Sex & Relationships

Why Do Divorced Couples Remarry—and Is It More Common Now Than Ever?

It's not you, it's the difficulty of marriage. That and Facebook.

Photo Credit: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock

Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor accumulated a grand total of eight wedding rings throughout her life, but two of them were from the same man.

After meeting on the set of the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra—when they were both married to other people—Taylor and Richard Burton were soon married. They divorced 10 years later, but after reuniting in 1975, their relationship began again, and the two remarried a few months later.

While Taylor and Burton’s two marriages are often referred to as mistakes driven by intense passion, the two are far from the only couple to reunite after a separation. While more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50, the rate of divorce in America is between 40 and 50 percent, according to the American Psychological Association. And while there is no official tracking of divorced couples who remarry each other, a reunion between long-lost lovers is not an uncommon occurrence.

Before this reunion can take place, however, the two partners need to address why they separated in the first place, says Michael McNulty, who is a master certified Gottman therapist by the Gottman Institute. McNulty said many people do not know how to be married in the first place.

“I think what happens to people is often they fall in love with a partner because the partner brings something new to the table,” he said. “Maybe the partner meets some longing that has never been met before, or there is something that really draws the partner into the person they’re interested in. Once partners settle into a marriage and have to make decisions together, they want their spouse to be exactly like them.”

Another factor that can contribute to divorce is emotional estrangement that can develop over the years. Liza Hostetler-Ingalls witnessed this when her parents, who had been together for 20 years, decided to divorce—a decision that took their two daughters by surprise.

“It wasn’t anything that we saw coming,” she recalled. “We just assumed everything was fine. Then we came home one day and our parents said, ‘We don’t want to be married to each other anymore.’ They said they had fallen out of love and wanted other things.”

Hostetler-Ingalls credited her parents’ decision to a midlife crisis. When they married, her mother was just 20 years old. After building her life around being a wife and parent, she wanted to experience a different lifestyle. But after a year of separation, her parents began dating each other again, developing a relationship that continued for a year before they remarried.

“Looking back, it almost feels like it was just a separation and then [they] reconciled,” Hostetler-Ingalls said. “They went through with the divorce, but it was such a short time it feels like they should have just separated and gotten back together.”

More time passed between Jim Kazakoff’s divorce and reunion with his wife. After 20 years of marriage and parenting two children, the two divorced in 2005. Five years went by before they were reunited at their daughter’s wedding in 2010—an event that led to another wedding.

“I thought that it was done,” Kazakoff said. “So I didn’t really communicate except where the children were concerned over the five years we were divorced. When it came time to be together with my ex and all her family, I just decided to put everything aside and love everybody unconditionally.”

A few days after the wedding, his wife emailed asking if he was still single.

“She said that after that weekend, she realized she missed being a family. And after a month of phone calls, we got together and remarried,” he said. “I had thought I was over her, but communicating again resparked feelings. And to me, family is important. I didn’t want the divorce in the first place.”

Even if both partners do want the divorce, the separation can sometimes contribute to the reunion, McNulty said. “It may be that divorce allows partners to get distance from a marriage or try other relationships. As partners do so, they may realize that they have traded one set of perpetual problems with one partner for another set with another partner. They may then realize that their partner was not the problem, but that marriage is challenging.”

Reflecting on forgiveness when building a new relationship, McNulty said. “If partners are unable to forgive one another, all that negativity stays there. If something changes or if they have time away from each other, if they divorce, and see each other in a more balanced perspective, to work more toward forgiveness in the future or maybe as they reconnect... Maybe it’s the distance that they get from one another in the divorcing process that helps them to see one another in a better perspective, in a more balanced perspective and maybe that helps us be more human with one another and accepting of one another and helps them to forgive one another.”

The Hostetler-Ingalls’ and Kazakoffs’ reunions were successful, a fact that didn’t surprise Nancy Kalish, the author of Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances. Kalish said while many people are done with their lost loves, if the separation is due to situational factors, reunions are not out of the question.

“It wasn’t like the romance or the marriage was wrong,” she said. “They didn’t have the skills to work through it—communication, compromising. They’re more understanding later in life. These are people who separated because something happened. Maybe they always wonder, and maybe not.”

Another more modern situation that can lead to reunions between couples is social media, which both McNulty and Kalish said can endanger current relationships by luring people into idealized memories of the past.

