Sometimes my marriage seems unreal. Not in a gushy “I married Prince Charming, this is a dream come true” way, but in an “I’m not sure this counts as a real marriage” way.
When we said “I do,” eight people were standing at the altar. Eight people with lives in progress. Eight people healing from loss. Eight people with wildly different feelings about what was happening and what had come before.
We married in the middle of our lives. Gabe and I were already both full-time parents to three busy little ones each, balancing those responsibilities with our corporate jobs. Our households were fully established, with stocked kitchen cupboards and standing carpool rotations.
First marriages start much lighter. Only two people make promises, usually at the start of their adult lives, unencumbered by much of anything. The early days of my marriage to my first husband, Billy, were filled with late-night movie marathons and early-afternoon brunch dates. We had no joint responsibilities and very few individual ones. We had time to dream together, to talk about what we each wanted out of our life together. In those conversations, all things seemed possible.
Gabe and I talked about getting married, to be sure, and we dreamed some. The difference is that the time between our dreams and reality was much shorter. My first husband and I started talking about raising teenagers nearly 20 years before our oldest hit that milestone, and we had to put our money where our mouths had been. Gabe and I talked about raising teenagers, got married, and were in the thick of it.
Our established lives as single parents meant that many of our choices as a new couple were made for us. We didn’t look for the home of our dreams — if we had, we’d be in a 100-year-old Victorian in a small riverside town. Our housing criteria — seven bedrooms, a strict budget, in my kids’ school district but at the northernmost point to ensure a short work commute for Gabe — narrowed our choices to two houses. Two. One that looked like it had recently been used to manufacture meth, and the one we bought. I sold a car I loved because we needed a vehicle that seats eight. Our jobs, once changeable should a whim strike, are required for soccer fees and college savings and health insurance.
First-time newlyweds establish ritual and tradition together, choosing where to go for holidays and how to celebrate milestones together. Our rituals and traditions for our first year were a jumble of hand-me-downs and required appearances. Carving out space for our new family was challenging.
First families enjoy wild, unabashed cultural support. Wedding and baby showers abound, and social media feeds explode with pictures of new couples, new life. Second families are born of brokenness, tinged with failure, and that mutes celebrations.
“You’ve already been married,” a co-worker explained to me. “No need to make a fuss.”
Never mind that Gabe is unquestionably the love of my life. Never mind that this time I actually knew what I was committing to and still joyously pursued that choice. My second marriage feels more authentic than my first in its foundation and my soul-to-soul relationship with my husband, but the world hasn’t seen it that way.
When my oldest son joined me and my first husband, he did so in the realest sense. His birth tied me and Billy together for the rest of our lives. Last night in the kitchen, that 16-year-old baby told me about a particularly tough history passage he was studying. As he talked, he ran his hands through his curly hair and became, for an instant, the Billy I loved in college. Sharing our children from the moment we heard their first cries is a bond unbroken by our divorce, and one we’ll share forever. Gabe and I won’t have that.
Second marriages also have a much larger cast of characters than any first marriage. Gabe and I interact regularly with our exes and their new spouses, former in-laws, and current in-laws. Decisions made by two people in first families are often made or influenced by four or more adults in stepfamilies. Summer vacation scheduling starts in January around here because of all the parties involved. Co-parenting is a daily reality. Generally, those in first marriages don’t interact regularly with former flames, perhaps for good reason.
It’s no wonder that 67% of second marriages end in divorce. The differences between my first and second marriages are stark — less freedom to make decisions, less social support, fewer ties that bind. Gabe and I have many more people involved and much more daily work to keep our world spinning than Billy and I did in our early years together. I sometimes don’t recognize this as a marriage without the markers of dreaming, building a family, defining ourselves as the center of our universe.
Gabe knows I worry that we aren’t building anything together, that we aren’t “real.” He knows I feel the lack of social support keenly and am weighed down by the complexity of our lives. He’s heard me quote the statistics, and quietly assures me that won’t be us. He tells me about the land he saw advertised that will work for our river house and smiles when he says “just 10 more years.” He reminds me that this family we’re building started at a different point than first families do, but will emerge strong and healthy. He makes time for us to get away alone together and make memories that belong only to us.
Gabe is my partner, helping me adjust my perspective and redistributing the load when it feels too heavy. This marriage, different in every way from our firsts, is authentic. It is unquestionably, remarkably real. And Gabe is my fairy tale hero.