British novelist Iris Murdoch once said, “Falling out of love is chiefly a matter of forgetting how charming someone is.”
Could those words help to explain why Marie Osmond, Elizabeth Taylor and Melanie Griffith, as well as thousands of non-celebrities, decided to remarry the spouses they divorced months, years or even decades earlier?
In part, yes, marriage counselors and relationship experts say. In fact, one biological anthropologist is surprised divorced partners don’t remarry each other more often.
“There were real reasons that you were attracted to somebody originally. The brain doesn’t pick willy-nilly,” said Helen Fisher, chief scientific adviser for Chemistry.com and author of the book “Why Him? Why Her?” “Unless you part ways hating each other for some reason, that mechanism could get triggered again. You can literally fall in love again.”
That’s precisely what happened to Amerah Henrene Shabazz-Bridges and B.C. Bridges of Memphis, Tenn. The pair grew up on the same street, and they wed in the early 1960s when they were both in their 20s. (Amerah is almost five years older than B.C., so she jokes that she was “the first cougar.”) Even with the age difference, they were both young and impetuous when they tied the knot. Religious and other differences surfaced about three or four years into the marriage, and poof! They divorced.
They went their separate ways for 31 years. They both pursued successful careers — Amerah as a social worker and advocate for abused and neglected children, B.C. as an educator in the Memphis school system. They also both married other people more than once. B.C. ultimately had an enduring marriage for 21 years with another woman, and was left stunned when she died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Around that same time, B.C. experienced another loss: His mother died. At her funeral, he saw Amerah. Then, some time after his wife passed away, B.C. talked to Amerah once again. They started reminiscing. And laughing.
“All of a sudden, here he was, saying, ‘Can I come see you?’ ” recalled Amerah, now 72. “I said, ‘OK.’
“We both realized there was a lot of dysfunction in the first marriage. But time has a way of healing, and so when you know better, you do better. We both came to a place of saying, ‘That is the past and today is different.’ And it has been.”
On Mother’s Day in 2005, B.C. and Amerah remarried each other, surrounded by scads of his children, her children, stepchildren, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and in-laws.
“My wedding became a family affair!” Amerah said. “[I have] beautiful memories of that day.”
Amerah and B.C., 68, just celebrated their six-year wedding anniversary, and they say they’re happier than ever.
“Looking back on our first marriage, you know, he was young. I was young. He was trying to find himself, trying to be a man. He had not lived yet. Here I was older, more experienced. I really regretted leaving and divorcing him. But I do believe it all happened so that we could grow.”
‘A bloom of optimism’
John Gottman, a therapist known for his extensive research on divorce prediction and the author of “The Science of Trust,” noted that “regrettable incidents” happen in every relationship.
“Some couples can process those regrettable incidents effectively,” Gottman said. “The couples that wind up getting a divorce are really unable to repair those incidents without therapy, and it’s a very rare event for couples to go to therapy when they’re contemplating divorce.”
Of course, as Tolstoy wrote, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and “regrettable incidents” can vary wildly. Some problems sparked by alcoholism or other addictions can disappear if one partner successfully breaks free from a destructive habit.
But other imperfections never go away. It’s the perception of those imperfections that can mellow with the passage of time.
“Despite all the emotional injuries they’ve sustained, couples can realize they have this bond of attachment to one another and more comfort with one another than with any new person,” Gottman said. “But they still have the same old garbage.”
In many cases — especially after spending years apart and gaining plenty of perspective — couples mutually decide that the same old garbage isn’t quite as stinky as they once thought.
“There’s something quite flattering about turning to your former partner and saying, ‘I can’t find someone as good as you. I’ve tried and I don’t want other people. I want you,’ ” Gottman said. “There’s a bloom of optimism there.”
Impatient, ready to bail
No official agency tracks the number of divorced couples who remarry each other, but it happens consistently in cities across North America each year. In his 16 years of conducting couples workshops, Gottman has encountered about 20 couples who remarried each other after divorcing. With those couples, he’s noticed two patterns: If their divorce was especially bitter and litigious, they have extra hurdles of anger and remorse to overcome; and, regardless of the nature of the split, divorced-then-remarried couples are an impatient lot.
“What tends to work against them is that they tend to bail pretty quickly if they sense it isn’t working out a second time,” Gottman said.
That almost happened to Beth and Brian Billett of Fort Campbell, Ky. The pair met in high school and married young; Beth actually graduated from high school half a year early so she could marry Brian and join him in Germany, where the U.S. Army had stationed him.
They stayed married for 10 years and had a son and daughter together before their marriage fell apart. The overarching issue behind their divorce: Brian’s exposure to the first Gulf War of the early 1990s.
“He didn’t want to talk about what happened to him,” said Beth Billett, 43. “He kind of went down a bad road for a while there.”
The Billetts stayed apart for four years, but maintained ongoing communication because of their two kids. Beth grew close to members of her church and built a support network for herself and her children. Meanwhile, Brian’s spiral continued, to the point where he was about to be evicted from his home.
“I didn’t want to let my kids see him homeless, so I invited him to stay in my basement,” Beth explained. “I relied on my church family for help and started bringing him to church with me.”
That marked a turning point for Brian — as did discussions with a pastor who had served in the Vietnam War and wrote books about the question of human suffering. Gradually, Brian and Beth began communicating more openly, building up enough trust that they married a second time.
But, as Gottman said, impatience dogged the couple at the outset. “Our first year or two back together was kind of rocky,” Beth said. “You thought you forgave somebody completely, and something happens and it brings all that stuff back up again. But now we don’t have any problems with that.”
The second act of the Billetts’ marriage has lasted 11 years. Brian, 44, is still on active duty in the military and is now deployed in Afghanistan. Their son, 24, is on active duty as well; their daughter is now 22. When the family can all be together, they’re a close-knit bunch. They go fishing as a family and play plenty of Rock Band.
“We were so young when we first got married,” Beth said. “Now we have some skills that we didn’t have before. We found those skills later in life and decided we still wanted to be together.
“In order to get back together, you really have to be able to trust each other again.”