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"We Can't Get Over Our First Marriages"

Krista and Jeff both lost spouses they loved before they met. Can a couple with happy first-marriage memories find success the second time around? Can this marriage be saved?


Her Turn

"My new marriage is haunted by memories of my old one. Like me, Jeff is a widower; his wife died of cancer, too. I'm afraid that's about all we have in common now.

"I grew up in a small town near Boston. My dad, who worked for the postal service, had been married once before. He had a daughter from his first marriage who quit school at 16, got pregnant, and moved far away. Dad was determined that I wouldn't follow in her footsteps, so he kept me and my older brother, Robbie, on a short leash. And if we ever did anything my parents disapproved of, my mother, a homemaker, was nasty and caustically critical. I was so shy and passive, if someone looked at me sideways, I'd cry.

"I met my first husband in a bowling alley when we were both 18. I knew the moment I saw him that I was going to marry him. Alan was a wonderful, special man, loved by the entire community. He had started his own fuel-oil business in town, and over the years he slowly built it up to be the largest in our area. He was very active in community projects and raised money for all sorts of civic causes. 

"We married a year after we met and had two kids — a girl and a boy — right away; I sent the younger one to college this year. Alan worked long hours, but that was fine with me. I loved being a mother and my work on school committees and community boards. Antiques are also my passion. For several years, I ran a small antiques business. Life was full.

"Then we found out Alan had lung cancer. Shortly after we got the diagnosis, my mother had a massive stroke. Suddenly, I was caring for two critically-ill people at once. Then Dad, who'd battled diabetes since childhood, became seriously ill and died from complications of the disease. I've always been the family caretaker — it's a role I like and do well — but I was drained. My mother passed away a month before Alan, who died a year after his diagnosis. When he died, my world shattered. I couldn't walk down the street without someone stopping me to talk about Alan. 

"Two years ago, four years after Alan's death, my good friends Maddie and Ed insisted I join them on a trip to England. That's where I met Jeff. Maddie, Ed, and I were having tea at Brown's Hotel in London; Jeff was at the next table with some friends. We started chatting and he told me he was a freelance photographer from Maryland. Somehow it came out in the conversation that he'd lost his wife and he was living alone. They had never had children. Jeff was so easy to talk to; we sat at the table talking for so long that my friends left us alone and the waiter had to ask us to leave so he could set the tables for dinner! 

"Jeff asked if he could call me when we got home, and though I was nervous, I said yes. Before I knew it, we were having a long-distance relationship and visiting each other frequently. We always had fun together, and he made me feel good about myself for the first time since Alan died. By the end of the year, he asked me to marry him. I said yes and, after a small ceremony, he moved into my house in Massachusetts. He still owns the home he built in Maryland and likes to visit his relatives down there. My house, actually, was a problem at first: It was built in 1850, and it's filled to the rafters with antiques. Jeff prefers spare, modern furnishings, but he's come around to graciously accepting my things and living without his.

"We've been married for two years now, and while they say opposites attract, I'm not so sure anymore. Jeff grew up in the South; I'm a New Englander. He has a master's degree in fine arts, did a stint in the Navy, has lived all over the world, and loves to go out. I'm much more of a homebody: I like to garden and bake, and I rarely travel. I've always been very child-centered. He and his first wife, Maryanne, led a very social life, filled with film screenings and fancy cocktail parties. Often, I feel that I'm not good enough for Jeff, like he's out of my league, so to speak. He wants to travel abroad all the time, but I'm not comfortable leaving my family and going far away — especially with the world situation the way it is today. 

"Besides, I'd rather be home with my kids and grandkids, which is another problem. They visit frequently and are always underfoot and noisy. I know Jeff resents the time I spend with them and the lack of privacy; he hates the 'chaos,' as he puts it. But I love all the commotion.

"Jeff has also become increasingly critical. He'll complain that I'm using the wrong pan to bake the chicken in or say the spices I used for the marinade didn't work. Well, Alan always ate anything I put on his plate and without complaint. Jeff also doesn't like the way I iron his shirts, so he'll instruct me on how to do it better. Once he got so aggravated, he grabbed the iron and said he'd do it himself. When we were packing for a trip to Italy last year, he had a fit about the way I was folding and packing our clothes. I usually keep most of my feelings inside; it's hard for me to express how I feel, so I prefer to let things blow over. But Jeff's nitpicking that day made me go ballistic. 'I'm not an idiot!' I screamed. 'I've packed suitcases for years. It might not be your way, or Maryanne's way, but it's my way!' 

"You know, I've struggled so hard to be independent after Alan's death. I got used to being alone and doing as I pleased. Now, Jeff wants to know where I go every time I put on my coat. It seems reasonable to check in with him, but at the same time, it makes me bristle inside.

"I could go on and on with the small-potatoes stuff that fills our days with tension. I thought I knew how to do marriage. Maybe it's me, maybe it's him. But whatever is wrong, it's making me doubt 'us.' I don't think I can ever live up to his memory of Maryanne."

His Turn

"Why on earth would Krista say that? I had a wonderful life with Maryanne and I loved her deeply. But now I'm married to another equally wonderful woman, whom I also dearly love, and Krista refuses to see that. I get the feeling that she's looking to find ways to make this marriage fail. Instead of focusing on the good we have, she picks up on all of our differences.

"I admit this marriage and the move north have been a big adjustment for me. Sometimes we had 15 people in one house with kids running all over the place. Take a step in the kitchen and you hear the crunch of Cheerios underfoot. That's a big change. But I'm not missing my old life; I've grieved enough. I fell in love with Krista — her joie de vivre, her infectious laugh — and I want to spend the rest of my life with her.

