Should second marriages come with a warning sticker?

This photo makes me smile. Taken at the Oxford Union debate earlier this year, it pictures Harry Benson and me. Harry is the founder of the Bristol Community  Family Trust, which provides marriage preparation courses. He also works with the right-wing think tank, The Centre For Social Justice.

I am no fan of The Centre For Social Justice, but Harry and I share some common ground. We both support marriage. Like him, I also support efforts to save marriage – although by the time I become involved, it is often too late. At the Oxford Union, although I was happy to argue that the institution of marriage was “outdated”, I didn’t argue that there is no point to marriage.

Recently, however, I’ve started to move away from my usual position. Seeing new clients recently, I have noticed that a high proportion of our new instructions are from clients who have already been married at least once before, and who are determined to end a second or a third marriage.

We already know that a second marriage is slightly more likely to fail than a first marriage. Even so, the proportion of instructions is significantly higher than usual.

Is this a coincidence? Or has the recession hit such couples particularly hard? Many of these clients have told me of depleted asset values, higher debts, failed businesses and so on. Perhaps the economic downturn has affected the prospects of marriages which, statistically, have always had a higher failure rate. Perhaps these marriages would have ended anyway.

I have begun to wonder: is a second marriage genuinely worthwhile? Or should couples be advised against second marriages, partly because of the increased probability of divorce, but also because of the potentially serious fallout if the marriage does fail?

In my experience, the recipe for the breakdown of a second marriage is often as follows:

  • The parties have children from a first marriage, and perhaps grandchildren too.
  • They had not known one another for any great length of time before getting married.
  • They have high expectations for the marriage and for their new partner, which remain unfulfilled.
  • Within a short time, each party realises that the second marriage was a huge mistake.

In some cases, the breakdown of the marriage is prompted by guilt: at least one of the spouses has left a partner to start again. That guilt, coupled with a desire to be with children who may have rejected them and are now growing up without them, can sound a death knell for a marriage. Too much bad blood. Too much blame. Too much baggage.

Some second marriages break down because the gilt on the gingerbread wears off faster than it did the first time around. Once the courtship is over and the ring is on the finger, spouses stop playing the roles of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.

It also strikes me that in many cases, the parties are less dedicated to working through their problems than they might have been the first time around.

Perhaps they are bruised by past experiences, and are quicker to accept that leopards don’t change their spots, or that the marriage has indeed broken down irretrievably. Either way, they certainly seem to instruct lawyers more briskly than “first marriage” couples. Hence I am seeing broken second or even third marriages, for which the marriage duration has been that much shorter.

It gets worse.

When a second marriage breaks down, the consequences can be more acute than the parties suppose. After all, if it’s a relatively short marriage, then surely the financial settlement can’t be that bad?

Unfortunately, as I’ve explained previously, it really can be that bad. The parties are older, and their reasonable needs must be fully considered and provided for. Marriage turns two people into a legal partnership. Assets are up for division and, where needs must, assets acquired before the marriage cannot be fully ring fenced. Divorce can often require the wealthier party to make provision for the poorer party, for the rest of that person’s life. This can mean provision of a mortgage-free home and maintenance or a lump sum, sufficient to last a lifetime.

Clients are aghast when they learn that following a short marriage of say, five years, they may have to pay what they consider to be a disproportionately high settlement. In a lot of cases, clients have spent their lives prudently accruing wealth and, until the marriage, almost all had been destined for their children and grandchildren.

In many cases, a second marriage has seemed to me, an objective bystander to be an almost bizarre, and clearly avoidable, mistake.

So would I recommend marriage the second time around… ever?

I’m not so sure that I would. A marriage founded upon guilt, or upon unrealistic expectations, can founder. Once the romance has worn off, what is left?

Taking a detached, legal perspective, it is true that there are tax breaks from which older couples can benefit if they marry. These can include inheritance tax and capital gains tax exemptions. But are these enough to offset the risk?

Some of you will think that a prenuptial agreement is the answer. Again, I am not so sure. Lawyers pitted against prenups will keep getting cleverer and cleverer, no matter how the law may change. It’s their job. Older and wiser, bitten once… Surely it is better to have the freedom to walk away, than to have to test the validity of a prenup, making reasonable provision by will for a former partner to avoid a claim on an estate?

Could it be that older couples, brought up to believe that marriage is the “gold standard”, are now discovering (again) that it isn’t?


ObiterJ - June 15, 2011 at 6:14pm

I am afraid that I tend to agree with your excellent analysis. Cynical as it perhaps sounds – Why bother? Live your lives as best you can and keep your separate houses / assets!

Fortunately lawyers do not have to advise them whether to get married or not but can advise of the many potential pitfalls if they do. One item they also often forget is the little matter of the wills they have already made.

