What Do We Learn After a Marriage Failure?

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Marriage has never been an easy enterprise, and surveys show that the divorce rate is rising around the world. Are people learning from these experiences or are they doomed to repeat the same “mistakes” again?

Recently, members of a local faith community familiar with my book The Judas Syndrome invited me to join a group discussion on marriage, divorce, and raising families. In preparing for the event, I found that recent statistics on these topics are sobering. They suggest that when it comes to marriage and divorce, and especially learning the lessons necessary to eventually make things go better in the future, at least in the United States, divorced partners don’t seem to profit very much from their prior experiences.

According to many studies, almost half of first marriages fail. (Authoritative data for the US are available from the CDC.) Many of the discussion group members readily volunteered that this was likely the result of the mindset of young people who, in their naivete and immaturity, might tend to marry for the first time quite impulsively, for the all the wrong reasons, and without sufficient appreciation of the true nature and purpose of marriage. Participants also felt that it was quite likely that after experiencing a relationship failure, prospective partners might be a little more informed and therefore better prepared to take the next plunge. But the data clearly indicate the contrary: the rate of failure actually increases for subsequent marriages, and significantly so. Around two-thirds of second marriages fail, and almost three-quarters of third marriages end in divorce. While folks might be learning some things as a result of their experience, the data suggest they’re not learning what they need to learn and assimilate to truly profit from their mistakes and make a better go of things should they decide to marry again. As a result, divorced folks not only don’t do better when they marry again, they do worse — much worse, in fact, each time they try.

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I find an interesting parallel with one of the main points I make in my book Character Disturbance about the nature of character pathology. Conscientious, more “neurotic” individuals tend to be relatively hypersensitive to adverse consequence. They tend to react strongly and to become unnerved when things go wrong. They also tend do a substantial amount of self-reflecting and deliberate course-correcting in their anxiety over how they managed to make a mess of things. Contrarily, it’s a prime characteristic of disturbed and disordered characters that they remain undeterred in their style of coping, despite experiencing negative consequences. As a result, they don’t seem to profit very much from their mistakes. Clinicians used to think they simply didn’t learn. Research indicates they learn plenty, they just don’t allow themselves to learn the things they need to learn to make things go differently. As a result, in a manner some regard as the very definition of insanity, they keep doing the same things over and over again, yet expecting different results.

Much of why disturbed and disordered characters don’t learn what they need to learn from their failures has to do with how and where they attribute the causes and sources of any failure. Because of their penchant for “external,” “circumstantial,” and other kinds of distorted thinking; and because they habitually tend to engage in responsibility-resistance behaviors such as denial, blaming others, and minimization they don’t take a step back, look at themselves, honestly assess their ways of thinking about and doing things, and make needed changes. (For more on distorted thinking, see “Undaunted and Defiant Thinking”, and for more on resisting responsibility, see the Series on Manipulation Tactics.) I’ve seen this dysfunctional dynamic played out time and time again over the years in my attempts to counsel individuals with personality and character impairments. They’ll readily assert that the reason their marriage failed was because they didn’t pick the right partner. Believing that, they have the audacity to think they’re bound to do better the next time if only they’re a little more picky about who they hook up with. Of course, this strategy rarely works, and even when the next relationship ends in disaster as well, they’re still reluctant to consider that maybe it’s something about their attitudes, core beliefs, or behavioral habits that’s to blame. That’s where a therapist, if he or she is ever to be of any genuine help at all, must lovingly and tactfully hold up a most unpleasant mirror to the impaired character and allow their penchants for erroneous thinking, poor decision-making, and irresponsible behavior to come glaringly to the fore.

Marriage has never been an easy enterprise. In fact, there’s no human enterprise I can think of that’s of any significant value that’s inherently easy. In today’s culture — a culture that enables, encourages, and even rewards character dysfunction — forging a sound marital relationship is a bigger challenge than ever. Making a marriage work takes a lot of faithfulness, integrity, and determination. Still, everyone makes mistakes. The big question in moving forward and perhaps entering into a new, healthier relationship is whether a person has the attributes of character that might allow them to truly benefit from their mistakes. By the second or third try, divorced parties should certainly be “getting it” with respect to what a good marriage is all about. For this reason, I don’t think the statistics are going to change very much until the phenomenon of character dysfunction is better recognized for the problem it has become and confronted in the way it needs to be confronted, and the socio-cultural factors responsible for its increased prevalence are honestly and adequately addressed.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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