"My childhood was very different from hers. I grew up in a home filled with love and never doubted that love for a second. My mother had six siblings and they all lived near each other and were very close. My parents, who worked in a factory, are still married; at 80 they still adore each other. I don't think I ever heard them raise their voices in anger.

"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after graduate school, so I joined the Navy. That's where I developed my love of photography; I took photos for Navy newspapers. I'm now a freelance photographer for newspapers and magazines and work out of my home. My first wife, Maryanne, and I worked hard, traveled to Asia, South America, and Europe. We went to the ballet and the opera. After her death, I didn't travel much and spent more time in Maryland, where I'd planned to stay the rest of my life. When I met Krista, everything changed.

"Krista brought me happiness when I didn't think I'd ever experience it again. Sure, I miss my modern paintings and sleek furniture. Put Krista in a room for five minutes and she's already redecorating. But we worked that out. My home in Maryland stays as is; our house stays her way. 

"I've often been baffled by Krista's anger. I had no idea that she took my comments about the baking pan or the ironing as such piercing rebukes. She's very soft-spoken and I'm right out there, so maybe the way I say things comes across more harshly than I realize. I'm the kind of guy who talks about a problem, resolves it and moves on. If something bothers Krista, she retreats. Sometimes she doesn't speak to me for days and then she blows up. 

"Some of our biggest disagreements are over her children. She thinks I don't like her kids and grandkids, which is totally untrue. It's just that getting used to a life that is so different from my old one is traumatic. Krista and I have never had a honeymoon period when we could learn to adjust to being with each other. Wherever we are, we never have privacy. It's hard to romance my wife when children are running up and down the stairs. 

"I know it sounds crazy, but we actually never talked about the reality of living together or about how much time we'd spend at home versus traveling. We were so much in love, and excited about finding each other, that nothing else seemed to matter. What do I have to do to convince her that my love is real?"

The Counselor's Turn

"It's one thing to build a new marriage after you have escaped a bad one. It's another story entirely when the first marriage was filled with love and joy. To make a fresh start with a new partner meant that Krista and Jeff had to learn to acknowledge their differences, compromise when they could, and accept the fact that some things they simply couldn't change. But even that didn't have to prevent them from moving ahead with love and commitment. 

"Certain questions trouble every person who has lost a beloved spouse: How do you build a strong, new marriage when you can't stop thinking about the old one? Is it possible to be happy with someone new without dishonoring those who are gone? While Krista and Jeff never verbalized these feelings, I sensed that they were subconsciously weighing them, making their efforts to resolve differences and focus on their needs as a couple more difficult. Also, since both had enjoyed long, successful relationships, they thought that they knew how to be married, as Krista put it. Paradoxically, their very success made them less flexible than they realized when it came to dealing with a new partner. Since every marriage is different, when problems came up that were new to them, as they inevitably did, these two were blindsided by them.

"One of the first things I did was point out that many things about their marriage were already working beautifully. They clearly loved each other very much: They held hands, linked arms and laughed. Their sex life was passionate and rewarding. They had even successfully negotiated the seemingly trivial, but often tricky, task of adjusting to living amid each other's furnishings. My main task was to help them take joy in the positives while they worked to understand how their differences were triggering daily arguments. 

"Raised to be the good little girl who followed orders, Krista was acutely sensitive to criticism due to her mother's shrill comments. Many 'shoulds' governed her actions and attitudes and she believed her mission in life was to take care of everyone else, even at her own expense. While her marriage to Alan had been fulfilling, I suspect that she hadn't really gotten as much attention from her hardworking husband as she deserved. While she loved her life, she and Alan had not spent all that much time alone. She got used to her independence and resented Jeff for taking it away. Plus, Jeff's push for private time made her feel suffocated; she wasn't used to all that attention focused on her. 

"Alan's death forced Krista to concentrate on herself for the first time, and she was beginning to take small but essential steps in regaining her self-confidence. Jeff's comments on packing or cooking pushed old hot buttons from Krista's childhood that resonated like her parents' criticism. She automatically took his suggestions as rebukes. Instead of expressing her irritation at the time, she stuffed her feelings inside and simmered with anger until she exploded. 

"Many times, when couples finally get into my office and begin to talk frankly about difficult issues, they frequently make their own connections and come up with their own suggestions for change. As Jeff listened to the details of Krista's controlling, critical parents, he immediately realized why she was reacting so strongly to his words and tone. He's learned that he needs to watch the tone of what he says. 

"At the same time, Krista had to learn to not take such quick offense to Jeff's suggestions. If he walked into the room and suggested another way to fold the laundry, for instance, she'd remind herself where her tension was coming from and she was able to stop taking it so personally. By using humor to cut the tension: 'Okay, Mr. Fix-It, I got the message' — she has also learned to forgive him rather than give him the cold shoulder. 

"We continued to talk about acknowledging differences and finding ways to work with rather than against them. For example, Krista agreed to travel more, but instead of being away for a month or more at a time, she accompanies Jeff for two weeks, then returns, while he continues on his way, visiting friends or focusing on his photography. That way, they both do what they need to do, and their reunions are passionate. When Jeff had to return to Maryland for an assignment recently, Krista went with him and was surprised how much she enjoyed being away from her home-based obligations. 'Maybe next time, I'll stay even longer,' she said.

"By the end of therapy, Krista began to feel more comfortable discussing issues with Jeff, and they were able to work out practical solutions to their other problems. Jeff has warmed up to the grandkids and is far more tolerant of their visits, which have become less frequent since the couple have more social plans of their own, such as traveling, and going to the theater or dinner more often. And Jeff has grown so comfortable with Krista's antique furnishings that he agreed to let her redecorate the foyer and hallway in his Maryland home. 'Now that's progress!' she said with a laugh. 'Who knows? Maybe tomorrow I'll get a crack at redoing the bathroom!'"  

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2003.

Ladies Home Journal

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