Marilyn Stowe - June 15, 2011 at 6:27pm

Its sad don’t you think?
The aristocracy have got it spot on. Everything of value is tied up in trusts, the next generation will inherit (even if the inheritance turns out to be a poisoned chalice) and they can live their lives safe in the knowledge that nothing can alter the intended course of the assets.
There’s a lot to commend in that if you happen to be rich.
But if you don’t?
Im overwhelmingly coming to the decision;-
Don’t give in to temptation, no matter how tempting, dont …get married again.
But marriage is sacrosanct isn’t it? Or is it?

Lukey - June 16, 2011 at 2:48am

I just made a slight adjustment:

“Don’t give in to temptation, no matter how tempting, don’t.get.married.period.”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist 🙂

Of course I agree with the premise of your article but taking into account the statement above I would wouldn’t I !

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 10:57am

Would like to put the other POV. My Mum and Dad divorced in 1984 and my Mum remarried in 1985. She is still married to that person (2nd marriage) and has been a big success and she is a lot happier than she would have been had she not remarried.

I do agree with you on the aristocracy point, especially knowing a few – I am going to stay in an Earl’s castle next month for a week.

Seems the way to go. So we all move our allegiances away from marriages and towards our families. Thus, rather than buying and selling houses, perhaps it is advisable to own and rent them out with the proceeds and ownership belonging to a trust and this is an on-going thing. Will ensure family’s wealth doesn’t go walking (like the Earl’s castle didn’t when he divorced).

Perhaps that is the lesson of no fault divorce and how to protect your family from it.

That said, I don’t think I will be getting married anytime soon. I do not see the point. Indeed I specifically won’t vote for a political party (as I didn’t) who poke their noses in my family affairs, (inc. tax breaks) thus not Cons or Lab for the time being, go the Liberals! :-).

That said, wrt the protection of the children by marriage, well, I don’t think large settlements for stay at home Mums encourages the blokes to hook up. The future I think is to do what the Earl did and I agree with you in that.

btw wrt csa and paying twice, if you go to the csa they will cancel the cm element in a court order and attachment to earnings with 2 months notice automatically without having to make a court application.

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 1:57pm

I have read Harry’s site. He makes no mention of couples who are living apart together. Thus according to him I do not exist, charming. I do not mean to sound so aggressive.

Anyway, not for the first time, I mention that we are in need of poorer role models who have made a go of marriage. Harry seems to talk about marriages between businessmen and women and people with big incomes.

All you guys, yourself, Harry, Frank Fields, Dave Cameron, Dept Work Pensions Special Committee, etc. well, don’t mean to be nasty, but you’re hardly lacking a few bob. You also are not at all representative of the people you are trying to preach (for want of a better word) to. Appealing to the man in the street is what is needed and the man in the street knows men taken to the cleaners in divorce, this is not addressed either.

There is an absolutely massive disconnect between the law makers and the people on this subject. They continue to vote with their feet and not get married, you continue to bury your head in the sand.

My idea, well, I wouldn’t start from here. But I think the only idea I have which I would propose would be to scrap the csa and put it back to the courts. Thus encouraging marriage.

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 2:00pm

Don’t you know there’s a (marriage) strike on? A rhetorical question.

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 5:22pm

The non clip on Bow ties say it all really! If you know how to tie one of them then you aren’t really in a position to tell the man in the street to get married.

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 5:29pm

Or the wonderful dress. If you wear one of them then you aren’t really in a position to tell the man in the street to get married, or not to. Most people listen to their friends and relatives rather than lawyers and experts on this subject. Thus I don’t intend to make the mistakes those around me have warned me of. I’d be a fool to follow what Harry says (no offence).

It’s like putting your money on a horse that a pundit recommends. You’d rather know as much about the pundit as possible and have complete trust in them. Thus to go to friends and relatives is the advice I’d give.

Trusting politicians and the media. Not many do. I think that is a fairly non contentious point.

To John. To influence people, you have to manipulate them without them noticing instead. You can’t rely on them to trust politicians or journalists or experts anymore post Iraq.

It’s like the default on driving licenses being on the organ donor register now. Don’t know what the expert term is for it, but I hope you catch my drift. I now am on the donor register for example, even though I probably never would have been if government was waiting for me to volunteer.

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 5:30pm

Meant, To Harry, not John.

JamesB - June 16, 2011 at 7:46pm

p.s. Yes, I think he does look fairly angry with you at that moment. I’m sure he’s fine with you now though.

Tulsa Divorce Attorneys - September 11, 2011 at 11:28pm

I agree with you Marilyn, marriage is outdated but it does still serve a purpose.

Paul Gilson - November 29, 2012 at 8:46am

You both look wonderful despite Harry’s rather stern stare. I’m sure it’s just paternal concern for you.

Was this second time round for both of you?

JamesB - November 29, 2012 at 1:10pm

The theory I was searching for was nudge theory earlier. Like putting the default setting as yes to the donor register on the driving license for example.

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