“It’s a time machine, and you have one foot out of the machine, into the past,” Kalish said of Facebook. “And you loved that person years ago. Then you have the person you chose with a more mature brain, so what do you do? You’re in a dark quiet room, all by yourself, you’re typing, and you fall into a real-life affair. By the time they come to me, they’re in trouble. They love two people. And that’s possible.”

Emphasizing the dangers of comparing one’s actual life to how others’ lives appear on Facebook, McNulty said people can often compare their current partners to memories of their previous loves. This, he said, can activate personal longings and lead to them projecting onto past relationships and idealizing them. The danger, he said, is that the idealizations are not based in reality.

“They haven’t seen the person in years,” he said. “Intimate friendships that lead to emotional affairs over Facebook that can lead to physical affairs—I think, particularly [for] people who are unhappy in relationships. They almost need to be that much more careful because, I think, it is so easy for one’s unhappiness to be enhanced on Facebook and to start projecting, ‘Everyone’s life is better than mine; no one has the challenges I have.’ That turns into, ‘My spouse doesn’t love me because my spouse doesn’t feel the exact same way I feel about something,’ and it can deteriorate from there.”

These affairs, both emotional and physical, can lead to separation and divorce, as well as a later reunion between partners. But, Kalish said, partners should move slowly when deciding to reunite. The first thing she said partners should think of when considering getting back together is why they broke up in the first place.

“If it has to do with the personality, that’s not changing,” she said. “If the person wasn’t kind to you before, belittled you, controlled you… Are you in a position for whatever happens? Are you married? Are you living with somebody? Do you have a partner who you don’t want to leave? Over 60 percent of the people I talk to now are in these lost love romances, but they’re married.”

Religion played a large role in Kazakoff’s decision to reunite with his former wife. The two, who are practicing Christian Scientists, approached the decision with prayer.

“It’s all about love,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to like what happens, but you still love throughout it. Each individual has to look at the situation that got them to that point and ask, ‘What can I do to repair that?’ If it’s not anything, you just have to continue loving, and we relied on what we call God’s disposal of events. We didn’t try to manipulate. We just let God’s will unfold our path.”

The Kazakoffs’ children were thrilled with their parents’ decision to reconcile, but Kalish and McNulty urge caution when proceeding with a separation or a reunion if children will be affected by it. Both add that it's important to carefully evaluate expectations for the marriage.

“I would evaluate how are they doing separated versus how did they do when married,” McNulty continued. “We come back to the question of children being in the middle of a contentious relationship—[that] is what’s most damaging. If they’re doing better with each other and their conflict has lasted their divorce, I’d think through what has changed that they think marriage will work now. They don’t want to put children back in the middle of a very difficult conflict if that can be avoided. They need to be extra careful that their relationship is on solid ground. That would be very painful for children to see their parents get married and not work all over again.”

Even though she was shocked when her parents first divorced, Hostetler-Ingalls wasn’t thrilled with their decision to reunite.

“Ultimately it was good, and I love that it happened, but initially when they said, ‘We think we’re falling in love with each other again,’ I wasn’t actually that happy,” she said, adding that their separation and reunion all took place during her high school years, and it took time to adjust to the changes. By the time she had become accustomed to her family’s new lifestyle and was preparing for college, she had to adjust again.

Hostetler-Ingalls ultimately planned her parents’ wedding and says she is happy they decided to marry each other again. She urged adult children whose parents are deciding to separate or reunite to remember that their parents are people struggling with decisions as well.

“Just like I’m trying to figure out every day what makes me happy, my parents figure that out every day, too. Just because they decided to have me and my sister and get married in 1974 doesn’t mean they always knew what they were doing and what they wanted,” she said. “They’re extremely human to me in a way that I don’t think they ever were when I was growing up. I guess my advice would be it’s OK to be upset and mad. But also, your parents are people, for better or worse. And it’s good when people try to figure out what they want. And if it leads them away from each other and then back to each other, then that relationship is amazing.

“It’s like they’ve been through the hardest thing that could happen,” she said. “Now it feels very carefree and wonderful and human and messy. I was home for Christmas, and my parents can bicker a little bit. They never really did before. They were one of the couples that never fought, until they did, and then they got divorced. I never saw them fighting growing up. The way they learned to fight and stay together and stay in it is much more human and healthy and wonderful than it ever would have been had this not had happened.

“They know for a fact that they want to be together in their life,” Hostetler-Ingalls added. “They tried it. They’re never going to wonder, ‘What would happen? Are we supposed to be together forever?’ They actually tried it and figured out that being together and messy and human and fighting is better. They both want that more than they wanted to be apart.”

Carey Purcell is a New York-based writer and editor. 

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