic events result in vulnerabilities that can “remain sensitive to the touch” (p. 281). When interacting with a new partner, participants may react “to the actual or perceived hurtful behavior of the other person in an automatic way, as if the present situation is in essence the same” (Scheinkman & Fishbane, 2004, p. 282). Consider Hannah’s quote shared previously, “[her current partner's response] was really magnified because of what I had been through.” How the new partner responds may determine whether the trust in the current relationship is compromised or enhanced. The likelihood of a partner responding positively may be enhanced by their ability to understand the “overlap in meaning between the present and the past” (Scheinkman & Fishbane, 2004, p. 294), thus helping current partners adopt an open and accepting stance.
ESTABLISHING VALIDITY OF THE RESEARCH
Comparing the results to the existing literature was an important step in establishing validity. However, additional steps were required to ensure that the experiences of the participants built the theory. These included participant feedback and input from an internal and external auditor.
Although all 16 participants confirmed the preliminary analyses, 6 participants agreed to read the final results and commented on the accuracy and the usefulness of these findings. According to them, reading the results helped them realize they were not alone and that other couples experienced similar difficulties.
Internal and External Auditor
The primary investigator met regularly with an internal auditor to discuss the interviews, the emerging data, and any necessary changes based on the data. Additionally, the internal auditor was given copies of all the transcripts, the preliminary analyses, a list of codes that emerged, and the final results. He randomly selected 2 participants and read the materials. Based on his review, the categories were consistent and he could follow a logical path from the data to the results (Charmaz, 2003; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
The external auditor reviewed the same materials and provided a similar conclusion. According to her report the results were “well written” and “did a good job of categorizing the participants’ experiences.” She also reported that the model was “clear and logical.” Her feedback resulted in renaming one code; the “been there, done that” code initially was coded as “not tolerating similar behavior.”
VARIATION AMONG PARTICIPANTS
Although trust in relationships was the central category for all participants, its impact on the current relationship varied. One aspect of solid theory is its ability to find variation among concepts. Two participants will be compared, highlighting the variation that exists according to this model.
Based on Jill’s experiences there seems to be an intricate relationship among the categories. Her first marriage was described as “hellacious” and left her feeling like she “had to get away or die.” As a result she believed she would “never marry again” because she “put up barriers” based on the fact that she “wasn’t as trusting as I used to be” [major impact of past relationship on attempts to increase trust]. Based on her lack of trust she was cautious about dating and extremely deliberate about choosing a spouse who was different from her first ( see quote under polar opposites). Despite these attempts, she still experienced intense reactions when dealing with Jack, her current husband. She described these reactions: “why am I acting like I don’t trust him when I do . . . Do I think he is going to what-turn around quickly and hurt me? . . . he is not going to hurt me” . . . and I thought well it’s because in the past somebody WEIS so ugly and so rude to me and told me ugly things about myself and really damaged my self image that when I feel ugly . . . I am super ultra sensitive and I need extra nurturing and extra hugging . . . then he goes out of his way to do that. But I have to warn him ahead of time . . . it’s a trust thing.
As she expressed these reactions, her current husband responded by being completely open and was adamant about not repeating similar behaviors [major focus on maintaining trust in current relationship]. If her experiences were to be diagrammed using the theoretical model described above, the categories would show significant overlap.
Although Ashlee reported marrying somebody “completely different,” for her the impact of the first relationship was not as devastating. It was simply “a matter of putting it on paper . . . I mean no tears were shed.” Because of that, her decision was “probably intentional” and she was looking for somebody who “would love me for who I was and not for something that I was supposed to be” [minor impact on attempts to increase trust]. Furthermore, the physical and emotional reactions she reported did not trigger the same amount of intensity described by Jill. For her, she would have “been concerned” if her husband acted the same way as her ex-spouse but it would not have ended the relationship. While it was important for her second husband to be open and honest the necessity was less compelling. Based on these variations the amount of overlap among categories appears smaller for Ashlee than Jill. Using the theory presented above to compare these experiences might yield the following results: Figure 2. Because variation exists among participants, each experience could be diagrammed in a similar fashion.
FIGURE 2. Variation of Categories Among Participants
Five tentative hypotheses were developed based on this emerging theory. First, the greater the betrayal in the first relationship the more likely that person is to describe an experience like an attachment injury. Second, a person who is dissatisfied in their first relationship is more likely to marry somebody they perceive as totally opposite from their former spouse. However, Ganong and Coleman (2004) warn about the process of cognitive dissonance that remarried couples encounter. It could be that participants describe a partner as different because they do not want to admit they have made another mistake. Additional research is necessary in order to test this hypothesis. Third, spouses who are perceived as totally different will trigger fewer physical and emotional reactions than spouses who are perceived as similar; especially for those who experienced acts of betrayal in the first marriage. Fourth, when emotional and physical reactions occur the partner’s response will have one of two effects: (a) they will respond in a similar way, thus increasing concern and decreasing current marital satisfaction, or (b) they will respond differently thus increasing satisfaction and minimizing concern. Finally, fewer physical and emotional reactions will be associated with higher marital satisfaction and increased trust in the relationship.
As with most theory this process is not linear and often results in one hypothesis influencing another. This process continues as the theory deepens and becomes more elaborate. The following is a possible explanation for how these hypotheses are interrelated.
Lack of trust in the past relationship, and the ensuing divorce, were the specific set of conditions that created the circumstances to which the participants responded. Based on these experiences participants took “strategic actions/interactions” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 133) to increase the likelihood that they would experience trust in the new relationship. It appears, based on the experiences of the participants, that the greater the betrayal in the first relationship the more likely the participant was to be adamant about intentionally choosing a “polar opposite” as well as being more vocal about not tolerating similar behavior.
