Is stigma keeping twice-married women in unhappy relationships? Here's why it shouldn't.

Jenna* describes life with her husband as "unequivocally happy". The 48-year-old has been married for six years and says life is pretty perfect. For Jenna, it was a case of third-time lucky. 

Just 19 when she first married, Jenna wasn't surprised when the pair separated. She was young, and divorce was no longer something to be ashamed of. It was just something that happened. 

Almost 20 years went by before she remarried. At 38, she was older. Wiser. She'd been with her partner for almost a decade. She felt good about it. 

"I didn't really have any fears as we'd been together for so long," she says. 

Watch: the dating mistakes people make post-divorce. Post continues below.

Video via YouTube.

Things changed on their wedding night though, when he said he wanted children, something he'd always said he didn't want. While Jenna had always hoped to be a mother, she was conscious of her age, and had severe endometriosis. 

"Things began to fall apart when I couldn't fall pregnant." Three rounds of IVF put a strain on their marriage, and her husband had an affair. 

"He told me he was looking to replace me with someone who could have his child. I walked around in a stunned haze most of the time - grieving the loss of my partner, the betrayal and coping with the fact that I'd never be a mum. It was a lot."


Eventually, Jenna's husband became physically violent, and she knew she had to go. 

"I couldn't disentangle myself from the emotional abuse, but once he laid a finger on me, I cut him cold."

Although she knew she'd made the right decision, Jenna still felt ashamed of what she considered another 'failed' marriage.

"It's not something I'm proud of, and I do feel other people's judgement when I tell them," she says. 

"It's funny, you can break up from several long-term relationships over the course of a lifetime and no one would bat an eye, but if you've walked down the aisle more than once, it becomes another thing entirely.

"I'm not sure where the shame I feel comes from, but it's there. Maybe it's because I've 'failed' so publicly? Or that I made these public vows and promises."

Jenna isn't alone, and her feelings aren't without justification. While we don't think twice when celebrities marry and divorce multiple times over, society takes a different stance, often framing marriage breakdowns as 'failures'; this is particularly the case for women.

"This speaks to the view, widely held by many, that it is the role of the woman to nurture, maintain and sustain relationships," says relationship counsellor Susan De Campo. 

"So a woman divorcing for a second time may feel an even greater sense of failure than she did the first time around.

"Subtle, or not-so-subtle messages around 'didn't you learn from your mistakes the first time?' And 'What is wrong with you that you keep choosing losers/duds/philanderers/addicts/abusers etc, with zero emphasis on the negative traits - that are invariably hidden for quite some time - of the second husband'."


That stigma, says De Campo, may lead some women to tolerate poor behaviour or a dysfunctional relationship, to avoid the perceived failure of a second marriage breakdown. 

"Or, (some women) might be inclined to think, 'I survived the first divorce, this one will be easy/easier'."

When I posed the question to a group of women, the responses were mixed. 

Peta* said: "It took years for me to work through the betrayals of people who kept saying 'But he is such a nice guy'. Lucky strike the third time. He has been a brilliant stepfather to my sons and if not, I definitely would have been content to live my life alone-ish with real female friends rather than (remain with) betrayers."

Carly* said: "I found it easy to leave my first husband. I actually think I would find it harder to do with another husband - but 100 per cent because I'm an insecure person who's internalised society's ideas about why a woman might have a 'string' of ‘failed' marriages under her belt."

Sarah* said: "I'm on marriage two and I'd absolutely be more inclined to end that marriage faster, now I'm older, more experienced, and have learned that people really don't change. If there's an issue which is a deal breaker or serious incompatibility, I'm out. I have a friend who is on to marriage three, and the only thing I feel about that is it's pathetic that the first husbands were so awful and wouldn't treat my friend with love and kindness."


For career consultant Sue Parker, who describes her husband as the love of her life, her decisions to leave unhappy relationships only served to empower her, she says. 

"I first got married at the grand age of 19. The second time I was 41. And the third time I was 56," she says. "I finally got it right."

When Sue ended her first marriage, she was just 27. She says she felt liberated by the chance to run her own race. 

"It was both scary and exciting. I had essentially never lived alone, so it was a sense of freedom."

Being young and carefree, Sue dived headfirst back into the dating scene, unhindered by the marriage she left behind. 

"It was life. I believe if something's not a right fit, whether it be a job, relationship, or friendship, you move on. I knew that he wasn't the right person for me and... I just knew I had to find the right person."

At 40, Sue met her second husband. By that stage, she'd had a few partners, even a couple of engagements, but the time felt right to marry again. 

"I think I'd been on the dating scene long enough, and was tired of it. I wanted that permanency again. But it was a total disaster."

While Sue knew leaving the unhealthy relationship was the right thing to do, she did sense disapproval from within her inner circle. That didn't make her feel ashamed though. In fact, she felt proud for having the courage to insist on something better for herself. 

"I think people who know you will get scared of two things. When they see something crumble, they worry if it will happen to them. And if they're in a shitty situation, they may feel envious of your willingness to take a stand."


Sue married her third husband at 53, and says her previous marriages only served to make her feel stronger, and more determined than ever to get it right. 

"I know what a good relationship should be, and I felt like I had some great trial runs and I'd learned from those. I kind of felt like it all made me more appealing."

That's not to say breakups are easy. In fact, they're anything but. 

"Sadness is absolutely appropriate when a marriage breaks down. But what saddens me more, is when I hear other women saying they failed at a relationship. You need courage to say something's not working. When you say 'no' to something, it's never easy, but what's the alternative? We all want to be happy."

For Jenna, the concept of failure is still something she struggles with, but she tries to think of it this way - "Staying in a relationship that's not working is the true failure. Why not give yourself the opportunity to be happy?"

De Campo agrees. She says women shouldn't think of divorce as a totally negative experience - no matter how many times it happens.

"It is definitely better than being unhappy: I recall saying to my grandmother on the eve of her 70th wedding anniversary, 'Oh Nanna, 70 years, wow.' She replied: 'Yes, and it's still bloody awful.'

"Here's to divorce!"

Feature Image: Getty

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