At age 47, I finally met a guy I want to marry, a man in his early 50s. We've been friends for years, but he was married until recently. After his divorce, we started dating and things quickly progressed. Six months later, we're at the point of getting engaged--at this age, why wait, right? But I have one qualm. This will be my first marriage and his fourth. He was married once in his 20s, once in his 30s, and his third marriage lasted 15 years. None produced children. I know good people get divorced all the time, and that luck and timing play as much a part as maturity and self-awareness. But I can't seem to get past the .... lower status of being a fourth wife when he will be my first husband. Am I being petty? Letting societal rules influence me too much? Or is this a little red flag popping up to warn me?
He Said: Generally, it's a bad idea to hold someone's past against them in a relationship. Let's say, for the sake of argument, he'd had one long relationship during adulthood, lasting from his 20s to his late 40s, which seems to be what you would prefer to a series of three. You would not really know whether that meant anything about his character or his ability to be the husband you want him to be. He could have been a miserable lout during half of it, but would probably not confess that to you now, on the verge of getting engaged. Similarly, in a time when more than half the marriages in this county end in divorce, three by your 50s does not seem particularly relevant to his commitment to you, depending on what he has learned from his mistakes as well his triumphs. In fact, in an affluent city in an increasingly fast-paced and mobile culture, multiple relationships or marriages may be closer to the new norm than the old model of mom, pop, and a couple of kids. In this new world, depending on where you live, people simply no longer have any motive to stay in an unhappy relationship. I'd explore with him what he felt were the strengths and weaknesses of his relationships to help determine the man he is today. And, of course, you will have to open up about your own single past, which could just as easily, and just as erroneously, be a red flag for him. After all, it's not someone's past that matters as much as what it means for your future together.
She Said: In the youthful idealism of my teens and 20s, I believed that people shouldn’t get married until everything in their lives was lined up perfectly: college degree, financial security, completion of a short therapy course for the emotional baggage from their childhood (ha! I actually believed that was possible!), and absolute certainty that the person they were marrying was “the one” along with an iron-clad conviction that they would never resort to divorce. I looked around at adults—for I wasn’t one yet—and thought, “What a mess they make of their lives. I’m going to do it differently.”
Well, we all know how that story ends, not just for me and for your soon-to-be fiancé, but indeed, for more than half of us. People fall in love and get married for many reasons. The word “marriage” means different things to everyone in this day and age—and I encourage you to discuss what it means to him at this stage in his life and compare that to your definition. Intimate relationships are not prizes that people receive after they’ve fixed everything, but the primary way people actually grow into adults. And this path of growth is both blissful and mundane, sublime and excruciating, practical and mysterious. The best and wisest therapist I ever met had been married three times.
Your fiance’s marital history isn’t a great indicator of his current character. Look to other clues to measure his trustworthiness. Is he happy in his career, financially stable, on good terms with friends and family? Does he speak well of his exes and take responsibility for his part in his divorces? As for being the fourth wife, don’t think of it as last place. Rather, think of his previous wives as preparation and practice for this lovely new relationship with you. That’s much closer to the truth.
Confused? Curious? Heartbroken? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org