It appears this stance also influences the partner’s response. Partners, knowing the participant “has been there, done that,” resolve to avoid behaviors that are similar to the participant’s ex- spouse. Sensing this willingness to respond differently, the participant feels accepted; which in turn might enhance the current level of trust. Seeing the positive outcomes this behavior evokes, participants become more vocal about behaviors they dislike and the positive amplifying feedback loop is reinforced. On the other hand, if the partner exhibits behaviors that are similar, then fear arises that this relationship is going to be similar to the past and the participant might question the relationship. These interactions seem to mirror the process described by Deutsch (1973) that writes, trust is “confidence that one will find what is desired from another, rather than what is feared” (cited in Rempel, Holmes, & Zanna, 1985, p. 95).
IMPLICATIONS FOR MARITALTHERAPY
Although trust is a central component of marital relationships (Feeney, 1999; Johnson et al., 2001), it appears that establishing trust in the new relationship is especially important for remarried couples. How clinicians facilitate the development of trust in the new relationship will vary significantly depending on two variables: (a) the stage of development and (b) the level of betrayal in the previous marriage.
Stage of Development
If a person is recently divorced and presents to therapy with the goal to overcome the negative impact of the divorce, clinicians may want to consider several options. First they may want to help the client explore the events leading up to the divorce, paying particular attention to any feelings of betrayal and/or abandonment he/she experienced. Discussing these experiences may provide clients with insight into experiences, words, and/or behaviors that may trigger a physical and emotional reaction in future relationships. By increasing awareness, and dealing with these reactions ahead of time, clients could become less emotionally reactive and more likely to adopt an open and honest stance when approaching a future relationship. In essence, this process can help them decide what they want in their future relationship instead of merely reacting to the past.
If clinicians are working with remarried couples, they may want to focus on helping the couple recognize physical and emotional reactions that have already occurred or that are in the process of occurring. By highlighting these experiences clinicians can provide couples the opportunity to respond in a way that enhances positive interactions and reduces the deterioration of trust. They can help couples understand the historical context of the reaction, facilitate adoption of an open and honest stance, and help partners learn what behaviors to avoid, thus enhancing the presence of trust in the current relationship. The focus of therapy should be on building trust; with specific attention given to responses that increase each partner’s level of acceptance and help each partner maintain an open and honest position. In this way, partners can send the message that this relationship is different and existing problems can be resolved.
Even though the level of betrayal from the previous relationship may not impact the focus and process of therapy it may impact the intensity. In their article on attachment injuries, Johnson et al. (2001) discuss how an attachment injury can occur when “one partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring in times of danger or distress . . . it is characterized by an abandonment or by a betrayal of trust during a critical moment of need thus defining the relationship as insecure” (p. 145). They state that a common reaction to this type of betrayal is the person adopting a “never again stance” that prevents them from risking vulnerability in future interactions. Working with a client who is unwilling to risk does not change the focus of treatment (exploring past hurts, future triggers, etc.) but potentially the length.
Another form of clinical intervention that might be useful for clinicians to consider based on this research is group therapy with couples in a second marriage. Six participants read the final results and each of them described how much they appreciated hearing other participants’ stories. Hearing the stories helped normalize their own experience and helped them realize that their relationship was successful. Based on this feedback, group therapy focusing on the impact of the past relationship on the current marriage may be an effective intervention with remarried couples. Additional research is needed to support this suggestion.
IMPROVING THE CURRENT THEORY
Even though significant attempts were taken to achieve theoretical saturation, the theory that emerged is still tentative and should be used cautiously. In order to build on the current theory three things need to occur.
First, the current theory needs to be improved. All 16 participants were Caucasian, heterosexual, and from a small metropolitan area in the southwest. Furthermore, only 4 participants reported having children in the home, which might have directly impacted the level of contact participants reported having with an ex-spouse. Seventyfive percent of the participants reported little, if any, contact with their former spouse. It is assumed that this percentage does not represent the typical remarriage and could have impacted the current findings. Therefore, in order to improve the current theory additional research needs to be conducted. Specific steps should be taken to include couples from different ethnic backgrounds, couples who have more contact with an exspouse, and couples with children in the home. Adding these components may clarify existing categories or provide entirely new ones. Second, the current theory needs to be expanded to include other types of remarriages. All 16 participants classified themselves as a person who transitioned from a dissatisfying first marriage to a satisfying second marriage. The tentative theory that emerged from this study should only be applied to couples who meet this description. It is possible that three other types of remarriage exist (i.e., satisfying to satisfying, dissatisfying to dissatisfying, and satisfying to dissatisfying). A theory aimed at understanding remarriage needs to include all types of remarriage rather than just one.
It is important for clinicians working with couples who remarry to understand two things: the impact first marriages are having on the current relationship (the structure) and how participants vary in the response to that impact (the process). Using this information can assist clinicians in assessing what level of intervention is most appropriate. Implementing the provisional hypotheses listed above, clinicians can begin to address some of the challenges described by couples who remarry.
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KAREN WAMPLER, PH.D.
THOMAS KIMBALL, PH.D.
Saint Louis University, Counseling & Family Therapy, St. Louis, MO.
This article was partially supported by funding from the graduate school at Texas Tech University and by the C.R. and Virginia Hutcheson Faculty Endowment.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Andrew Brimhall, Saint Louis University, Counseling & Family Therapy, 3500 Lindell Blvd., Fitzgerald Hall, Ste. 10, St. Louis, MO 63103. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Sep 2008
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