By Ginger Kolbaba
Several years ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. Of course, it rocked my father’s world. But it also rocked my world and my mother’s world. Dad received countless phone calls, cards, and an outpouring of support. I received nothing.
Just because I wasn’t the one whose body was overtaken by enemy cells didn’t mean that I wasn’t experiencing tremendous pain and anxiety because of it.
The same idea holds true in a remarriage. Experts everywhere report to us about how we need to heal from our divorce and how we need to watch, counsel, and help our children grieve. All true. Yet no one offers support to the new spouse in a remarriage. And new spouses need to grieve too.
I remember how surprised I was when I discovered I was mourning my loss in my marriage. I thought, How can this be? I’m not the one divorced, my husband is. But I realized I do grieve. And, more often than not, I grieve alone.
We grieve for our spouse’s pain.
First, of course as a new spouse, I grieve for my husband and his loss. I love him and don’t like to see him in pain. I see when he’s feeling sad. I see the distress he carries because his daughter has lost a dream and innocence. I grieve when I see his less than ideal situation with his ex-wife.
I know he carries scars that run deep and that no matter how hard I work, I cannot heal those completely.
I grieve for him because, as his “other half,” I now help to carry his burden.
With a divorce comes a void, a deep sorrow for the loss of the dream of a family unscathed. It’s normal to feel these effects long after the marriage has been dissolved. It’s even normal to experience some of those feelings into a new marriage. There are times when it’s okay and normal to grieve the loss of what once was. My husband may not grieve the relationship or the person, he may grieve other things that he had in that relationship: the loss of the future, the history, the traditions, the friends, the memories, even the neighborhood.
I try not to feel insecure when I watch him mourn his loss, because I know he loves me. Yet I realize our marriage wasn’t his ideal. It’s become that now. But it wasn’t his first plan. And I ache for him.
New spouses hurt when we see our loved ones in pain. And we stand by feeling helpless because we can’t take that away.
We grieve for our own pain.
In high school, I was crowned Miss Akron TEEN, and went on to become a finalist in the Ohio state pageant. But I didn’t actually win the Miss Akron TEEN pageant the night of the pageant. I won first runner-up.
Then, a month or so later, the dream came true. I received a phone call from a pageant representative who said the winner had relinquished her title and I was now the “it” girl. I became Miss Akron TEEN.
I received the crown and all the privileges that came with it. Parades, photo ops, and a chance to go to the state pageant. Free modeling lessons. A college scholarship.
There was only one small problem: I never got to hear anybody announce my name as the winner. I never heard the applause. I never had the opportunity to walk down the runway, bearing the falling crown over my bouffant-hair-sprayed coif, the sliding Miss Akron TEEN banner, holding the roses, doing the wave, throwing out kisses from my well-manicured hands, crying, and saying, “Oh, thank you! Thank you!” as I swooned.
Nope, I just received the phone call. The banner, crown, and trophy were mailed to me.
Whenever I talked about that pageant, I never mentioned that I was a winner by default. People knew me as the beauty pageant winner. And that’s what counts in the end. But I know the truth: I was a runner-up.
So why am I reminiscing about my pageant days? Because I realized that pageant is the story of my marriage. I’m a runner up wife. I’m not a “first” in my husband’s life. I’m a “second.” And, technically, I’ll always be a second.
Yes, I get the crown and all the privileges. The parades. The photo ops. A great trophy husband. But I never got to experience the applause of being announced as the first.
His ex-wife experienced the “firsts” with him—first walk down the aisle, first love, first sexual experience, first house, first child, first promotion, first car, first gray hair.
He has an entire history that doesn’t include me. He knows people and has friends who know him in relation to his first wife. There are moments when I mourn that. When I mourn the loss of my dream to be the first. While those times are fewer and fewer now, every once in a while that reality re-emerges and reminds me of my loss.
Understanding your spouse’s grief.
The first thing to recognize is that, just as a divorced person may grieve at times for years or decades, so may the new spouse.
The reality is that grieving has no time limit. When your spouse withdraws or becomes quiet or angry for no apparent reason, it may be because he or she is dealing with the grief of loss. The important thing is to offer a lot of grace, love, kindness, and affection. Doubling efforts to show the new spouse that he or she is loved and wanted does wonders for the grieving process.
How can you help your spouse mourn in a positive, constructive way without wallowing in the pain?
