The Thinker

Is marriage naturally better the second time around?

Our next-door neighbor Suzanne passed away unexpectedly six days ago. On Monday she was complaining about her gut hurting. On Tuesday she had a four-hour surgery to try to repair an intestinal blockage. She moved from surgery to critical care. On Wednesday afternoon she was dead, her husband Bill became a widower and everyone on our little cul-de-sac was in a state of shock and grief.

Yesterday I went to the local funeral home to pay our respects and to celebrate her life. We’ll be trying to come to terms with this for a long time because Suzanne was a terrific neighbor: always friendly and helpful. She made our little street a real community. Her New Year’s Day parties were renown here in our 55+ community.

It seems kind of crazy to feel loss, as we knew her only two years, but we do. The night of her death, I slept fitfully at best. She and Bill were an item and were one of those crazy, always-together, supremely happily married couples that are actually hard to find. When not traveling they could be found daily on bikes or long walks, and when walking were hand in hand. There was a tangible intimacy between her and Bill that just radiated from them. When Bill told me the story of his first date with Suzanne ten years ago, his voice picked up and his face glowed. At her funeral he said without a doubt that their ten years together, eight of them married, were the best years of his life.

The truth is I was more than a little jealous of Bill and Suzanne’s relationship. It was the sort of marriage most of us aspire to have but don’t have. It was also second time around for both Bill and Suzanne, having divorced or lost spouses. I’m 32 years this month into my first marriage and don’t plan to change the situation. Still it’s obvious that my marriage can’t compete with theirs. I married a fellow introvert. We love each other and now that we are retired obviously see plenty of each other. We share some passions like Star Trek and politics but mostly inhabit our individual universes, intersecting mostly in the morning and at meal times. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Yesterday at the wake I chatted with many of the couples present. Without exception they agreed that Bill and Suzanne were exceptionally well matched. Their marriages could not compete.

I have noticed of those couples whose marriages I think are exceptionally intimate, they all seem to be second marriages. Thinking through the marriages I know well, like those of my siblings, all still on their first marriage none of theirs resemble Bill and Suzanne’s. Bill and Suzanne were an older couple (I was shocked to learn Suzanne was 81; she certainly didn’t look it) that nevertheless seemed eternal newlyweds. There was such an honest passion and intimacy between them that it seemed somewhat surreal. And it carried over to their larger lives. It touched us as next-door neighbors. It was like their house at the end of the cul-de-sac radiated happiness and warmth.

The cause of her death appeared to be due to an earlier cancer that went into remission, but which left her intestinal wall thin. She had the bad luck of having an obstruction at the spot, which tore the wall, which caused peritonitis. These days you sort of expect people to die slowly, at least from natural causes. When I heard she was in critical care I figured it was nothing to worry about. Someone with such spirit of life as Suzanne would doubtless pull through.

But she didn’t. Bill seems to be handling her death pretty well, expressing deep gratitude for their time together and hope they will meet again in some nebulous afterlife. Here’s hoping, Bill. Ten years of the kind of relationship you and Suzanne had should have more than filled your cup to overflowing. Perhaps that’s why Bill is handling it so well. He knows he was blessed to have these years together with her. What remains is a sense of profound gratitude rather than the deep loss I expected. Perhaps the loss will manifest itself in Bill in time.

There may be something to this second time around being better. It makes a lot of sense when I think about it. What are the odds that a first marriage will actually last a lifetime? Consider that most marry young and that both are thrust into adulthood, usually with children to quickly follow. There are so many natural tensions to deal with in a first marriage: jobs, kids, aging parents, aging people with changing needs, likely unemployment somewhere along the journey, general societal stress, siblings, toxic coworkers and maybe bad neighbors. That so many first marriages survive at all is amazing, although it gives us no insight into the quality of these marriages. I know in my case, having a life partner is deeply gratifying. With our daughter all grown up and with both of us retired, this phase of our marriage is quite sweet. We are hardly alone. It’s a phenomenon psychologists know well. Remove a lot of the stressors from a marriage and its overall quality will likely improve.

Still, I think there must be something about a second marriage that by its nature will make it likelier to be better than a first marriage. It’s likelier that fewer marriage stressors like kids and jobs will exist in a second marriage. Hopefully you have a chance to reflect on what you did to stress the first marriage and take corrective action in the second one. Most likely you will be more focused on shared interests and compatible natures than beauty, Donald Trump being the exception. Those of us in first marriages deal with the marriage as it has evolved over a very long time. We know our partner as intimately as you can possibly know someone. What you eventually end up with is someone imperfect and with foibles just like you.

Perhaps in a second marriage these imperfections become easier to overlook as they take a long time to discover. Maybe that in some part explains Bill and Suzanne’s good fortune together. Or perhaps you get a better sense of the spouse you need now since the rose-colored glasses are off. The spouse you had then doesn’t quite fill your criteria anymore.

My own father remarried late in life, and had five years together with my stepmother before passing last year at 89. I don’t know if it was a better marriage than the 55 years with my mother, but it certainly was a different marriage. It allowed my father to grow in his last years, which was good, and gave him the companionship he craved.

Should I also suffer my father’s fate of being a widower and choose to remarry, I won’t be surprised if I find that it sweeter. By no means would I say this is because there were things about my spouse that were unlovable. But just as a plant that is repotted in fresh soil often perks up, I suspect people can too. Should I predecease my wife, I certainly hope she finds a new love. It would give me pleasure to know that someone else would have the joy of her presence if I cannot.

As for Suzanne, you are already missed and have left a hole in our lives. It will never quite be the same.

 

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