Avoid saying “I Do” the second time around

I spent my 30th birthday looking at rings. Brilliant—and pear-shaped—diamonds sparkling in platinum bands. But it wasn’t the frothy fodder of a romantic novella. Two months post-divorce, I wasn’t ogling gems with my husband, but rather a girlfriend who held me up as I numbly inspected settings into which the rocks from my erstwhile “eternity” band could be wrenched and rearranged. Just like my life.

As Debra Messing navigated the travails of new singledom in the series The Starter Wife, she almost made starter marriages sexy. They’re not. No one intends to have a “first” marriage. We don’t plan for Marriage: The Sequel. Still, many of us find ourselves young, divorced and staring down the barrel of starter-wife syndrome, which still hasn’t earned DSM classification (a.k.a. the modern mental health bible—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but should, since it comes with acute, painful symptoms, not the least of which are fear, shame and embarrassment. In fact, almost 40 percent of Canadian marriages end in divorce, which means there are literally millions of divorced women populating the cities and towns of this country. OK, so I am not uniquely qualified to dispense wisdom on how to avoid the pitfalls of a first marriage, but rather am part of a highly dysfunctional starter-marriage sisterhood whose initiation rights alone make this a family you don’t want to join. Still, I survived. Indeed I thrived. Now 12 years into a second marriage, I’m here to spare you starter-wifedom. I’ve learned a few lessons on my way to—and from—the altar.

CHANGE IS GOOD Heraclitus said: “You cannot step twice into the same river.” What the pre-Socratic philosopher king is trying to tell us is that change is constant. The river continually morphs as it flows and, wading out into even deeper waters, so do we. Life is about change—situations change, circumstances change and, unless you are sleepwalking through your life, you will change, too.

The key to navigating change, say Toronto-based marriage therapists Georgine and Martin Nash, is simply acceptance. But there’s nothing simple about acceptance. “It’s a quantum leap,” says Martin. Adds Georgine: “When we’re dating, we’re constantly measuring, determining how well a mate lives up to our expectations. It’s a conditional framework. And that’s fair—when you’re dating.” But when we agree to marry, the measuring has to stop as life partnership begins. “One of the biggest problems in early marriages is that people don’t stop evaluating—minute to minute, day to day,” says Martin.

Choosing not to measure behaviours, not to tally or keep score of letdowns, is a shift so seismic it moves unions safely out of starter marriage territory. It’s an apotheosis that will virtually guarantee the longevity of the union. Is it easy? Absolutely not. “There are going to be disappointments—no one is perfect and everyone lets us down in some way,” says Martin. “But you know how people always say you have to work at marriage? It isn’t about work, it’s about having the right attitude—and when that attitude is ‘I’m not going to fire you, you aren’t going to fire me, and we’re going to solve problems together,’ well, magic happens.”

Be evolutionists. Instead of simply expecting change, invite it. Encourage your partner to be a lifelong explorer. He’ll do the same for you.

“How Not To Be A Starter Wife” has been edited for FLARE.com; the complete story appears in the September 2010 issue of FLARE magazine.

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