1. Let your spouse acknowledge the sadness of what he or she misses. “The biggest step for me was to recognize and admit what I was feeling,” says Darla, who was married for ten years. Once she recognized and could name it, she knew she could work through it.
There are two things that are key to healing. The first is, don’t be afraid of pain. If we want to be healthy again, we have to face our pain. Facing the pain head on isn’t as bad as we fear it will be. Yes, it hurts, that’s why it’s called pain. But many people medicate their pain with work, business, alcohol, drugs, pornography, television, romance novels. The problem is that when the book is finished, or that hangover wears off, the pain is still there. The only way out of pain and into a life of freedom and healing is “through” it.
2. Steer clear of self-pity. Talk about the positives of this marriage. Yes, it may not be the ideal in the firsts department, but there are many, many good things to appreciate about this marriage—that the first one never had.
3. Pray about it. Shelley would pray, “God, I’m feeling in a funk over my former marriage. Would you help me process this positively, help it not to affect my current marriage, and help me to put it in perspective, then move on?”
4. Don’t neglect your current marriage. While it’s okay to feel sad, be careful not to allow your grief to affect your current relationship.
“Sometimes I felt like a mistress to my husband,” admits Sally. “He was so distraught over his ex-wife and how she left him, that I didn’t feel he was totally committed to me. He grieved, and grieved, and grieved, and left me alone.”
Sally’s marriage suffered a lot of stress and tension because her husband was unable to balance the grief with his new wife’s needs.
5. Talk, but don’t vomit. Talking about the past and the loss of dreams is an important thing to do for your marriage. But don’t get so caught up in talking about the past that you miss the joy of the present. In other words, choose carefully what you say to your spouse, rather than spitting out everything you’re feeling and thinking. Use some discretion. If your spouse is already feeling insecure over his place in your heart, it’s important to make sure you’re honest about what you are feeling, but it’s also just as important to validate your mate.
Often it helps to say positive things about your current spouse before you spill the beans about the funk you’re in. Rosa would tell Harry, “I love you. I love this marriage. I’m so glad I’m with you, and I appreciate how much you care about me. Right now, though, I’m feeling a little sad about my loss from my previous marriage. I’m just grieving a bit over the dream, not over the person. I bet you’re probably grieving over your losses too. There’s no reason for you to feel insecure or to feel as though you’re less in my heart.”
6. Speak healing words. Not long ago I shared with Scott about how I sometimes felt like the first runner up in my beauty pageant. That was a vulnerable moment for me. I wondered, What if I share this with him and he tells me I’m being overly sensitive or foolish? That I shouldn’t feel this way?
He listened quietly, and nodded as he understood. Then he said the most healing thing to me. “You’re right,” he told me. “You’re not the first. But you have something my first wife never had. You have my trust. You and I share a maturity, a respect, and a love that I was never able to have with her. That makes our marriage much more rich and blessed in my eyes. In that way, you are the first. You may not be the first in those other things, but you’re the winner.” And that’s what counts in the end.
It’s important that we allow each other to grieve. While we may not totally understand, while we may not completely like it, when we allow our spouse to mourn honestly and openly, we allow them ultimately to draw nearer to us.
Sometimes, it helps just to listen. Sometimes it helps to touch a hand, an arm, a cheek. Ask your spouse how you can respond in a way that would be the most helpful. Your spouse will appreciate your concern, and will be more open to you and the remarriage.
Be aware that second spouses can sometimes feel insecure in their relationship so it can become tricky to grieve properly. “I didn’t want him to grieve because that meant he loved!” admits Sally. “I know it sounds selfish, but I wanted him to focus on me only and forget completely about his past.” Eventually she discovered that if she allowed and encouraged her husband to mourn his loss and be honest about the pain, their marriage could actually be stronger.
“I can’t believe for so long in our marriage my insecurity actually caused Matthew not to heal,” admits Sally. “That was wrong of me. I wish I had encouraged him long ago because we would be further along now in our marriage.”
7. Don’t blow things off. Try not to be reluctant to hear your spouse grieve. Your reluctance will only stop him from grieving. And the depths of his emotions will stay frozen and stuck, which means they won’t be available to you either. Instead, think about the apostle Paul’s words: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy. … When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 11, niv).
Do yourself and your marriage a favor. Don’t be afraid of hurting. It will get better if you allow yourself and your spouse to feel the pain.
Adapted from Surprised by Remarriage. Ó2006 by Ginger Kolbaba. Used by permission of Revell Books.